Is it me you’re looking for? The sad extinction of the donor sapiens

“Oh no, no another post on retention”  I can hear you crying…

Is it  not something out of the Middle age of fundraising? Is it not really common sense?

A prompt acknowledgment and thank for the donation, a regular update on what the donation has helped to achieve (and don’t forget to ask again!) and voila the donors are ours forever, isn’t it like that? Not really.

I think that part of the problem is exactly in the formulaic approach we blindly use (like the £3 a month, the welcome pack, the lapsed donors, etc.).  In fact it is often the formula,  that sometimes we implement just like an ”output” of a  production process,  that has little if not a negative effect on donor loyalty.

If you really want to know why the majority of donors leave you and how to regain their love, read Roger’s book and apply the myriad of tools and suggestions. Or come to the IFC.

But I also  want to focus on three mysterious ways, often ignored, that make donors feel ignored, abandoned, mistreated by charities and what in the end leads them  to break up with us and start dating somebody else (can you blame them?)  And maybe then suggest some ideas on something to do about it rather than just complaining or contemplating the fact that our donors are leaving.

The “would be” donor

The first fact is in my opinion, the widely unrecognized and unaddressed “would be donors”. These are donors who agreed to donate (especially on a regular and monthly basis) but for which we cannot process the payments (and there are hundreds of thousands here in Asia but also in Europe and in US).

The majority of charities are defining their retention based on the time from the first gift, for example those who didn’t give after three or six months (or week or other time measure). But what about those who agree in principle to become a donor and never gave? This is a large  number of people (especially recruited via face to face but also with DRTV and online) that is often simply “ditched” after we try to charge their credit/debit card or bank account (one, twice or three times).

What really struck me is that we consider this issue as a simply a  transactional problem and leave it to the admin and finance people or to the backup office/agency and we do not investigate enough the causes and the alternatives to fulfill the donor’s pledge. And even more worrying is the assumption of the fundraisers that these people never really intended to give, i.e. that they said they want to give but they didn’t really want to or they can’t afford it (like in the default loans)! See how the formula works: you agree to give, you give me the bank details, I try to charge you and if it doesn’t work (after several attempts), I am sorry you are not a donor.

The result is that the “would be donors” don’t even go in our retention calculation or strategies.  But the reality is that there are so many reasons and opportunities that are worth considering before “dropping them”. In fact, the inability to get the donation can be related to many factors: credit cards or debit cards have different cut off dates (we can maybe offer different payments date or simply trying to charge on different dates), people using multiple payment systems (are we bothering to ask or call them for a second or a third card or a different account?) or simply there is  no money in that account this month but there will be next or in two months (also to recoup the missing payments).

If we can transform 10-20% of these “would be donors” into real donors, with a minimum effort, we will increase substantially our income, even before we start looking  at retention figures.

Donor sapiens

The second part of the problem is that we know very well (do we?) that emotions drive people to act and to donate and in fact we spend most of our resources in conceiving appeals, looking for stories and finding the right words, images or videos to trigger the donor’s emotions so that they will engage with us. But then, after they give their first gift, is like we are dealing with a different species of donors: the donor sapiens.

These particular creatures are always well informed (we send them the newsletters and they can go to our website no?), they donate on time and they know when to renew their gift, they are altruistic so they don’t need to be thanked, they clearly know that we need to cover our overhead costs and they are happy to be over solicited, they enthusiastically engage their friends in the causes they support, etc.  I am afraid these donors do not exist in nature or they are very few. The majority of donors are very much limited in their attention and memory. In fact what fundraisers often ignore is that emotions not only drive actions (and donations) but also strongly contribute to memory formation, so that every time a donor gets in contact with our cause he or she is expecting to get engaged by the same emotions not by our organizational blurbs.

If you look closely to the reasons why donors stop giving, several mention that have no memory for supporting such organizations or thought that they didn’t need their support!

In the business world, there is a clear understanding that today profit margins rely heavily on the level of customer emotional engagement. If you haven’t seen the campaign of TD Bank Turns ATMs into Automated Thanking Machines have a close look. The beauty of this campaign is that is not another PR campaign. It is part of a clear strategy to get more enthusiast customers that will love and do more business with the  TD Bank. As the CEO Ed Clark explains, “The great thing about our model is, if I put a branch on a corner in New York City, I know five years later I will have more than 25% of the local business, because at some time in that five years someone will come by at 4:02 pm. Their branch will be closed, they’ll look across at our store, this beautiful store, there will be someone giving dog biscuits to somebody’s dog, they’ll walk in and there’s a greeter that’s unbelievably friendly, and they’ll say, ‘So why am I banking at the guy across the street?”

Have I told you lately that I love you?

The final mystery is that we think that donors stop giving suddenly as a rational act. We look at the analysis and the database and we cannot figure out how somebody so engaged and generous decided to stop giving, after all our fantastic work and the tons of calls and letters we sent. The point again, is that we think of the donor sapiens, as somebody very rational that take a rational decision to stop his or her support. The reality instead is that donor’s disaffection and attrition are not an isolated decision in a given time, but the sum of bad experiences (or no experiences) that donors had with the organization.

In a  study of Bain and Company  they found out that “customers have already been primed to leave by the time an alternative attractive offer arrives, so that any change in their lives can bring the decision to a head. The episodes that condition a customer to dislike his or her provider and the actual decision to leave can be years apart”. The other interesting  insight is that there is a thin line between a customer that declares himself/herself to be “satisfied” and the moment they  switch to a competitor. Because it is not what the customers says but what they experience.  Therefore it doesn’t matter how many thank yous, surveys and newsletters you sent if the donor doesn’t feel emotionally engaged. Remember: people will forget what you say or what you do, but will never forget the way you made them feel (M. Angelou).

When I decided to use my birthday to raise funds for charity:water there was a glitch in the system that prevent the acceptance of several credit cards. Having friends who wanted to contribute all over the world, I complained heavily with them. After several email of apologies and the problems being fixed, I received a handwritten card from New York. As you can see it is not a generic thank you but a real, genuine acknowledgment and an apology with the last phrase “We think you rock!” that is still today the best ever thing I received from a charity!

So do me a favor. Next time, before complaining for the lack of budget for a new campaign or for the CEO or the board that don’t understand why income is not on target, take your time to:

– go back to your “would be donors” and find all possible ways to make them real;
– see what are the moments and experiences that make donors un-loved (don’t take the answer “I am satisfied” as a guide);
– make a plan based on how you want to make you donor feel and not on what you want to communicate.

And a final prayer: in every meeting (Board, staff, fundraisers, etc.) always put an empty chair around the table. When people ask what this chair is for, say “it’s  the donor’s chair”  so that when we think and plan what to do next and how to do it, we can imagine what a donor would say or how he or she will feel (thanks Jeff Bezos!).


This post is part of the 2014 IFC Series. 101fundraising is proud to be the blog partner of the International Fundraising Congress! Check out HERE when Francesco is presenting at the IFC.

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