Fire Your Donors

Over the past year, I’ve seen/heard/had a number of discussions around fundraising trends. They tend to revolve around the following topics:

  • Acquisition ain’t what it used to be, and retention is abysmal. It’s time to really love our donors!
  • Donor-centred fundraising – do it. You can’t thank these guys enough!
  • What’s the next thing after direct mail? WHAT IS IT?!?
  • You are a bad fundraiser. Bad! Work harder!

And finally…

  • What’s with this high fundraiser turnover?

I would suggest that perhaps the root of the problem lies in a genuine disconnect between why people are giving today, and how we, as passionate – but misguided and kind of terrified – professionals are misinterpreting what we are being told by our donors. I would also like to propose that we are not being truly transparent, and thus our donors are misinformed, and are making major financial decisions based on inaccurate or incomplete information. I would also like to propose that it is time we shared our responsibility as fundraisers to keep our organizations going.

So, let’s begin with Dan Palotta. Mr. Palotta did a wonderful thing. He spoke truth to power, and intelligently deconstructed myths about charitable giving (if you don’t know who or what I’m talking about, go out and buy all his books). Myths that a charity can survive with 1% or no administration costs, no marketing spend, no investment in the future (we can almost never risk money in the short-term), and woefully inadequate pay for our leaders and employees.

As fundraisers, we bop around from job to job, frustrated that nobody understands our pain. Our Executive Directors/Board of Directors just don’t get it. Our donors ask us the same questions over and over (“well, how much do you spend on administration?” “Why do you waste all this paper on letters?”). And then we criticize each other (and ourselves, most of all) when retention rates are down.

I think the problem is that we know things that nobody else knows. We know why direct mail works, and why it has to be written in a specific and odd way. We know our budgets, and we know how much of those budgets are funded by individual giving. We know how to run capital campaigns, we know industry metrics, and we know how much we truly spend on administration.

But, as Dan Palotta says, we are all afraid to tell our donors the truth. We’re afraid to stand up to our bosses…afraid to share the information that validates us, that makes us jazzed to do our jobs, that informs how we raise money and where we spend our time and our energy. We get burned out.

Sometimes it feels as though I’m playing basketball with four other players (ED, Board, donors, marketing) who all know that the ball has to go through the hoop, but don’t know anything about pick and rolls, triangle offense, or any other strategy. We’re losing, the crowd is booing, and I’m just throwing up my hands, wishing the rest of my team knew what I know.

So, here’s my proposal:

There are business realities to running a charity. A charity needs to run properly or it can’t do the thing it was created to do (provide services to people in need, create beautiful art, save koala bears). Our donors are our investors, and we know that they want to know where their money is going.

Additionally, our EDs want results. Our Board wants results. Employees want to know that they aren’t going to lose their jobs because of a bad fundraising year. And our clients, most of all, need us to be around tomorrow.

Thus, we are responsible, and that responsibility is a heavy burden. But we, as fundraisers, aren’t the only ones responsible. Our donors share in that responsibility. Our funders too. Our staff, Board (in fact, they are legally responsible…even if they don’t always act like it)…once we decide to raise this charitable baby, we are all responsible for it.

So what if we treat donors as responsible partners. We tell them what we know. How much we spend on lighting bills and rent. What it’s like trying to get foundation grants. What our salaries are, and why we pay them. We give them our budget, and let them ask questions. We tell them what their money pays for. Yes, it really does keep the lights on.

And we aren’t afraid to fire difficult donors (credit to Seth Godin for this idea). And give them their money back. “I’m sorry you don’t like how we do business. Here is a full refund. Maybe this just isn’t for you.” What if we spend our time on the passionate people, who know that their money is making this thing happen?

What if, instead of worrying about saying thank you seven times after every donation, we honour the money we’re given with information? Honest information. Information that helps our partners make informed decisions.

And, what if, when we’re flush (or, rather…if we’re ever flush), we send out an email. “We don’t need your money right now, because we’re doing ok. But we will need it in a few months. Because, you know….bills and so on. So, here’s our budget, right now…just so you know.”

If anybody asks how much you spend on administration, tell them.

“What? 30%? That’s outrageous!”

“Is it? Who would you fire? Would you fire the person that brings in the money? Would you fire the person who sends you back your tax receipt? Would you fire the person who goes out and serves food to people in need? You can’t run a business on volunteers, because you can’t rely on people you don’t pay. There are no consequences if they don’t show up. And that’s why we pay our employees. But if you still aren’t happy, here’s a full refund. Have a great day.”

This thing we do isn’t about donors. It’s not about us, and it’s not about making our Board happy. It’s about taking money and putting it where it’s needed. Passionately. Intelligently. And effectively. And we all have a responsibility to make things better. It’s time to stop coddling everyone around us, and treat them like the intelligent, critical, and passionate people they are. Our jobs will become easier, our donors will be more diligent, and our leaders will be more receptive.

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