Down the Up Staircase

I’ve been contemplating an interesting giving experience.

Several months ago, I made a first-time donation to an organization whose work I have long admired. I knew a bit about their fundraising history and was aware that the value of the gift I made ($500) was well above the average for first-time, online gifts to this particular not-for-profit.  I received a prompt and thoughtful thank you letter (very donor-centered). Not long afterwards, I got a progress report from the CEO which was brief, but very informative (also delightfully donor-centered). Again I was impressed and very happy that I had supported this cause.

About a month later, someone from the organization called me and because of their excellent stewardship to date, I was pleased to speak with their representative. I soon realized I was talking to a telemarketer, likely from an external call center, though I wasn’t entirely sure. She wanted to know if I would join the not-for-profit’s monthly giving program, and suggested that I contribute $15 a month. I paused to multiply $15 times 12 in my head, but the caller took my pause as hesitation and quickly downgraded the ask….”or $10 a month — anything you could do would be very helpful.”

“I recently gave you $500,” I replied. “Why would you downgrade the ask to $120?”  Now it was her turn to pause as she clicked through her list of typical objections, trying in vain to find this one. She didn’t understand what I meant so filled the void with some general information about the charity which, of course, I already knew.  The next time she paused, I just said “No, thanks”.

Three weeks later, I got something in the mail from this same organization. It was a direct marketing ask that suggested I contribute $50, $100, $200, or “other”. I decided to contribute “other” – $0.

In the fundraising industry we perilously assume that any solicitation will do rather than recognizing the importance of how the solicitation itself needs to grow the relationship from gift to gift.  As a result we are turning good numbers like $500 into bad numbers like $0 because we pay more attention to “textbook” solicitation strategies that emphasize volume over responsiveness.  Solicitations are designed to raise money; too often they cost us money.  Too often, they lead donors down the up staircase.

Showing 17 comments
  • Ruth Zax

    sounds like they had you on a prospect list and didn’t do a merge/purge once recognizing you as a significant donor to the cause. What a shame that a good organization with a good mission match for you would be that careless with such a significant gift.

  • Larry C. Johnson


    Never were there truer words said. I had a similar experience and, like your, my gifts are now $0.

  • Evan Smith

    Great editorial, Penelope. Unfortunately, all of what you said was sad but true. It’s much harder to turn a previous donor around after an experience like this.

  • Sandra Devaney

    Stewardship is such an art and nourishing element to relationship building. It must be heartfelt and sincere – a telemarketer cannot exhibit these traits on behalf of an organization. Pity.

  • Heather MacKay

    What a shame!!!Most of us don’t like telemarketer anyway. I just had a similar situation where they offered tickets if I donated. The person on the phone did not listen that I had already given and could not give anything else. It’s A PIty

  • Stephen Patterson

    This sadly happens because, as in our organization, the telemarketing call comes from an outside contract company. The reson for an outside company is an easy one. Not for profit organizations cannot afford to staff telemarketers because of the cost for the employee. With an outside company we have no cost for personnel and we just receive a check based on the agreement with the outside company. When we get a direct gift we forward the address and telephone number (if given) to our outside resource to have the donor placed on the DNC or DNM list. No system is perfect but if you monitor your outside resources it can mean fewer mistakes like those mentioned.

  • Sarah

    OK, I get the issue with the telemarketer. However, just becasue a donor gives a nice $500, which you acknowledged was more than the average first-time gift, why should we assume they can do that again in a short time? Why aren’t we “feeling” the relationship out to see what type of donor we have? $500 would be a huge gift from me, and if an organization turned around and asked for another $500 I’d be a little put off. I see what you are saying, but what’s the correct approach here? Give us the how-to-do-it-right idea. I work with middle-market donors ($1k-5k annually) and they are sacraficial givers. Given a pattern, I would raise the ask, but not until I knew them.

  • Jim Dietz-Kilen

    This is a very thought-provoking post and a story that is familiar to most of us–unfortunately. It seems to me that one of the major problems with this approach is in not acknowledging the last gift up-front. I think that too many organizations try to fool donors into making multiple gifts in a given year, hoping that they will not remember when they made their last gifts. It sounds to me as if Penelope’s experience would have been very different had the caller acknowledged her recent gift up-front and thanked her again. He or she could have acknowledged the generosity of her first-time gift and that it seems to indicate a deep interest in the organization’s mission. That would have provided a natural opportunity to ask whether she would like to become part of their monthly giving program, which many of their most committed donors choose. Having said all this, though, I would add that I am not a fan of monthly giving programs. I think they tend to lead to neglect of the very donor relationships we should be spending the most time nurturing. My $.02-worth.

  • Scott Forbes

    Aside from agreeing with your words to the wise, I have a couple of questions.

    Assuming that they handled the gift well, and continue to carry out the work that you “have long admired”, is it logical to withdraw your support? Does that mean you would tell others to stop as well?

    You are a seasoned professional with loads of wisdom to share with this long admired group. Could you help them for an hour to address this issue?


  • ..Marcia

    Your article was very thought provoking for me. The organization wasn’t too careful about selecting the right person to make the contact with the donor, thus the hesitation on the phone, etc., and apparently they did not do any research prior to the phone call. Sometimes the manner in which the donor is approached is the key to the whole thing. A very interesting article, and quite an experience! Thanks.


  • Tara Sudbury

    Well Penelope in this experience you certainly captured what is the essence of the missing piece of this donor – centered NFP you favored. You did not FEEL valued. We can discuss all the mechanics and merits of telemarketing but the real issue is that the actions of your favored cause made you feel undervalued or “just a number”. It makes me wonder if there are practitioners reading your excellent books, and not stopping to actually think the application of your ideas through. Up until the telemarketing call you did feel valued, but I bet you doubt the sincerity of those previous actions – an average reaction we would all have – but once a donor does not feel valued….its a deal breaker! As you point out in one of your books, I think its Thank You – we cannot afford to forget “the feeling a donor has when he/she writes the cheque”. Donors might give when asked but if they don’t feel valued throughout the relationship with the NFP we have failed to stay donor centered – and no one gives without some smidgen of wanting to feel valued.


  • Barb

    On the flip side, I have given donations as gifts for family members but don’t want to be on the list and also hate receiving the continual flow of solicitation.

  • Suzanne

    I’m glad I do not use telemarketers for this very reason. Penelope, perhaps you have shared both your professional advice and donor-related reactions with this organization? They could learn from it and just maybe get you back as a donor and/or at least prevent losing other contributors for this reason?

  • Jim Heckman

    I echo the comments of those who’ve had similar experiences. The majority of calls I’ve gotten in recent months from organizations I’ve supported for an extended period have made me an ex-donor. As a view of the fundraising profession in this country, it is disturbing and discouraging.

  • John

    why blame the telemarketer? they were just the tool – it was the charity’s decision to make the call (and send the subsequent letter) both of which had the wrong message for Penelope.

    The responsibility lies with the charity’s professional staff who are the caretakers of relationship with the donor and it is their message the the telemarketer or the direct mail firm send. People are happy to receive calls/letters they WANT. It wasn’t the call Penny objected to – it was the message.

  • Wendy

    I think this perfectly illustrates that the right person has to make the right ask for the right amount. Here are a few of the barriers (and, IMHO, the reason for much of the burnout in our field) that would prevent that from happening: not enough front-line fundraisers (in my case, I’m the only one and the administrator), inflexible technology that requires a Ph.D. in computers to truly “drill down”, lack of control over calling scripts/training, compartmentalization in departments that divorces front-line fundraisers who know their donors from the “grassroots” efforts, and the number one reason for these kinds of mistakes–turnover in staff that causes loss of relationship information, illogical changes in fundraising strategies–in short, no continuity in efforts and relationships over time.

    Good issue. Interesting thoughts.

    As always, an opportunity to think and reflect.

  • ANN

    As a short measure to raise funds for my charity .I sent emails to my friends asking them to donate one dollar each.As you may have already guessed. Not one responded but ?
    I got a lot of junk mail from them proving they totally ignored my mail.

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