You’re bound to blow it with a donor or two…

Sooner or later, you’re going to get a donor like me.

I’m that awful donor who expects to be thanked immediately, is quick to take offense, and won’t hesitate to contact you if I’m unhappy about something. Unless I decide simply never to give again.

What sets me off? It could be any number of things. I want to receive an acknowledgement of my donation very soon after I’ve given it (and I do keep track of how long it takes you). Don’t even hint at another ask when you thank me for what I’ve just sent you. I tend to give just once a year, usually in the fall, and if it feels like you’re sending me appeals too often, I will probably stop giving to you altogether. (Yes, I know research shows that nonprofits raise more money when they send frequent appeals. That’s great for you. That doesn’t mean we like it.)

I used to give an annual gift to my alma mater—a small gift, admittedly, but I knew alumni participation was an important metric, so I gave faithfully for 24 years. Until the day the acknowledgement from the advancement officer asking me to accept her “personal thanks” was addressed to “Dear [College] Supporter.” Come on.  After 24 years of consecutive support, you couldn’t be bothered to use my name in the salutation? With all of the software available in this day and age?  When I emailed her to express my disappointment, she didn’t respond directly, instead passing me off to a staffer, which in my mind added insult to injury.  My loyalty had already been strained the year before after a bad phonathon call, so cutting them loose turned out to be pretty easy. And I doubt this lapsed donor will ever be brought back into the fold again.

Several years ago, I gave money to an organization that worked to alleviate poverty worldwide. My first donation was a Christmas gift to my husband. Eventually, I established a small endowment in honor of my mother. When she died, we suggested that memorial gifts be sent to them, and my daughters would add to the fund for my birthday.  I felt very connected to the organization–I had lived in two of the countries in which they operated, and was familiar with both the poverty there and the impact their livelihood projects could have. I gave enough that the organization even sent people to my home for a visit (though they seemed disappointed that I wasn’t richer, and hoped I could connect them with someone who was).

But then one autumn day, I received a packet from them containing ten notecards preprinted with a message that I was to distribute to friends and family, saying that I’d like them all to donate to this organization instead of giving me a gift for the holiday. I was so horrified that I telephoned the organization and told them I didn’t want to hear from them again.

They were probably shocked by my response. After all, a quick look at my donation history would show that I liked the in-memory/honor-of style of giving. But what they failed to take into consideration was that anyone with a modicum of good manners would never dream of presuming that there were ten people out there who would welcome a written directive to give me a gift, even a gift that wasn’t actually for me. I was raised to believe that the only time instructions like that are appropriate is when the letter begins with “Dear Santa”.

Looking back, I wonder why I made such a big deal of it. I think, as much as I was horrified by the bad manners of it all, I was also distressed by what I saw as the sheer waste of it—discarding a package of notecards and several dollars of stamps on the envelopes. But for me, that organization had crossed a line, pushing me too far in their effort to raise funds.

Was I petty? Well, sure.  But that’s my point: it doesn’t take much to lose a donor, and the nonprofit sector has the retention rates to prove it. There are plenty of causes we care about, and your organization may be one of many we could use to make what difference we want to in the world.

Of course, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. What sets me off may be fine for most others, or perhaps an entire demographic will find your appeal entirely unappealing. And a complaint from someone like me about a campaign that is proving to be wildly successful with everyone else can certainly be dismissed as a one-off.

But “donor-centric” is getting a lot of attention these days, and with good reason. If you spend a bit of time thinking of how a donor might receive your message, in addition to  time spent deciding on the message you want to give, you might find yourself pleasing—and retaining–even the fussiest of donors.


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