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6 Reasons Why Your Donor Stewardship Problem Is An Internal Culture Problem

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donor stewardship problem

Hey. You care about keeping your donors. That’s why you’re on the Bloomerang blog, right?

You want more ideas about how to get donors to stay with you.

I want you to keep your donors too.

Do you even know what your donor retention rate is?

Here’s how to calculate your donor retention rate.

It’s the number of donors you had last year, and then you count how many gave this year. So if you had 100 donors last year, and 60 of those donors gave this year, you have a 60% donor retention rate.

In our sector we currently have an average 50% donor retention rate. That means each year half of our first time donors never give again.

It costs twice as much to acquire a new donor as it does to keep an existing donor.

We could improve this sad retention rate if we tried.

Sure, we can buy software to remind us to reach out to our best donors. That’s obvious and we should invest in that.

But what about the hidden underlying reasons you’re not keeping your donors?

Is there something other than tracking donors that we’re not doing?

Um yes there is, and it’s called culture.

Do you mean a culture of philanthropy?

Well, that but not ONLY that.

Do you mean a culture of inclusion and equity?

Indeed my dude, but not ONLY that either.

Let me break it down for you again – you know I only say it cause I’m truly genuine!” -Lauryn Hill

What lies beneath!

Our nonprofit culture is based on something called the 3 pillars of white supremacy. That means 1. Slavery/Capitalism, 2. Genocide/Colonialism and 3. Orientalism/War. Because of our history, we see a number of assumptions about leadership, who needs help, and how much people should get paid based on these unconscious structures.

How do the 3 pillars of white supremacy affect the culture inside our nonprofits?

1. We tend to operate under unhealthy top down, hierarchical structures that recreate the capitalism we are built on. That means that people feel stifled from innovating, unjustly punished for making the slightest mistakes, and actively discouraged from being leaders inside their organizations. We get literally no extra reward if we bring in $20K or $200K. It also creates a workaholic culture that does not allow for rest. We are often not managed, or given budgets, so we don’t know if what we’re doing is ever ENOUGH. This creates a constant anxiety about “doing enough” with a lack of mentality as a constant companion.

2. We tend to recreate racist, sexist, and classist concepts from white supremacy that makes us “other” the people we work with and refer to classic “under-served” communities. We have boards full of people from the dominant culture, and nobody represented from the communities that we serve on the leadership level. The end result of this is our nonprofits become tools of oppression to women and marginalized communities even as we say we work to dismantle an unjust system as our missions. Unconscious racism/sexism/classism and othering leads to:

3. Making us see people from marginalized communities as worth less than male people from the dominant culture. A host of unconscious bias and micro aggressive behaviors don’t get addressed because we value our own comfort over just about everything, which leads to:

4. Few POC or women at the head of large nonprofit organizations, and a great many POC making just above poverty level wages. So this devaluation goes under the heading of culture of philanthropy, as many of us do not have our own office, the title of VP of development even if that is what we are doing, or a salary that is competitive.

5. This leads to rapid turnover at our nonprofits as folks get tired of working for poverty wages with no way to pay off student loans, save for retirement, or even take care of basic needs. I was buying groceries on my credit cards when I worked full time at a small domestic violence nonprofit 10 years ago. And they are still trying to offer that hourly wage I was making 10 years ago today. But I digress. Rapid turnover leads to…

6. Nonprofits bleeding money. How does turnover make your nonprofit bleed money? Easy. Imagine the lost donor relationships when that person walks out the door. Vacation time you pay them. The down time with no staff person and how much is not getting done in that role until you fill it. Lost staff time interviewing and reviewing resumes. Lost staff time training a new person in fundraising processes, how to articulate your mission, and your learning your database. Cygnet Research Group’s Donor Centered Leadership book has calculated that it costs more than $55K to replace a staff person making $45K. And if you have turnover for 2-3 years running, it costs $200K and then $300K to keep replacing that fundraising staff person. The numbers I’ve cited here are only the tip of the iceberg. Read more on these numbers here.

You might say, OK Mazarine, so we’re built on white supremacy. Whaddaya want me to do?

Just deconstruct our entire sector before lunch?

Make a leadership that’s more flat with a bunch of VPs?

Aren’t all of those promoted people going to want to be PAID MORE?

All of this is going to help me keep my donors? REALLY?

And I’m not the only one saying this. Decolonizing our nonprofits is a real concept that Denechia Powell wrote about earlier this year in her article on Everyday Feminism. I loved this article so much that I had her speak at my Nonprofit Leadership Summit on some ways to start decolonizing our nonprofits.

Because we live on stolen land, because we have never made reparations to native people or African-Americans, because we actively resist dealing with tough conversations, we can never fully decolonize our nonprofits, or as it is sometimes known, The Nonprofit Industrial Complex.

But we can start the conversation about how to stop our turnover and truly live our missions by starting our search for equity, trust, and inclusion at home.

Do the right thing. Start looking at your donor retention problem as a staff retention problem. Then work to build real trust with your staff.

How? You don’t have to fumble in the dark with changing your culture.

Here are some POC doing nonprofit organizational equity training:

Sarai Johnson and I are also available to help you change your culture, and lead in love.

Check out this webinar I taught for Bloomerang earlier this year. We have real ways you can start to increase equity at your nonprofit.

Download the Nonprofit Sustainability Field Manual!

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  • Mazarine Treyz

    hi Simone! Thanks so much for writing. I got an email from Tom as well, he liked the article too. I got other emails from people saying they liked the article, but not commenting. Wonder why? Well, maybe people are afraid of being this open about the privilege they see. Even when I worked full time at the Urban League for 18 months we didn't talk about this, and we were an org founded to help African-Americans against systemic racism. If we aren't having these conversations in social justice orgs, where does that leave us in the larger sector? If you've ever watched Insecure with issa Rae, she has a job at a nonprofit called "We Got Y'All" and it's supposedly to help African-Americans and Latinx people, but she's the only black person working there. this comes from Issa Rae's lived experience, and she's not alone- as Zahra Ali eloquently writes on Medium. People are confronting this on TV, people! We pride ourselves on being a bastion of doing good in the world. How can we say that when we face so many stark glaring inequities, in everything from our hiring practices, to how we promote people, to who gets to be on the board? We are facing a crisis, a big one, at our nonprofits, if our employees do not reflect the larger community. And by 2030, the white dominant culture will be the ethnic minority. So. Do we become irrelevant and even more ineffectual and hypocritical? Or do we stand up and say, "I'm mad as hell, and we need to examine our culture, and make serious policy change?" Who's with me?
  • Simone Joyaux

    Yes. Marvelous. Thank you, Mazarine. We have to blog and talk and confront this. We keep saying we have to... But we don't so much. White supremacy. I'm a white, heterosexual, well-educated, affluent woman. My disdavantage is being a woman. Because that's a disddvantage in every country in the world and in every state in the US of A. But being white (unearned privilege) and hetero (unearned privilege) and well-educated (thanks mom and dad), and affluent (sure I work hard; but part of my success is that white hetero unearned privilege). BIRTH PRIVILEGE. How many of us have read Ta-Nehisi Coates beautiful deeply sad honest truthful stunning book: Between the World and Me. As Toni Morrison says on the cover, "This is required reading." Supremacy. White. Heterosexual. Male. And.... Please let's keep talking and confronting. Yes. CONFRONTING. Because the non-confrontationl strategy we've used since the beginning of time... Doesn't produce the needed change.
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