The phrase, “donor burnout” has been in use in the fundraising industry for as long as I can remember, but it is a misnomer. Attributing a slowdown in giving to donors running out of steam deflects attention away from the underlying cause. “Donor burnout” also implies a condition from which donors suffer that fundraisers cannot mitigate, which is certainly not the case.
The dictionary defines burnout as exhaustion of emotional strength resulting from prolonged frustration. To consider why donors might be suffering from prolonged frustration, it helps to understand what causes them to be in the opposite state – one of prolonged satisfaction. Satisfied donors can be easily distinguished from their burnt–out counterparts. Satisfied donors behave differently. They are loyal longer and they can be counted upon to make increasingly generous gifts over time. Frustrated donors, however, give once or twice and disappear, and the value of their gifts is often too modest to be profitable.
In our research studies on donor loyalty and generosity, respondents have described what it feels like to give, vividly articulating what it means to be a satisfied donor. They tend to identify two points of tremendous emotional connection – an initial rush when they make the decision to give (or give again) and an even greater exhilaration when, later on, they learn that their giving has helped achieve some meaningful outcome. This fluid cycle – considering a request, making the commitment to give, learning later that the gift achieved something, being ready to consider another request – is the process of progressive philanthropy that makes fundraising increasingly profitable.
When it comes to scheduling appeals, then, the question to ask is not, “Do solicitations work better in October or November?” but “How soon after putting donors’ gifts to work will our not-for-profit have something meaningful to report back to them?” This means that even if fundraisers do not re-solicit their donors for an entire year after they gave, it will be too soon if donors do not know what they have helped accomplish. It also means for some not-for-profits that can provide evidence of measurable results quite quickly after gifts have been secured, they are waiting too long to ask again.
Because information is what inspires donors to stay loyal and give more generously, there is an obvious connection between asking for unrestricted gifts and donor burnout. If gifts are not designated to a particular program, project or service, fundraisers are forced to communicate with donors in general terms, continuing to sell the brand or mission when only measurable results will satisfy their donors.
Donor burnout is real – the result of failing to stoke the fire that keeps donors’ philanthropic spirit alive.
In her just-published book, Donor-Centered Leadership, Penelope Burk explores key myths and misunderstandings that hold fundraising back and which contribute to the high turnover rate of professional fundraisers.