Can the Performance of Donor Relations Staff Be Measured?

June 18th, 2015 by Penelope Burk

Chief executive officers and managers often ask me whether donor relations matters. As employers and supervisors, they are asking two important questions:

  1. Can the value of donor relations (and, by extension, donor relations staff) be objectively measured?
  2. Are those measures reliable indicators of fundraising success?

In both instances, the answer is a resounding “yes”.

In its broadest sense, the field of donor relations includes anything other than fundraising appeals. From thank you letters to donor recognition events, from update communications to impromptu phone calls, donor relations encompasses a wide variety of stewardship activities which fundraisers say contribute to building solid relationships with donors and which their bosses hope are worthwhile investments of time and money.

In the big picture, donor relations is singularly responsible for fundraising profit. The majority of donors, when giving for the first time to a particular cause, make contributions that are, by their own admission, not generous within their own means. When the cost of acquisition appeals, processing gifts and issuing receipts is taken into account, many of those first-time gifts actually net out at a loss. It’s what happens after donors give for the first time which determines whether fundraisers will be able to turn their break-even or net loss acquisition efforts into sustainable fundraising profit.

The Ask Only Works Once

According to donors, the ask is the critical trigger that turns potential supporters into active donors (see my January blog for more on what it takes to get donors to give for the first time). But once they are acquired, asks give donors the opportunity to answer the question, “Will you give again?” but that answer is almost always decided long before the ask is made. The decision to give again (or not) and to give more (or not) is the product of the particular mix of stewardship options that is offered to donors in the down time between appeals. Donor retention and average gift value are, therefore, the concrete bottom-line performance measures for donor relations staff.

Are All Stewardship Activities Worthwhile?

Doing something for donors in between appeals is certainly better than doing nothing, but certain stewardship activities are highly effective while others leave donors cold. I have written extensively in Donor-Centered Fundraising about how brilliant and original thank you letters inspire donors to stay loyal and to give more generously the next time they are asked. Conversely, our research has also found, for instance, that categorizing donors by gift value or level and publishing that information has almost no impact on either loyalty or generosity. So, not all stewardship activities are created equal, at least according to donors.

What donors have found to be consistently influential is this: they want to be thanked promptly and meaningfully for their gifts; they want to see their gifts designated or assigned to a specific project, program or initiative, and they want a report, in measurable terms, on what has been accomplished in that program before they are asked to give again. If donors get those three things every time they give, they will give again in numbers far greater than what fundraising experiences today and they will give more generously.

Measuring Performance in Donor Relations

In managing Donor Relations staff, then, the first job of directors and supervisors is to ensure that time and talent are primarily focused on the three things that matter to donors. The next is to set clear, statistical measures of performance while allowing for maximum creativity. This table demonstrates the difference between performance expectations in a typical fundraising environment (one that sees stewardship as an add-on that is difficult to measure), and in a donor-centered fundraising operation where donor retention and average gift value are the concrete measures of success.

(Click image above to enlarge)

Fundraising always comes down to numbers – numbers of donors and amounts of money. The same applies to donor relations. Budgets are lean and talented professionals are hard to find, so how donor relations staff spend that budget and what they do with their time determines whether fundraising will thrive or merely survive. When managers rely on the all-important measures of retention and average gift value while affording maximum creativity to their staff as they reach for ambitious goals, higher profit is the inevitable result.

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One Size Never Fits All

March 24th, 2015 by Penelope Burk

I received an appeal in the mail the other day from a hospital I have neither frequented nor supported as a donor…even though they think I have. As a past donor to…. was how the letter began. What a careless mistake, I thought to myself. But it turned out that I was the one who was wrong.

Soliciting past donors using language that implies they have never given before is an all-too-common mistake. Failing to conduct a thorough list purge before executing the campaign is at the root of that problem. But this was different. And, while I was surprised that the hospital would make such a basic mistake, I lingered over the letter for awhile. It was much better than typical acquisition appeals because it was crafted for past donors. The urgent insistence that I give while not telling me why I should was replaced with real information crafted in a considerably more sophisticated style. As I dropped the letter in the recycling bin, I wondered why not-for-profits didn’t simply use this kind of approach with everyone – prospects included.

Several days later I realized that, in fact, I was a former donor to this hospital.

Last year my bank manager asked me to sponsor her in a run-a-thon in support of her hospital. The hospital was not in my community, but of course I said ‘yes’. Would you say ‘no’ to your bank manager?

This is why my name got onto a file of past donors. So, first, congratulations to the Hospital Foundation for wondering whether fundraising event sponsors are legitimate prospects for direct giving. But, second, off to your room with no supper for testing that thesis so poorly.

Through our annual Burk Donor Survey, my firm recently surveyed 15,900 donors who had sponsored someone in an athletic fundraising event (run-a-thon, bike-a-thon, etc.) sometime within the previous year. While their primary motivation for sponsoring was to support a friend, relative or colleague who was participating in the event, 50% said that the not-for-profit behind the event also played a role in their decision to sponsor. We then asked that 50% whether they would make a direct, philanthropic gift to that not-for-profit if asked. 17% said yes; another 14% said they might. That is much better than today’s typical acquisition rates, so it is certainly worth testing the potential for converting event sponsors to philanthropic donors.

But the issue is how you test a file of donors that represents such a unique stakeholder group. Event sponsors are different. Their primary relationship is with the runner or the cyclist so it is not surprising that they remember the event and the participant better than they do the recipient charity.

If the Hospital had pointed out in their appeal letter that I was a former donor through their run-a-thon held last year, I would have been impressed, not disappointed. I’d be impressed that their records were that good and further impressed that the Hospital thought to use that important information to remind me of how I was connected. But, most important, if that letter had come from my Bank manager on behalf of the Hospital that was so important to her…well of course I would have given.

Connection and influence – it simply can’t get better than that.

Not for profits can no longer afford to dump lists of names into one-size-fits-all acquisition or renewal appeals and then hope for the best. The margins have shrunk too far. Over the last decade, five of the six indicators of direct marketing health have been in steady decline – participation by percentage of population, acquisition, gross revenue, renewal, and recovery of lapsed donors. Even the sixth, average gift value of retained donors, only improves when the economy is buoyant; it drops like a stone when it isn’t.

Progressive Development Directors and Managers can still guide their staff to better results in direct marketing if they insist on a more nuanced and innovative approach. A direct marketing database is not a monolithic pool of file names and gift amounts. It is a complex collection of people who think logically, who make careful choices, and who manage their philanthropy strategically.

Our most recent edition of the Burk Donor Survey found that 40% of donors left money on the table last year. They are capable of giving much more and eager to reward not-for-profits that cast aside predictable behavior and showcase fundraising at its finest instead.



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Selling Alone Can’t Close the First Sale

January 13th, 2015 by Penelope Burk

It is more difficult today than it was even five years ago to convince donors to give to a cause for the first time. Cygnus’ annual Burk Donor Survey that tracks changes in how donors manage their philanthropy has consistently found that donors are supporting fewer causes than before. And ours is not the only research alerting the fundraising industry to significant shifts in donor behavior. Blackbaud’s most recent analysis of direct marketing health reveals a serious problem: donor acquisition is down 3.4% in the last year alone and an accumulative 14.4% over five years[1].

In spite of these gloomy statistics, our research has found that donors remain open to contributing to a not-for-profit they have never supported before – if the cause and the fundraising approach are compatible with their interests and sensibilities.

The 2014 Burk Donor survey asked 23,000 donors in the US and Canada to consider the not-for-profit they began supporting most recently and identify the factors that persuaded them to start giving. These were their top two reasons: 58% said that their chosen not-for-profit’s mission was aligned with their interests; 29% said they had been considering this particular organization for support for some time. Only 11% said that the solicitation alone inspired their first gift.

This speaks to the symbiotic nature of fundraising and marketing and the obvious conclusion that, in a rapidly changing giving environment, not-for-profits will be more successful at donor acquisition when they don’t rely on appeals alone to do the job.

Every acquisition appeal plays a dual role – being a “last push” to prospective donors who are close to making a decision while simultaneously developing early interest among those who will become donors sometime in the future. While direct marketing and some events are inherently beneficial to building brand awareness, asks overpower whatever other information is included in appeals. Marketing and communications ensure that brand awareness is reinforced but also that complex information concerning what a not-for-profit is attempting to achieve is heard.

Time and variety are the keys to effective donor acquisition

Consumer research on the number of impressions it takes to convert a prospect into a customer (or into a donor in the case of fundraising) has remained relatively consistent since the 1970’s.  It takes anywhere from five to twelve contacts to get someone to buy (give) for the first time. And variety of impressions is just as important as frequency, which is why acquisition appeals alone should not be relied upon to convince donors to give. The same message delivered in the same way all the time causes potential donors to just stop paying attention. But surrounding appeals with marketing messages delivered through a variety of communications media, offers the best hope for maximizing the acquisition of new donors.

Of course, a diverse marketing strategy includes social media but a strategy that serves fundraising really well pays more than lip service to this critical communications platform.  The 2014 Burk Donor Survey found that while middle-age and older donors are narrowing their focus and becoming harder to reach, young donors are on a different path. 41% of donors under the age of 35 gave to more causes in 2013 than in the previous year and 61% gave more money. Young donors are today’s critical hope for rebuilding robust donor acquisition programs, but only if not-for-profits communicate with them through their media of choice.


For more evidence-based information on how donors are changing the ways in which they give and what fundraisers can do to maximize success, download the 2014 Burk Donor Survey here. Previous years’ surveys are also available.


[1] donorCentrics Index of Direct Marketing Fundraising, 2014 Second Calendar Quarter Results, H. Flannery, P Grainger, R Harris, C Rhine, Target Analytics, a division of Blackbaud, Inc., October, 2014

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Because of You

December 11th, 2014 by Penelope Burk

In an operating theatre, Dr. Grant is up to his elbows in someone’s intestines. Dr. Grant saves lives and makes a very comfortable living doing so.

The first time he thought about becoming a doctor was in high school. A guest speaker, a heart specialist, had come to his private school on Career Day to talk about what it takes to get to the top of his profession. Dr. Grant was enthralled. His young imagination took flight and he was hooked. Career Day took place in the school’s new auditorium (part of a recent campus-wide expansion) and generous corporate sponsorship covered the cost of the event. You raised the money for both.

Dr. Grant applied himself in high school, helped substantially by access to state-of-the-art labs and excellent teachers. Your fundraising made them possible. He applied and was accepted to a prestigious university. While the fees were substantial, they represented only a portion of what his education actually cost. The rest was quietly subsidized by donors whose generosity and foresight reached back over two hundred years. Their willingness to give was a product of your encouragement; their action a result of your diligence. Dr. Grant’s university education was made easier along the way by several scholarships. You raised that money, too.

Through his undergraduate and graduate degrees, internship and residency, you were there, working invisibly alongside him to help Dr. Grant accomplish his goal. Your fundraising built the residence he slept in, the library he studied in, the classroom he learned in and the campus hospital in which he practiced.

Twenty years later, here he is in Operating Theatre Six in the Northeast Wing of a world-class hospital, deep into his work. You raised the money for Theatre Six as well as Theatres One through Five. You raised the money to build the Northeast Wing and, come to think of it, the entire hospital.

On the table lies the unconscious but soon-to-be-grateful patient. She has been through a lot lately, but conclusive evidence from a CT scan has put her here today. Her life will be saved. You raised the money that paid for this equipment. Surrounding Dr. Grant is a plethora of machines, devices and tools keeping his patient alive and making his work possible – all thanks to your fundraising efforts.

Surgery goes well and Dr. Grant transfers responsibility to his five-member team, all of whom got to where they are today because of donors – and you. He’s thinking ahead to tonight and a well-earned diversion. He’s going to see a new play that’s generating a lot of buzz. Tickets were very hard to get. When he sinks into the unexpectedly comfortable seat (donor’s name on the back – you did that) in the newly refurbished historical theatre (you again), he’ll read the program while he waits for the curtain to rise. You found the sponsors for this publication, sold the ads, and negotiated the printing at cost.

The play will not disappoint. Shouts of “bravo” and three curtain calls will bring the newly discovered playwright and his director to the stage. The director will make an impassioned, off-the cuff speech about encouraging young talent; the playwright will talk about his inspiration and the intricacy of his dialogue. No one will mention the equally intricate grant application you wrote that raised the money that launched the New Playwrights Development Program that brought these two artists together that made tonight possible.

When the evening is finally over, Dr. Grant will step out of the theatre into a night that will be colder than expected. He will turn up the collar of his coat and quicken his pace towards his car. Without noticing, he will pass under a sign that reads, “Global Environment Association, Foundation Office”.

Three storeys up, a light will still be burning.


from Donor-Centered Leadership, Penelope Burk, Cygnus Applied Research, Inc., 2013

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Harnessing Young Donors’ Philanthropy

November 4th, 2014 by Penelope Burk

A common but dangerous assumption in fundraising is that donors are what they give. In other words, at any moment in time a donor giving at the low end of the scale is a donor capable of that level of giving; someone who gives well above the norm is a major donor or a prospect for that category. That assumption plus the tendency of fundraising to reward donors who give generously and ignore or minimize expectations of those who don’t, contribute to early attrition and keep most retained donors giving well below capacity.

As a group, young donors are the ones most likely to be sidelined by this narrow view of philanthropy because their gift values are at the bottom of the generosity scale. But their actual ability to give plus their willingness to engage tell a different story.

The average household income of employed donors under the age of 35 who took part in this year’s Burk Donor Survey is $81,000, on par with over half of older employed survey respondents. But their charitable contributions last year were a mere 10% of the value of gifts offered by middle-age donors and 9% of those over the age of 64. Looking only at gift value, it would be easy to conclude that young donors are not as committed to philanthropy, but that would be a mistake.

Why young donors’ gifts are disproportionately modest

In all questions in the survey related to giving motivation, young donors are the most optimistic about both their personal and their philanthropic future. But two factors outside not-for-profits’ control are currently limiting young donors’ ability to give more generously. They are student debt and under-employment.

Student debt has a substantial impact on young people’s finances and it is almost certainly holding them back from giving more generously. 37% of households headed by someone under forty currently have some student debt. And, of substantial interest to fundraisers, the typical net worth of young, college-educated heads-of-households is about $65,000 but only about $8,700 for those carrying student debt.(1) Compounding the impact of student debt is under-employment — 32% of US workers between the ages of 18 and 29 are working in jobs well below what their age and education should afford them.(2)

While not-for-profits cannot control these two factors, certain fundraising practices compound the problem. These three resonate strongly among young respondents in this and previous years’ Burk Donor Surveys:

  • Relying on direct mail and other more traditional solicitation techniques that do not influence young donors to give;
  • Meting out information based on previous gift value, misunderstanding that all donors, regardless of what they gave before, use information on what was accomplished with past donations to determine whether and how much they will give the next time;
  • Under-utilizing communications technologies compatible with younger donors.

Young donors are a boon to fundraising

In spite of debt, under-employment and a fundraising system geared to an older demographic, young donors are very philanthropically-minded. They also give in ways that are a decided advantage to not-for-profits’ bottom line. The following characteristics, most strongly present in young donors, should make any fundraiser sit up and take notice:

  • Young donors’ giving is far less likely to be influenced by economic concerns. They have a positive, can-do attitude concerning their philanthropy;
  • They are more willing to take on new causes. 41% of Burk Survey respondents under 35 supported more causes last year than the year before compared with only 24% of middle-age donors and 19% of donors 65 years or older. This is a critically important factor for any not-for-profit trying to build up their volume of donors and/or diversify their donor pool.
  • It is less expensive to communicate with young donors than with older supporters. 65% of donors under the age of 35 stated a preference for email over print communication in the Burk Survey versus only 30% of donors age 65 or older.
  • The margin of giving increase was higher among donors under 35 last year than for all other donors in the Burk Donor Survey. 61% of young donors increased their giving in 2013 compared with only 47% of middle-age donors and 42% of donors over the age of 65.
  • Young donors’ expectations for their philanthropy this year are similarly positive. 46% of survey respondents under 35 plan to give more in 2014 than they gave in 2013 versus only 30% of middle-age and 21% of senior donors.
  • Retention is better among young donors. 45% of all Burk Donor Survey respondents stopped giving to at least one not-for-profit last year, but when this group was analyzed by age, the difference was dramatic. Only 26% were under the age of 35; 45% were between 35 and 64 and 52% were 65 or older.

Investing in young donors is a brilliant fundraising strategy

Our highly educated, philanthropically-minded young donors may be working at Starbucks today, but they won’t be for long. Currently, Gen X (age 34-48) and Gen Y (age 14-33) make up 57% of the workforce. Baby Boomers, who currently hold most of the management-level positions represent 38% of the workforce.(3) But, the oldest of this cohort is now 68 and, while many boomers have delayed retirement due to loss in net worth caused by the last recession, this generation will still be stepping aside in large numbers soon. The average age at which still-employed boomers expect to retire is 66(4), so within the next five years and definitely within the next ten, Gen Xs and Gen Ys will swiftly move up the employment and income ladder. This means that not-for-profits that start building solid relationships with younger donors now will be front-of-the-line when these donors start giving at a major gifts level.

Being donor-centered will ensure your future with today’s young donors

While there are many things that distinguish young donors from their middle-age and older counterparts, respondents of all ages agree that a donor-centered approach inspires them to stay loyal and give more generously. Being donor-centered means:

  • acknowledging donors’ gifts promptly and in a meaningful way;
  • assigning every gift, regardless of its value, to a specific program, project or area more narrow in scope than the mission as a whole;
  • providing a report on what has been accomplished, in measurable terms, before asking for another contribution.

When young donors in the 2014 Burk Donor Survey were presented with a giving scenario based on this donor-centered model, 76% said they would give again the next time they were asked; 58% said they would make a larger gift, and 72% would continue to give indefinitely as long as they got those three things every time they gave.

The future is bright

While not-for-profits raised over $335 billion last year, it appears there is still much more money out there — 40% of Burk Donor Survey respondents said they could have given even more and, once again, young donors led the way. 50% of respondents under the age of 35 said they had more money to give but were holding their philanthropy back.

So, my only question to my wonderful fundraising colleagues is this: What are you waiting for?


More information on what would inspire young donors to give more generously is featured in The 2014 Burk Donor Survey report, available here:


(1). Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), Pew Research Center, Washington, DC, 2012
(2). Gallup’s US Underemployment Rate in the Workplace, Princeton, NJ, May, 2012
(3). Employment Status of the Civilian, Non-Institutional Population, by Age, Sex and Race, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
(4). Generations and the Great Recession, Pew Social and Demographic Trends, Pew Research Center, Washington, DC, Nov, 2011


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How Philanthropy Begins

June 11th, 2014 by Penelope Burk

As my blog arrived in your inbox, I wonder if you were poised in front of your computer screen, trying to draft your next appeal or craft a thank you letter for gifts just received. Writing compelling copy is difficult; writing compelling copy to someone you don’t know is even harder. Since the majority of your donors is known to you only as names, file numbers and amounts of money, it’s no wonder that fundraising copy tends to reflect an absence of human connection. It is overly constrained when it should be exuberant, businesslike when it should be personal, and safe when it should be adventurous.

To date, 22,500 donors have joined the 2014 Burk Door Survey. (We may reach a new record by the time the survey closes.) Among the many questions we are asking this year is this one: “Can you remember the first time you made a charitable gift and, if so, can you tell us the story?” 46% of respondents can vividly remember their first foray into philanthropy, which is amazing since many have been giving for more than forty years.

Donors say they experience a joyful rush when they make the decision to give but are often disappointed when the acknowledgement letter they get back is labored and distant. Understanding donors’ depth of feeling makes it easier for copywriters and relationship managers to respond in kind. Getting into their heads and hearts is equally important for executive decision-makers so that they shape fundraising strategies that honor the people who give, not just their donations.

Here are some first-gift stories we have received from survey respondents so far. Perhaps they will help you bridge the gap that often exists between fundraiser and donor, allowing you to produce more compelling copy and design more meaningful engagement strategies.


The first time I was asked to give was in a total stranger’s living room. It was a small fundraising event and someone delivered an emotional and compelling story about something that had affected her personally. That did it for me. I wrote a check before I left that event.

I began giving as a young child to Unicef when I was in elementary school. I saved my pennies for months to contribute to my sister’s tin can, as I was too young to have one of my own.

When I got my first real job after college, I was paid $8,990/year. I told myself that in addition to volunteering, I would start giving when my salary reached $25,000. The day that it did, I took the first $100 of my first paycheck and gave it to my company’s United Way workplace campaign.

I guess I had the natural gift of giving. When I made my first will, I left money to a few causes before I even knew what planned giving was.

My first philanthropic gift was to my local public radio station while I was in college. I used to listen while I studied and wanted to support them.

I first gave through the Mennonite Central Committee. I was won over as a child when we collected mittens to send to children in North Korea. My parents helped us make Christmas bundles; my mother sewed layettes for newborns.

My daughter suffered from mental illness for years. Eventually, she committed suicide. That’s why I started giving.

My first gift was to a political campaign when I was in high school. I liked the speaker, so I gave a large amount (for a kid) — $25. The candidate was delighted but a bit embarrassed, too, that he was taking this sum from a teenager. So, he tried to give it back to me but I said “No, please accept it.” I thought he was sincere which made me glad that I gave.

My first gift was to the Salvation Army. I remember asking my mom if I could borrow money to put in their kettle. I had to stand on my toes to put it in, so I must have been very little!

My first experience with donating was in high school in planning a marathon charity dance.  It was a lot of fun, and I got to choose one of the recipient charities, an emergency shelter for teens. When I presented the cheque, the organization’s representative said she was impressed with the maturity of how the whole event was handled. That really meant a lot to me as a struggling, awkward teenager. This was all the encouragement I needed to become a donor.

My first philanthropic gift was to the American Civil Liberties Union because I have a big mouth, and the ACLU is preserving my right to use it.

I was at a Golf Tournament for Martha House many years ago.  A woman spoke about her life with an abusive husband, how she struggled to be safe and keep her children safe, and how Martha House gave her the only chance she felt she had to escape this life.  The speech was so moving and powerful, I promised myself I would make a difference, no matter how small, in the lives of others for the rest of my life.

The first time I gave, I donated to the hospital that took care of my grandfather during his last days. The comfort they gave him made me want to give to the hospital in his honor.

When I was 11 years old I was concerned for the plight of whales. So, I gave a gift to the World Wildlife Fund specifically to help the whales. The money came from delivering papers, cutting grass for my neighbours and painting.

I remember the first time I gave very well. I was on vacation in Toronto, having a great day. I was walking down the street, and a canvasser from a not-for-profit organization approached me and asked for a minute of my time. I listened, it was a reputable organization, I liked what I heard, and the rest is history.

In the early 80’s, my family was flooded out of our home twice in two months and both times the Red Cross was there for us. We were so moved by their generosity and the kindness of strangers that it compelled me to reach out and become a donor myself.

My first gift was buying war stamps to support our effort in World War II.   That was a long time ago. Today I’m a widow, far from rich, but so richly blessed with a small house, abundant food, time to enjoy the beauties of nature and the love of family.  That’s why I still give so many decades later.

I was invited to attend a donor recognition event because my dad donated tissue when he died. At that ceremony, people came to testify how it changed their life to have an organ donated. That was the moment I became a donor.

My first donation was $35 to Wisconsin Public Radio, and that was sometime in the 70’s.  Though I always listened to WPR, I did not donate because we were living below the poverty line. But my nine-year old son said one day during a pledge drive, “You know we can afford $35.”  Although I didn’t agree, I somehow found a way and sent in $35 and became a member of WPR. That was a life- changing decision.  There is a saying that goes: If you don’t donate when you are poor, you won’t do it later, even when you can afford it.

It was a line on the back of a newsletter that caught my eye.  It said “If it were your family you would want someone to care.”  That hit me in a very personal way.  At the time I was young, living far from home and had always kept enough money aside to pay for a trip home in the event of a medical emergency.  The newsletter was from an organization called Family House — a hospital hospitality house.  The cause aligned with my personal concerns. I made a gift for roughly the same amount I would need to travel home – $600.  It was the most satisfying gift I’ve made to this day.  It was personal.  It was my first.  I knew the organization and I felt an enormous sense of gratitude that it was there, helping patients and families stay together during medical crises.

My parents made us gather unused toys every year before Christmas when I was very young. We took the toys and food to one of my dad’s employee’s homes that needed help. It made a lasting impression on me.

I was up in the middle of the night working on my computer during an ice storm in 2007 and saw a story on the US news about a man who built a special sanctuary for cats called Tabby’s Place. At the time I did not have the money to donate, but as soon as I did, this was the first organization I chose for a monthly recurring donation.

When I was in 5th grade, I had an outing at the Mall with a school club. My mother had given me money for lunch and to do some Christmas shopping for the family. I gave it all to an organization in the mall that gives Christmas gifts to local needy children.

My modest giving was first inspired when I graduated from a boarding school which solicited its alumni every year. The campaign was very low key and the emphasis was clearly on participation, not gift value. I am one of several members of my class who has managed to give something every year since graduation, some 56 years ago.

I always thought of myself as a fairly thrifty person, but a house cleaner named Roosevelt (named for “the friend of the poor man”) Johnson changed my life forever when he commented to me that he bet I’d never worn out a pair of shoes in my life. I was young then, and had parents who modeled philanthropy, but it brought home to me a contrast that hadn’t sunk in before.

I had come into some money from some investments and was meeting with a financial adviser. He recommended a non-profit and I was drawn to the idea because I have always believed in education even though I just barely finished high school myself.

The first gift I remember making was in response to the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980’s. I was a young dancer at the time and within a very short period lost three friends to the disease.

When I was little, my father was laid off from his job at the steel mill. Local groups organized a food pantry for all of the workers who had been laid off to help families obtain groceries. We greatly benefitted from this program, and it was so nice to see community members who didn’t personally know us working together to help out my father and his co-workers. From that day forward I said I would always give back.

It was Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” – you know, the part of the story in the Dog Pound where they take the dog out to be put down. I was 8 years old when I saw that movie. I went home and took my piggy bank money to my local animal shelter. That’s how I started giving, and I will never forget it.

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Thank goodness the weekend is over

April 7th, 2014 by Penelope Burk

When my children were young, I used to look forward to Monday mornings so I could recover from the weekend. Saturday and Sunday were a whirlwind of shopping, cleaning, cooking, chauffeuring and an impossible to-do list that made the equivalent at work pale by comparison. I bet you’re thinking it wasn’t that bad – fun and relaxation on Saturday night, etc., etc. Are you kidding? That’s when I did the laundry while drafting another grant proposal.

The frantic work/life schedules of professional fundraisers, made even more challenging by the extraordinary amount of overtime they put in, actually mean an opportunity for employers. In one of five research studies with professional fundraisers that supported my latest book, Donor-Centered Leadership, we asked respondents to rate a long list of benefits for their ability to lengthen staff tenure and improve productivity. Four of the top five benefits they chose were connected with time.

Respondents rated these considerations above all else:

  • Option to work from home
  • Flexible work hours while on the job
  • Vacation time in addition to that provided by law or by practice in the not-for-profit
  • Cell phone paid for by the employer
  • Comp time for overtime worked

Benefits are both a Management and a Hiring Advantage

Fundraising is one of those rare vocations experiencing inverse supply and demand (too few trained, experienced Development professionals for too many available jobs). This situation makes it easy for fundraisers to move from one job to the next. Inverse supply/demand also drives up salaries, effectively preventing worthy not-for-profits who cannot meet wage demands, from assembling the best professional team.

As fundraisers move out of their twenties and into their thirties and forties, however, their priorities change. They start families or, to put it more vividly, they take on a second full-time career. Now time and flexibility are of monumental importance, often surpassing salary. Employers who understand this and offer a modern, flexible work environment, are helping their staff juggle their impossible schedules. But they are achieving so much more than that. When the boss hands over responsibility for managing time to staff, she is saying, “I trust you”. She is also refocusing the Department and her own management time on the thing that actually matters – reaching the goal.

In your next staff meeting, ask this question: What did you do last Saturday? Your fundraisers’ long list of time-consuming tasks is the beginning of a unique benefits program that will make your employees’ life easier and make you “boss of the year”.

Posted in Donor-Centered Leadership having 1 comment »

Too Busy Leading to Learn How to Lead

March 21st, 2014 by Penelope Burk

Leadership is a vast and much-studied subject. The next time you are in a library or bookstore, take a minute to peruse the business section. You’ll find that books on leadership far outnumber all other subjects.

But for all its importance, leadership training – both improving leadership skills for those already in positions of authority and grooming front-liners for management and leadership positions – is under-appreciated in our Development industry. 57% of fundraising directors surveyed by my company recently had no training whatsoever before assuming their first management job. Worse still, the majority still hasn’t. Most fundraisers, it appears, learn how to lead by trial and error.

While there is no teacher like real-life experience, learning to manage by making mistakes can have a disastrous impact on those being managed. And, in our industry where there are too few skilled, experienced fundraisers for too many available positions, mediocre or outright bad management is one of the top 3 reasons why fundraisers leave their jobs prematurely.

The problem can be traced back, at least in part, to a lack of respect for the importance of management training, underscored by the meager budgets assigned to this critical function. Among organizations that had any budget for training (about 75% of those surveyed), the majority allocated only 1% to 2% for that purpose, and most of that was for basic fundraising, not management, training.

But those who need the training also contribute to the problem. 30% of fundraisers managing staff said they did not spend the full budget allotted to them for training last year, inadequate as those funds were to begin with. Their number one reason – I was too busy to set aside the time.

That is literally true. Fundraisers in management-level jobs work extraordinary amounts of overtime – equivalent to adding one to two full workdays on top of a 40-hour week – every week. But, expert training can teach managers how to improve their own productivity and that of their staff so that everyone (manager included) can leave at 5:00, have a real life after work, and come back the next morning refreshed and ready to give their all.

Leadership and management are highly specialized skills. Yes, there are a few prodigies out there who come by their extraordinary ability to manage others naturally. Everyone else has to learn how to do it. Fundraisers in management and leadership positions today as well as those aspiring to those pivotal roles, need and deserve the specialized training that is essential to developing leadership skills – even if they have to be dragged out of the office to make sure they get it.

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Somewhere, Out There…In a Call Center

December 6th, 2013 by Penelope Burk

I attended university with someone who became a professional actor. We have been friends for over 40 years. Somewhere along the way, he married an artist. An actor and a painter – an amazing love affair but not the most likely formula for financial security.

In the rollercoaster ride that is life in the arts, my actor-friend treasured the good years and gave back when he could. For several years when he had a recurring role on a successful TV show, my friend sponsored a child overseas for $35 a month. As artists do, he felt a visceral and emotional connection with the child and her family that his and his wife’s contributions were supporting.

Everyone knows that success is a fleeting thing but artists live that reality every day. It was inevitable, then, that the TV show came to an end and my friend’s run of good luck evolved into an even longer run of the opposite — too many auditions, too few call-backs and even fewer paid gigs.

The household budget was revised and revised again to accommodate shrinking income until, finally, the $35 a month sponsorship was moved from the essential to the optional column. The payments could simply no longer be made. A new level of anxiety was added to my friend’s already stressful life as he worried about what would become of the child and her family that he had come to care about so deeply.

About 90 days later, a representative from the not-for-profit called to remind my friend that three payments had been missed.  Wracked by sorrow and guilt, he tried to explain why he and his wife would have to suspend their sponsorship. The caller listened quietly and, at just the right moment, gently interrupted.

First, I want you to know that your foster child and her family are fine. We have a reserve fund that ensures that sponsorship will not be interrupted if a donor is unable to continue his or her support. Please do not worry. But, equally important, I want you to know how grateful we are for the generous donations you have provided over several years. You came along just when your child needed help the most. You gave her and her whole family a new start in life.

The caller’s kind words and sincere understanding lifted the stress from my friend’s overburdened shoulders.

That was twenty years ago. Since then, my actor/artist friends have had more than their share of financial ups and downs, but today they are enjoying a modest but more stable existence. Earlier this week, I was at their house for dinner and, it being the season of giving, the conversation turned to philanthropy. He told me this story and that now they could once again afford to give back by making charitable contributions. I asked them about their interests and which lucky charity or charities would be getting their support.

“There is no debate about that,” my friend said. “We will be loyal forever to the sponsorship agency that was there for us when we could no longer be there for them.”

So, here’s to the dedicated fundraisers who start work each evening in call centers all over North America just as the rest of us are going home. And, a special thank you to the exemplary ones at the top of their field who have the presence of mind to go off-script and give a donor encouragement and support when he or she needs it most.

Posted in Donor-Centered Fundraising, Fundraising having 15 comments »

Thank You Letters: Powerful and Profitable

November 13th, 2013 by Penelope Burk

When donors say, “the acknowledgement IS the recognition”, they are making a profound statement about what matters in their relationships with not-for-profits. And, nothing matters more to donors than thank you letters. Our research confirms that a beautifully crafted acknowledgement letter, promptly received, is all that it takes to make donors want to give again.

There is a huge difference, though, between thank you letters that fulfill the requirement of acknowledging gifts and letters that inspire donors to stay loyal [see Donor-Centered Thank You Letters Project].

In this year’s Burk Donor Survey, 40% of respondents said they had received at least one thank you letter in recent memory that they would describe as exceptional. Its warm, personal tone making the letter feel like it was written just for me was cited most often.  45% of donors said it was an outstanding thank you letter that inspired them to give again and 23% said they gave more generously because of the quality of the acknowledgement they received.

Exceptional Qualities of Great Thank You Letters According to Donors –  2013 Burk Donor Survey


That said, great letter-writing is an art, and creating art requires original thinking and constant practice. So, when inspiration just won’t come or when you start over-thinking everything you write, don’t you wish you had a creative resource by your side?

The Donor-Centered Thank You Letter Project is that creative resource. It’s a compilation of the best letters from fundraisers who modeled their acknowledgements on donor-centered principles. Each letter is notated by me to help the authors expand their letter-writing horizons. You can’t buy this resource, but you can get it for free if your thank you letter is selected for inclusion in Volume III (deadline December 15th). More information is available [], including my popular “20 Characteristics of a Great Thank You Letter”.


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About Burk’s Blog

Find the latest information on Cygnus Applied Research, Inc. research studies, and Penelope Burk's editorials on fundraising in economic uncertainty.