Donors and Fundraisers: Partners or Strangers?

Lately I’m wondering how different fundraisers’ lives might be from the lives their donors lead. If you could see what donors are saying in The Burk Donor Survey, you might be wondering, too.

Fundraisers are in a very interesting place right now. Giving is up across the board and, for some not-for-profits, it’s way up. Professionally, fundraisers are in demand and more secure than they have been in a decade. Yes it’s a tough world, but fundraisers must admit it’s pretty exciting to head to work, turn on their computers and take in the good news.

Donors are heading to work, too — well those who have jobs, anyway. The ones who don’t are clinging to the hope that pain will somehow turn into gain. And, as for retired donors who are a large contingent of our study’s respondents, they find themselves doing the ugly math more often. They want to give more but have to reconcile the gap between investment value and life expectancy.

Your donors are turning on their computers, too. They’re finding their in-boxes flooded with urgent appeals from so many worthy causes, most invoking this new and different world as their reason for asking. Your donors are wondering how so many charities suddenly got their email addresses.

They are also zeroing in on emails from not-for-profits they rushed to support, eager to learn what those organizations have accomplished so far. “Dear Friend,” the emails are saying, “Please give.”

These quotes are from donors who participated in the 2017 Burk Donor Survey. Their observations represent the most often expressed opinions of survey respondents. They signal an opportunity for fundraisers to shape a giving environment that reflects a genuine partnership between not-for-profits and their donors. They also signal a warning that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

I am engaged in an internal struggle beyond the kind that can be addressed by an organization’s appeal. I give a fairly high percentage of my income already. I could give more by saving less but I need to save for my retirement years so that I won’t be a drain on the financial resources of others. How much to save versus how much to give is a constant question for me.

There is a movement toward effective altruism, and I think it’s an important one. Whether I contribute $20 or $2000, I want it to be doing the most good for the most people, in a direction I care about. Transparency and clarity are key to sorting out the overload of requests. I see myself as an investor as much as a donor.

I’d like much more control over most charities’ solicitation frequency and modes. All it takes is a check box on the web form. In most cases, I’d rather get a newsletter or report about great accomplishments, preferably electronically. Go ahead and put a ‘help us out’ button on it; I’ll click it when I’m ready. And please, don’t share my contact details with others in the network.

There are too many causes that I would like to support. It seems like giving small amounts to many is not as useful as giving a higher percentage to some. But which ones? This is a dilemma for me and it makes me hesitate. I end up giving less all around as a result.

What I want from not-for-profits are smart plans, thoughtful outreach and meaningful impacts. Same-old, same-old just winds up in the trash. Ask for something substantial from me. If I buy in, I will walk through fire to help make it happen.

We used to respond to appeals as they came in, but it made us feel that our giving was too haphazard. We sometimes mistakenly gave too often to a group and, with others, didn’t give at all because we thought, ‘didn’t we just get something from them?’ We couldn’t keep track. Now we toss out all those solicitations and just stick to our schedule and our own preferences. And, it’s working much better.

Quite honestly, I prefer to give anonymously and I don’t want to be contacted, harangued, harassed or otherwise asked to give more. There is a correlation between the amount that I give to an organization and the number of emails, phone appeals and fund drives they subject me to.

My commitment to philanthropy comes from a sense of security. What unleashes philanthropic giving at a higher level is the absence of fear or anxiety about the future. It’s also feeling confident that the gifts I make are used in the way they were intended, plus knowing that the funds are well managed. When I sense that an organization is working hard to make every dollar count, I want to give more because I can see results — not just of my giving, but of the hard work that the organization and the people who volunteer or work for it are putting in day by day.

I have not yet risen to a level that is noticed by fundraisers’ rating tools, but do give consistently. I have a large inheritance coming which I intend to devote mostly to charity. Engaging me now will determine who gets my attention in the future.

While philanthropy is growing this year because of the outcome of the election, there is a limit for some of us. I would advise not-for-profits not to depend on this windfall. It cannot sustain itself.

My wife and I are making a major change to our philanthropy this year. We have selected a very small number of charities that we are supporting very generously, more than double our previous annual amounts for the past 10 years. At the same time, we are responding to requests from other organizations by asking them to drop us from their lists. It’s a tough choice, but a better one.

Most of the charities I give to have never asked me for an increase in my gift. There is little to no personal attention. Too bad because I would triple my giving if they called me and asked.

If you want me to give more, then be specific and tell me what you would use the extra money to do. Like open the shelter for another hour a day, or buy water rights to increase flow rates for in-stream use, or bring 30 more students on a field trip to see the forest. Connect the dollars I might give to tangible, quantifiable outcomes. Then send a report at the end of the year and tell me what actually happened! Do that and I’m in!

I don’t like it when nonprofits to whom I give even a small amount come back asking for more funds straight away when I do not know how they directly helped individuals or society.

Most nonprofits are already doing a good job of this but I think it’s important to remind donors of what is being done with their money. After the election, so many people were outraged and wanted to get involved but weren’t sure how to do it. Of course volunteering and protesting is wonderful but I think it’s important to remind people that the money people give turns into action and tangible results.

What I wish for is more one-on-one contact. I do not receive near enough human contact. Letters can be compelling but I feel less connected and although I want to give to causes regardless of their ability to find the time to talk to me… I just feel that I become more invested in places that take a little time to reach out.

I’m looking for better outcome-based reporting. Currently it is very difficult to determine if a charity is performing well (fulfilling its mission and making progress toward its vision and key goals and targets). Charity Navigator and similar organizations are helpful but, frankly, their ratings are more financially- oriented than performance-based.

In some cases, I’d like to give my money AND my time. Coming up with pathways to make it easy for me to donate both would be a huge help. If I am invested with my time, there is a greater likelihood that my financial contributions would also increase.

Make a clear connection between my giving and the value it brings to the cause: education, health, etc. It seems I have been giving for 30 years and we still have adult illiteracy, cancer, heart disease, mental illness, and uneducated children unprepared for the real world. I do not feel my giving is resulting in any real change. I want to fund real change.

I want less hand-wringing. Tell me how my contributions would be used to make real improvements. I’m tired of getting emails that say, “oh no, if we don’t get $x in 24 hours, the world falls apart”.

I want to be able to select how I’d like a charity to communicate with me (email vs. phone or mail); this would be very beneficial and I would give more. I sometimes give less so that I receive less direct mail communications. I do enjoy getting mail if it features case studies of how funds are used; for example building a new learning center within a museum, testimonials from students who have received scholarships, case studies for animals who’ve received treatment. Knowing the tangible benefit of my donation is very important to me.

I’m willing to give more money but sometimes there are just too many fields to fill out on online giving forms or nonprofits make it challenging to update sustaining donation amounts, so I put off doing it.

It would be nice to receive an actual letter (handwritten or typed) and not a form letter of thanks; the form letters feel auto-generated and impersonal. I understand that this sort of correspondence would take additional time and resources, but it would make me feel appreciated rather than another checked box.

I would give more if I there were a way to get only one email or letter a year asking for money. As it is, I’m constantly bombarded with no way to opt in or out of special need requests.

Not-for-profits need to ask for my permission to share my contact information. It’s getting worse.

Give me compelling information about the urgency of donating now; convince me that my increased gift will make a greater difference this year than it would if I stalled off for 2 or 5 or 10 or 20 more years. I have ample savings and feel very strongly about my obligation toward philanthropy. Donating to worthy causes is one of the most rewarding aspects of my life as a retiree. I am ready to be convinced to increase my level of giving.

Most people want a more just world, peace, and economic equity. Not everyone’s ‘American Dream’ is to get rich. Many (perhaps most) people’s dream is for a fair, stable world with dignity, meaning and justice for all.


Showing 8 comments
  • Thomas J Hooper

    We’ve been facilitating tens of thousands of personal one-on-one calls to donors within one week of processing their donations. The timeliness make all the difference in the world. Just one or two minutes of genuine gratitude can make your organization the donors’ favorite. It’s simple, effective rewarding and cost effective. Ms. Burk has been saying it for years, yet few make it happen. One rescue mission has seen 53% increase in giving over the control group after just 7 months. Make the thank you calls each week, it pays off and is simply the right thing to do.

  • Greg Fraser

    Great post! Enjoyed the testimonials and felt that they were “spot on”.

  • Mary DiCarlo

    Just re-read this post as we prepare to update our thank you processes. Lots of good reminders here!

  • Tim Chaten

    Great post Penelope! Another question to ask yourself is are you a facilitator or a technician as your role as a fundraiser –

  • K

    We want to start following up each donation with a phone call within 48 hours of the gift. Our online giving platform does not offer a place to ask for a phone number, however.

    We are considering sending an email survey immediately after receiving a first donation where we ask the donor a) what language they prefer to communicate in (we are bilingual), b) their phone number and c) if they’d like to receive our quarterly newsletter.

    My question is, how do we ask this information without making the donor feel like their privacy is being invaded? We considered including an asterisks that states we only use phone numbers for administrative and thank you purposes, but I don’t know if that’s enough. How do we encourage participation in this survey?

    • Penelope Burk

      I strongly recommend that you do not ask your donors to do something for you right after they have given. The only next step you should take at this sensitive moment is to write and send a beautiful thank you letter or, as you are planning to do, pick up the phone and thank them. Excellent that you are planning to make thank you calls very soon after donors give. Conducting a survey, especially one that asks for their phone number or other personal information, will be seen as suspicious, as a veiled attempt to set them up for another ask. You can improve the number of phone numbers for your new donors in two ways: simply look them up as you make the call, or use a “phone-append” service, which is a cost-effective way to get phone numbers attached to a list of donor names/addresses. For donors with unlisted numbers, calling to say thank you will, of course, not be possible.

      Once you have established credibility through genuinely appreciative thank you calls and letters, you can then ask donors for limited additional information. It takes time for donors to trust you and to realize that you behave differently from other not-for-profits they have supported in the past. Nothing is more powerful than a letter or a call, so don’t risk diminishing that power by asking for something else.

  • Rohan Saxena

    great and helpful blog to everyone.. thanks a lot for sharing

  • Lizette

    This post offers great perspective about what it is like for donors who are trying to sustain long lasting relationships with organizations. As professionals we may be overwhelmed by the constant changing demographics or donor interests but donors are also being overwhelmed with solicitations from indifferent agencies. Some times it is easy to forget that, donors are seeking deeper connections to the organization, mission, and societal impact. Through reading the provided feedback from the surveyed, it is evident that they are not feeling informed or appreciated. We have lost sight of the donor as a person with other financial obligations and feelings. It will make a huge different to start personalizing solicitations and genuinely communicating gratitude for a donor’s investment. I realize that this is a blanket statement that may not be realistic for some non-profits. However, even the littlest innovative or professional change might improve donor retention and strengthen donor relations.

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