Are You Talking About It? …early observations from The Burk Donor Survey

It seems to have become a tradition — that midway through my annual research study, I publish some of the irresistible comments from donors who have taken part in the Burk Donor Survey so far. I do it because I want my professional colleagues to experience a small fraction of the treasure trove that I am handed whenever I turn on my computer; and I do it because donors aren’t really talking to me. They are talking to you and they are using this survey to convey their message.

I know the International AFP Conference is in full swing. It’s an amazing forum for discussing issues pertinent to fundraisers. But as I scroll through findings of my very large survey, I can’t help but wonder – are your issues donors’ issues too, or are you and your donors a version of two ships passing in the night?

Whether you are one of thousands in Boston at this moment, hurrying from one session to the next, or alone in your office, composing your next communication to donors, you might want to consider what 25,000 people in the Burk Donor Survey are talking about right now:

On why some donors will give more this year than last…

It’s personal, it’s the result of considerable reflection, and it’s seldom influenced by fundraising. The majority of those intending to give more generously in 2016 reference financial capability, a deep commitment to devoting more serious attention to philanthropy, religious conviction, and their joy (or relief) that they are on the giving and not the receiving end of charity. A minority gives credit to the quality of work being done by not-for-profits they have supported before which makes them want to give again. This is great, but we’re talking about fewer than 20%.

What I am not seeing, however, is credit for stewardship, especially since donors’ views on what they need from not-for-profits they support is so specific. Donor-Centered Fundraising is the concept I have espoused since our first research study on how to minimize attrition and maximize gift value. But it’s not my idea; it’s donors’ concept that I have passed onto you. It’s not complicated either as it involves only three simple things. But, perhaps the fundraising industry makes fundraising unnecessarily complicated. Are you spending too much time and money on stuff donors don’t want and hanging onto beliefs about what influences donor loyalty, even when donors say it doesn’t? Are you talking about it?

On why some donors will give less this year…

Here is where the spotlight shines mercilessly on fundraising, especially on the issue of over-solicitation. Over our twenty years of research, donors have evolved from considerately pointing out the problem to saying, “The more you ask, the less I give.” Over-solicitation is by far the number one reason why donors stop giving and why fundraising profit is held back. Are you talking about it? Not just in terms of rehashing the numbers (which I agree are atrocious), but really considering the evidence that asking less often raises more net revenue. Donors have so many ways to give now that do not require them to cooperate with fundraising at all. Are you making it easy for them to shut you out? Are you talking about it?

On the relationship between giving and volunteering…

A magnificent 88% of respondents (so far) rate their current or most recent volunteer experience as satisfying to highly satisfying, a wonderful credit to not-for-profits. The connection between volunteering and giving is very strong; each inspires the other. Are you taking people’s pride in volunteering into account when developing your fundraising strategy? Are you talking about it?

On what donors do behind the scenes before they give…

Up again in the 2016 Burk Donor Survey is the percentage of donors who check you out before either giving for the first time or giving again. Ratings agencies are capturing donors’ attention more than before but, still, your own website remains your single greatest advantage in convincing donors to stay loyal or in drawing new supporters to your cause. Do you know what donors are looking for when they land on your site? Are you talking about it?

Donors are talking about it…

…Specifically, the causes they support, what motivates their philanthropy, how they want their lives to unfold. Here is just a glimpse of what I get to experience all day long. Yes, I love what I do. Is it any wonder? And, yes…I’m talking about it.

From my perspective, social media makes a not-for-profit accessible to their online community in a way that is difficult to replicate anywhere else. It pulls in millennial donors and connects them in a fresh and interactive way.

When I think about it, I realize that media reports really do affect how much I give. It breaks my heart when I read negative reports in the media about an organization that has used donors’ gifts inappropriately. When that happens, I start to have doubts about other charities that deliver similar services.

My gifts would not be considered “major” by most organizations’ standards, so it would be unfair to expect personal attention. But receiving a more personalized thank you (such as a letter signed by an actual person) and/or meaningful communication would definitely make a difference in my giving.

I prefer to spend my money on experiences, especially travel, rather than just giving it away. So, if someone were to offer me an experience in exchange for a large donation, I would certainly consider it. An offer like, “Donate $X or more and pay your way to Nairobi and we will give you a free two-day tour of our wilderness preserve in Kenya”. That would be very tempting.

I give a lot. I live in a very tiny house after being crushed by the housing bubble. We are just now getting out from being under water on our mortgage. Still, if I had more money, I would give more to not-for-profits.

Our approach to philanthropy has changed. We now actively seek organizations whose mission we understand and where we have confidence in the staff and board. When we see that our donations can make a clear difference in helping a not-for-profit carry out its mission, we give more. As a rule, we avoid “drop-in-the-bucket” donations to large, faceless charities.

From an inheritance I received several years ago, I set aside a generous percentage for philanthropy. I then asked God to show me clearly what would be the best cause(s) to give it to. Somehow I never got an answer. Over the years, I have made donations here and there but still wish for some clear indication of where best to put the rest. I don’t feel right about keeping it when the need is so great everywhere; but I also don’t think any single not-for-profit can play God and tell me where to put it.

I don’t actually want to know everything that’s going on with my charities of choice. Just because constant contact is possible doesn’t mean it’s either healthy or inspiring. For example, my church asks for an increase just once each year and guess who gets the most money among the not-for-profits I support? It’s not the spiritual influence that makes me favor my church; it’s how their approach lets me manage my philanthropy in an organized and practical way.

I’m reaching a point in my life where a lot of my discretionary spending and my charitable giving are not as satisfying as they used to be. So I’m trying to re-evaluate what is truly meaningful to me. With a lot of the organizations I’ve supported in the past, it feels expected, rather than appreciated. It makes me feel like a target rather than a person. So, I’m rethinking everything.

The best acknowledgement I’ve ever received came in the form of a letter personally addressed from a rather small non-profit after we made a fairly generous donation. (Our donation had made a field trip for underprivileged children possible.) The letter we got in return felt as if the Director had taken time out of her day to write it to us personally. We very much appreciated it.

If I were stricken with a debilitating disease and could no longer travel, that would free up more money to give to charity. (I am hoping this doesn’t happen anytime soon, however.)

My husband and I have an adult son who lives at home with us. Due to his many needs coupled with few services for him in my state, I tend to use my money on activities that he enjoys. That said, I still give to my college and to other not-for-profits, but I know that my small donations are only a drop in the bucket compared with what others give.

At least 90% of my assets (which are substantial) will be donated to certain not-for-profits when I die. Those organizations have been designated in my will. In the meantime, I contribute two to four days per week in volunteer time, offering my business acumen and specialized professional skills. I am very comfortable with the way I have approached giving and volunteering.

What I want is clear and meaningful communication on the impact of donations on my community. I also want to see a more personal connection between donors and people who benefit from the work that not-for-profits do. Recently I attended a fundraising event where I was able to meet some of those individuals that the agency helped. Afterwards I doubled my previous contribution. Seeing those faces and hearing those stories made a huge impact on me.

I started giving a few years ago by supporting a handful of charities. They apparently sold my name and address to other not-for-profits. Now I receive about fifty solicitations weekly in the mail and so many over the phone that I no longer answer when it rings. I think I’m more inclined to decrease rather than increase my giving.

I give more by making monthly, rather than year-end donations. It’s a great strategy.

A member of the Board of a Habitat for Humanity affiliate once gave me a T-Shirt that said, “Live Generously”. It made me realize that I could do so much more. I now help subsidize housing for homeless people.

I know how I could unleash my philanthropy at a whole new level…I could elect politicians that don’t babble on about cutting social security for the 99% while improving the lives of hedge fund managers. I’d like to think that my country will support me if I support my country.

In my first job out of law school I earned less than $30,000 while paying $1200/month in student loan debt. As the recession deepened, I watched the banks and car companies get bailed out as I struggled to meet my obligations. Meanwhile I was hounded by my university to give. My law school opened a brand new gorgeous building the year after I graduated. Sure, it’s amazing but the old building was good, too. I think my alma mater needed to be a little more humble when asking for donations and think about the image they were projecting.

We used to joke about the number of solicitations we got in the mail but now my wife and I discuss it quite seriously and we stop donating to the more aggressive not-for-profits.

I get many magazines with lovely pictures, but I don’t have time to read them. Still, I hesitate to throw them away. What would work better for me is a simple letter that said what the organization would do with the money if I gave and then asked me if I wanted to receive a magazine…or shopping bag…or whatever. If I give to a charity, they should understand that it means I already approve of what they do. I don’t have time to read more.

The thing that would unleash my philanthropy at a new level is a project where I saw results happening, especially if it generated a “ripple effect” where results were amplified relative to cost in some way. For instance, if volunteers were engaged and a corporation matched donations – that kind of thing would be very inspiring.

It’s quite challenging for a donor like me with multiple interests and passions to allocate funds across many organizations. I am a huge fan of organizations that collaborate and give more in these situations.

For me, giving is an informed decision involving due diligence including discussions with leaders and volunteers, directed giving and assurance of accountability. I have to believe both in the cause and in the people who are raising the money. I believe fundraising is a profession and I respect organizations that are business-driven as well as passionate.

Showing 4 comments
  • Jack Barner

    I read your first book and it had a very positive impact on me, ( and on my staff I hope). You are right on target, its the donor wishes that count, not the fundraisers! But what seems to happen is the day to day activity of meetings, emergency fires that need attention and the financial demands of the University, get in the way of your message, and it has to be relearned. Thank you for this email, it has made me think about what is important for my University’s fund raising success, my real engagement with my donors. Thank you.

  • Nancy Gugino

    Thank you for sharing all those remarks with me. I was hitting a plateau but all those remarks reinvigorated my loyalty to the mission

  • Greg Warner

    I am very much looking forward to this years findings.

    With regard to what you wrote in this blog post…
    “The majority of those intending to give more generously in 2016 reference financial capability, a deep commitment to devoting more serious attention to philanthropy, religious conviction, and their joy (or relief) that they are on the giving and not the receiving end of charity.”

    …interestingly, these reasons were also found to be the biggest drivers in a fascinating book titled “Who Really Cares” by Arthur Brooks.

  • Beth Proven

    Hi Penny,

    Great to hear from you! As always, your research is informative and compelling!

    Best wishes,
    Beth Proven

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