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In Search of #DonorLove: Finding power and changing culture

In 2017 my husband and I got married. We also made more gifts to charity than either of us ever have. It was a good year.

For our wedding, instead of giving gifts to guests we played a game and surveyed everyone about where we should donate on their behalf. We also encouraged gifts to charity instead of gifts to us. Many guests made donations. One generous person said he made a $500 donation to one of my clients. WOW!

We also intentionally became more philanthropic by using our entertainment money to go to local charity events. We attended gala’s, stand up comedy nights, dancing with the stars, and every local small theatre production in town. If it sounded fun, we were there! Attending charity events is a great way to mix up date night!

On the day I received a phone call from an agency asking if I would increase my monthly donation to my professional association. I said: “Yes! Double it.”

All gifts were first time donations and over $250 in value, split across multiple sectors. We estimate the total value of our philanthropic activities last year to be about $9,000. That is pretty good. Especially for two self employed people with a blended family and eight kids ages 10 – 22. (Yes we have busy, complicated AND expensive lives!)

As a result of all this activity in the last quarter of the year, I had high hopes for the New Year. I was looking forward to seeing which organization would try to earn a second gift. Which organization did I want to get more involved with? I even have two local charities in my mind for potential board involvement. So far, things are not looking good.

Where is the #donorlove?

Like other fundraising folks, my Twitter, Facebook and email are full of great advice and tactics from awesome and enthusiastic consultants about how to love your donors. This is not rocket science: Sincerely thank the donor in a timely way, make them the hero, keep them engaged, surprised and delighted and you will build loyalty. You will also raise more money for your cause. We read about this on a daily basis.

Sadly, my personal experience as a first time donor with seven organizations indicates that charities are doing a rubbish job translating this knowledge into action. Here is what actually happened to us:

  1. Only two charities asked for a second gift, but the solicitations were late, benign and I didn’t really feel that special. I kept the appeals but didn’t donate.

  2. Four charities waited FOUR months to communicate. They sent the tax receipt attached to a form thank you letter.

  3. Two charities didn’t notice that we were in fact significant first time donors AND that we attended their events. I was really hoping to get a lot more involved with either of them. Seriously, get to know anyone whose FIRST gift is $250!

  4. When I doubled my monthly gift to my professional association I was told I would get an email confirming my intentions. I didn’t. They just started taking the money and it was at least four months before a thank you letter came. In addition, my membership had also lapsed for that organization so while I was doubling my philanthropic support, I was NOT RECEIVING ANY email updates of any kind. I intend to leave this charity in my will….but I’m doing all the work to make that happen. (Sigh)

  5. All charities neglected to advise us of gifts made on our behalf as a result of our wedding. Trust me a lot of guests donated to charities!

  6. Not one of the charities followed up after we attended their events. We were brand new to them, local and spent money at the auctions. They don’t know our giving capacity – they should find out! Our philanthropic journey is just starting.

Overall, I have to say that five months later, my 2017 donor experience has been extremely unsatisfying. We are simply not feeling the love. As a fundraising professional I couldn’t help to question why our charity relationships are so lack lustre. I began to think that as consultants who talk about #donorlove, we clearly aren’t doing a very job translating it to action.

It’s About Translation

So how could our community be talking so much about #donorlove and be failing so miserably at implementation? Don’t we know better? Yes – we do! There are literally mountains of research to support the need to change our stewardship practices. And yet it is not happening.

Over the past ten years any research into our sector out of Indiana University, Plymouth University or Cygus Applied Research and many others, point to donor stewardship or #donorlove as being transformative for the donor experience AND ultimately revenue. If this is what the research is telling us, why are we having such a hard time implementing it?

After a great deal of thought I have come to the conclusion that it is challenging for fundraisers to translate all this knowledge into action because of the culture in which they work and their lack of power.

I’m not talking about literal language translation. I’m talking about scientific translation. In the scientific community translation is the conduct of applying basic science research to human subjects and moving that knowledge into clinical testing. In other words, we take what we know to be true, ask ourselves how can we do that in our organization and then test it with our donors.

I believe we need to start looking further upstream beyond tactics. More often than not the culture in an organization does not support a positive shift in fundraising activities. Before we can implement new tactics and truly love our donors, we need to tackle changing the culture.

Furthermore, and very sadly, fundraisers are often powerless to make these changes on their own. This is often due to a gross misunderstanding of what it takes to raise money in charities. So, the root of the problem stems with power and culture.

A Hopeful Case Study

Having said all that, one charity ROCKED our donor experience. Not surprisingly it was Ontario Nature who made us feel like HEROs. We got a phone call, a signed (from all staff) card congratulating us on our wedding, we were automatically signed up for their magazine, received a timely tax receipt and occasional updates of donor stories from their director of development. YAY!

Ontario Nature did not wake up and make this shift overnight. I know because I was the Director Development there from 2009 – 2013 and also worked again with them as a consultant in the 2016/17. Ontario Nature has been working toward systemic shift to #donorlove for close to ten years under the leadership of ONE Executive Director, who passionately believes it is the right thing to do.

Here are a few things they had to do to achieve a philanthropic donor centred culture and start raising a lot more money for their mission:

  1. Have a supportive Executive Director who understood the need to change.

  2. Invest in development staff morale and education.

  3. Help program staff understand their role in fundraising and help them take action.

  4. Get the board onside and involved in building a philanthropic culture.

  5. Break down silos between communications and fundraising.

  6. Get the right staff on the train.

  7. Take risks and go off brand sometimes.

  8. Change the membership program so that donor and “members” are one in the same. Donors ARE members. Members ARE donors.

WOW! That is a mountain of work! So it takes time. It was at least four years before Ontario Nature started seeing results. AND it is a fluid process that requires continued work and training. But it works. Not just because they made us feel special but also because they are actually raising a lot more money for their cause. They have seen extraordinary financial results in all channels and I’m seeing it work for other organizations now too.

So how can you influence this kind of culture shift in your organization?

One thing I have learned first hand is that hitting colleagues over the head doesn’t work. Neither does being self righteous, demanding or unapproachable. Trust me, I’ve done it all with minimal, sometimes damaging results.

In order to get your entire organization onside with changing a culture it works to try this:

  1. Be curious and inquire for understanding.

  2. Provide tools and education.

  3. Reinforce positive changes.

  4. Provide affirmation that the team is moving in a positive direction.

  5. Lead with humility

If you would like to talk about your organization and your barriers I’d be happy to chat. Just book some time with me and I'd be happy to give you a half an our free coaching session.

The truth is, except for one, we haven’t actually had ANY donor experience. Crickets! So if you work at one of the charities we donated to last year…. we are still here…. waiting to engage.

Share the love:)

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