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[ASK AN EXPERT] What Should A Donor Do When They Don't Feel Adequately Engaged?

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question come from a fundraiser and donor who wants advice on how to handle poor donor engagement: 

Dear Charity Clairity,

I’m a fundraiser, but also a donor. Sometimes wearing both hats is challenging. Because when a nonprofit doesn’t treat me as if I matter, as I carefully and consciously treat donors to my organization, I get a little peeved. I know maybe I should be “above” such a thing, but… I’m human. I like a little human connection and recognition of who I am; what I care about. Here’s the deal:  I’m a $5,000 donor at one particular organization with both a national and local footprint. That’s “major” for me. I started at $1,000, because I truly believe in their mission. They noticed then, and assigned me to a local “individual giving manager.” Lovely! She reached out to me at least quarterly, we had phone calls, Zoom calls, and even met in person for coffee. We talked about me joining their development committee; maybe even their board. I felt valued, and increased my giving incrementally. So far so good. But… when I hit $5,000, everything changed. I must have “aged” out of this individual’s portfolio. They assigned me to someone else, and this time it was on the national level. That individual sent me an email. Once. I can’t even remember their name, and have no idea who to reach out to now. This year they’ve sent me some expensive mailings, and a couple of appeals asking me via letter to renew my gift or consider increasing it to $7,500.

I don’t know what to do. I love the mission, but wonder if my gift really matters to them. Maybe my gift would make a larger impact elsewhere?

— Feeling like too much of a Prima Donna, but…

Dear Feeling like too much of a Prima Donna,

Don’t beat yourself up about feeling how you feel. It’s critical for fundraisers to understand how donors feel – because most of philanthropy is feelings-based. I know you understand, and practice, this philosophy. And I imagine your organization has a culture of philanthropy in which everyone comes from a place of love.

Alas, too many organizations lose sight of this culture. Especially when they’re busy and understaffed. Perhaps your handover from local to national had as much to do with changing workloads and staff turnover as anything else. However, for whatever reason, it doesn’t make you feel good.

You want to know they care. Both about your philanthropy, and about you. And for many donors, giving is a reflection of who they want to be. You want to be your best self, and live up to your potential. The gift you give to this organization will no doubt help them and those who rely on them. But will it help you fulfill your potential?

The Maimonides “Golden Ladder” of Giving says capacity giving (teach a person to fish), and anonymous (no credit needed) gifts, are the “highest,” but I’ve never really held to that. I believe all giving is important. And virtuous. Plus, the Maimonides Ladder ignores a lot of what we’ve learned in recent years about the psychology of giving

You, because you’re human, are driven to want to light up the pleasure center of your brain with “feel good” shots of dopamine. That doesn’t make you bad; it makes you human. And it’s human nature to want to be rewarded and valued. If this organization took you out for coffee again, maybe you would increase your gift. And that would be better for everyone. You, them, and their constituents.

If you want to feel validated in your perspective, and also do a better job building relationships with your donors, might I recommend Lisa Greer’s book, Philanthropy Revolution: How to Inspire Donors, Build Relationships and Make a Difference, which discusses charitable giving from a donor’s perspective. I asked her specifically about the question you raised:

“What you’re describing is a nonprofit version of the “bait and switch.” They don’t mean it to be awkward, but moving through the “donor pyramid,” as it’s been taught to a myriad of fundraisers, means that donors get a new “contact person” every time they get to a new “level” in their giving. I’ve had this happen to me, and I couldn’t figure out why it happened.  Did I offend the previous fundraiser? Did I do something wrong? Why in the world would an organization – one that lives or dies based on donor contributions – want to “kill” a relationship between a donor and a staff fundraiser? The reason that most NPOs do this is because they don’t see the fundraiser/donor interaction as a relationship, even though it’s a sense of relationship that keeps a donor giving year after year. Instead, they assume that donors want a more “senior” person to work with as they become more “attached” to the organization. That assumption, most of the time, is just plain wrong.”

– Lisa Greer, author, donor, coach, Philanthropy 451

It’s a fundraiser’s job to facilitate philanthropy by energizing their donors. If you’re not feeling energized, it’s okay to look elsewhere. 

Just make sure to continue putting in place strategies to energize the donors you work with! I’m a firm believer that the donor-nonprofit relationship is symbiotic. There’s nothing more important to building donor lifetime value, and charities attempting to cut corners will, sadly, pay the price.

Charity Clairity

P.S. If you can find someone to reach out to, you might let this charity know how you feel. I know another young donor/fundraiser who did exactly this after making his first $1,000 gift in memory of his mother who had recently passed. It was a lot for him, and deeply meaningful, yet he received only a one-time transactional receipt. Then, zip. With some trepidation, he decided to reach out. Thankfully, the organization stepped up to the plate, apologized, and more than made up for their failure by authentically engaging with this donor. Perhaps, for you too, it’s not too late. It can’t hurt and, if you still deeply believe in their mission, it may end up being a win/win.

Charity Clairity

Have a question for our Fundraising Coach?
Please submit your question here. Remember, there are no stupid questions! If you need an answer, it’s likely someone else does too. So help your colleagues by asking away. Please use a pseudonym, like “Feeling like too much of a Prima Donna” did, if you prefer to be anonymous.

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