Make loyal donors not war

Thinking about human psychology is something I find myself doing often. It really interests me – which is handy, as there are insights into the human psyche that are innate within the discipline of fundraising. When I was browsing online a little while ago, following links through Wikipedia, I was fascinated to come across an entry on psychopathic personality disorder – mainly because I realised that I hadn’t actually understood what a psychopath really is until then. It said:

Psychopathy is a personality disorder that has been variously described as characterized by shallow emotions … lacking empathy, coldheartedness, lacking guilt, egocentricity, superficial charm, manipulativeness, irresponsibility, impulsivity … promiscuous sexual behaviour, many short-term marital relationships, and antisocial behaviours such as parasitic lifestyle …

I found myself recalling this again, in the context of relationship fundraising, prompted in part by this recent post on 101fundraising by Ken Burnett. I realised there are a lot of brands out there that behave like psychopaths.

You must have heard the stories about how some of the big energy and telecoms providers deliberately ignore the needs of their customers in pursuit of net profit – the inbound telephone processes designed to thin down the number of calls actually answered, that put people through an automated process to get them off the line unless they’re really tenacious, keeping customers on hold and even cutting them off deliberately to reduce the call volume.

A friend who worked for an international financial brand told me they had developed a system that identified your social economic group from your telephone number dialling code, which would cut you off immediately if you fell into one of these less profitable customer segments. It’s pretty despicable and I was shocked for a moment, before I realised that it’s probably much more commonplace than I’d previously considered. But what about when your donor care is falling short? When you’re giving people that part with their hard-earned cash to help you deliver your mission only the most perfunctory of acknowledgments? Are you excused because it’s not premeditated in the same way as that financial services company? Is this behaviour justified because you haven’t got time, or because funds are scant? The effect on your donors is the same as if you did neglect them deliberately.

Ken makes observation that viewing fundraising simply as, ‘cajoling money from people for good causes’, implies that fundraisers are, ‘to elicit or obtain by pleading, flattery or insincere language’, and that, ‘It includes no sense of sincerity, respect, rapport or accountability.’

That sounds uncannily like the description of psychopathy, doesn’t it?

I have long struggled with the thought that, along the way, Ken’s vision for ‘Relationship Fundraising’ has turned into something different – going through the motions. I can almost hear his disappointment in that recent post, but he’s challenging everyone to think about what he really meant.

Donor care, donor stewardship, relationship fundraising, donor centred, or donor-centric, fundraising – whatever your preferred vernacular – doesn’t really work if it’s become a box-ticking exercise, or a set of tactics. It’s a philosophy that has genuine care and empathy for your donors at its core. It draws a deliberate parallel with the way our close personal relationships work, with the letters we sent to relatives that give us kind and thoughtful birthday or Christmas gifts, with the photos we share on Facebook or Flickr to retain an emotional connection with loved ones we don’t get to see as often as we’d like.

As Ken put it in that post:

‘…what fundraisers could aspire to do in 2012 is to go beyond the building of mutually respectful and beneficial relationships (I know most never quite got there, at least not yet) to create a new kind of partnership with their supporters. They could have the kind of conversations that real relationships are made of…’

I’ve felt uncomfortable for a while with some of the language direct response fundraisers and marketers use – even though I am one – because so much of it sounds like the language of war, rather than the language of relationships.

Have you ever noticed? I’m talking about strategy, tactics, campaign, targeting, attrition, mailshot, direct response, outbound, inbound. It’s little wonder many donors feel like they’re constantly in the line of fire from a barrage of attacks on their letterboxes, inboxes, phone lines and wallets.

I’m not suggesting we don’t need strategies, tactics or any of these other activities and disciplines, just that it might help to think about them differently in order to do them well.

A few years ago, I began to feel uncomfortable using that kind of terminology. It just didn’t sound right anymore in the 21st Century, when most consumers have the web at their fingertips, are accustomed to realtime experiences on Twitter and Facebook and can share their thoughts and feelings, good and bad, on an unprecedented scale – and brands not meeting their needs do so at their peril.

So I started instead to talk about “engaging donors” and “engagement fundraising”, and asking, “Why would anyone want to pay attention to this? Why is it interesting? What would encourage someone to share it with their friends?”

Finding new ways of expressing the work I did seemed to resonate more with the irrevocable fact that our supporters are people with feelings, are intelligent enough to know when they are not genuinely valued, whose feelings are hurt when they think they are being taken for granted or, worse, used.

If a psychopath makes someone feel like this, they are unable to empathise. They find the damage they do to the feelings of others to be an acceptable evil in return for their needs being met. And they will move onto their next victim when they have exhausted their current victim’s goodwill. This is behaviour many charities are guilty of towards their donors – albeit unconsciously; continually failing to make them feel genuinely respected and valued, thinking about what they want their donors to give and not what their donors might want from them, losing them and moving onto the next.

This ‘churn and burn’ fundraising is exactly the opposite of what Ken had in mind.

So, next time you find yourself discussing limiting ‘churn’, ‘attrition’, or ‘targeting’, why not try some language that better reflects that you are talking about your donors, about people, and see whether it makes a difference to what you decide to do? It works for me.

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