On this thirteenth day after the earthquake in Haiti, I want to say to my colleagues who are professional fundraisers – you have done an amazing job. In a massive and heart-wrenching disaster where criticism of just about every other aspect of the relief effort is justified, the speed, efficiency and creativity with which you approached the job of raising money stands apart.
Of course, donors’ willingness to give, even before they were asked, contributed to your success, but I hope you will pause for long enough to realize what you have accomplished and give yourselves some credit.
But from here on, it gets harder. It is likely that, in eighteen months from now, you will look back and realize that you have lost 95% or more of the donors who, through you, rushed to the aid of Haitians. In moments of frustration, there will be a temptation to blame donors themselves for being skittish and unreliable. Even worse, fundraisers will find themselves burdened with the enormous expense of soliciting and communicating with so many more donors, most of whom will never give again. But the problem is not donors. The problem is not fundraising either but, as the professionals charged with raising the money, you will be the ones living with the consequences.
You can mitigate the problem, but you have to do it now. While it will take eighteen to twenty-four months for you to know this officially — that most of your Haiti relief donors have become attrition statistics — those same donors are actually making the decision to stay or let you go right now.
Here are the three things that your not-for-profit must get right immediately if you want to retain more of these earnest donors and run a more profitable fundraising operation in the long down periods between emergencies.
- Resist Mission Creep: Your mission statement limits your purpose and focuses your work on your area of critical expertise, making it possible to calculate how much money you need to raise in order to do your job well. Now thirteen days into Haiti relief, all NGOs who are staying true to their mission can forecast their financial requirement for this disaster. Your donors chose to give to you because of your mission. If you expand your efforts beyond your mission just because you have the opportunity to capitalize on this crisis, you will pay the price later in expensive donor attrition.
- No Unilateral Reassignment of Donors’ Contributions: Posting a statement like: “we reserve the right to redirect your contribution to program(s) we deem to be our greatest priority” on your website’s donations page or in direct appeals may cover you legally, but not ethically. You know that your donors are giving for Haiti relief. If you redirect their money unilaterally without your donors’ prior consent, you will lose them.
- Stop Fundraising: Since your mission has limits and donor intent is paramount, your inevitable conclusion must be that, even in a monumental disaster, you have a fundraising goal. Reaching it is a cause for celebration and a testament to the extraordinary partnership between your not-for-profit and your donors. Continuing to raise funds beyond that goal is opportunistic. You can take the high road, giving your donors a reason to admire and respect you even more (which they will demonstrate with increased loyalty and higher gift value, by the way,) or you can take that other road and pay the price in early donor attrition.
I am keenly aware that it is not you, my fundraising colleagues, who make decisions to redirect donors’ gifts, or to engage in services outside your mission, or to continue raising money beyond what is needed to fulfill your goal. On the other hand, only you care enough about the human beings who are your donors to advocate on their behalf.
I think you should go home tonight, pour yourself a glass of wine (excellent, higher priced wine – you deserve it.) Toast to your own success with the first sip, and use the rest of the glass to screw up your courage. Then come back into the office tomorrow morning and take a stand. If you fight for the ethical alternative now, you will be doing your not-for-profit a very big favor in the long run.
Good luck. And, if you want statistical ammunition to support this course of action, here is an article I wrote on how one NGO took the fundraising high road post Asian Tsunami and made more money as a result.