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Nonprofits: Stop Trying To Train Your Donors


My older daughter Jessica starting sleeping through the night at six weeks old.

In retrospect, we probably facilitated that by letting her fuss and self-comfort herself back to sleep a few times.

Two years later, when a little sister came along, young Grace had the “advantage” of having a toddler in the next bed who I didn’t want to be awakened. And so Grace fell into a pattern, or maybe learned, that a ruckus at 1 AM was a good way to get a middle-of-the-night feeding and some one-on-one Dad time. For a year and a half.

Friends would tell me, “She’s got you trained.”

Over the years I’ve put a lot of energy into training donors, with similar results. I really wanted all of the donors in all the various nonprofits where I’ve worked to understand not only how their gifts were used; but also the difference between an unrestricted gift and a gift to a program or building fund; and ideally, even, an understanding of our solicitation calendar. Most of all, I wanted them to appreciate the benefits of our “gift clubs,” and loyally climb the steps from one to another!

In retrospect, I think most of us tend to put too much effort into coaxing donors to jump up a gift club scale … in an effort to meet a budget that was based on projected increases in the number of donors in each of our arbitrarily-set giving levels; and in an effort to make solicitations, acknowledgments, and recognition as neat and tidy as possible.

You may be better off adapting to your donor’s preferences than trying to fit them into yours. Hopefully, your donor database gives you the tools to start to ascertain those preferences.

With a couple of months to go before we start to plan our year-end appeals, its not too early to start thinking about this.

Some donors (particularly, it seems, those who use QuickBooks at home!) like to give once a year. If you know this or can see a pattern emerging, think about running a separate letter for these people. And maybe, consider making a specific ask for a 10% to 25% increase, rather than asking for them to jump from a $250 to $500 “gift club” if they’ve never made such an increase before.

Other donors seem to like taking advantage of the chance to give a smaller amount several times a year. With these donors it is absolutely worth taking a look at their year-to-date totals and see if they are approaching a magic number that moves them up on your donor list or on their “benefit package,” and to make a specific ask that brings their annual total to that level.

But by the same token, if you can see that this donor has given you $30 in February, May, July, and September — what is the likelihood that they’ll give you $130 in response to your year-end appeal just because YOU need ten more donors at the $250 level, and just because you’re asking in a letter? In this case, it might be better to thank them for their consistent support and ask that they simply continue with their wonderful generosity.

Of course, you want to be conscious of donor fatigue. That’s why well-established practices of a spring appeal and a year-end appeal have become such standards — supplemented by a regular regimen of newsletters and donor communications that also just happen to contain response vehicles.

You can try to train your donors to give you what you want them to, when you want them to. But you might be better off letting them train you.

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