I cried for the donor

October 17, 2013

Disclaimer: The following is a true story and is intended for mature audiences only. This writing contains strong language and graphic scenes of lack of regard for donor rights. Those who are faint of heart should refrain from reading further. You have been warned.

Have you been there? Stuck in a place of low morale and dysfunction?

Years ago I had the misfortune to work as a development professional for a charity with an internal culture of sickness. If I were to mention them by name, you would be surprised by the tale I’m about to relate, for they are a beloved institution.

Let’s just refer to them as an organization serving young people.

Upon walking into their headquarters, the bad morale was so thick that you could cut it with a knife. Eyes were downcast, suggestions were quashed, and five o’clock saw everyone rushing for the doors.

Astonishingly enough, despite their many issues, the changes in leadership, the utterly shabby treatment of donors, and the loss in revenues, this organization still retained a surprising base of loyal donors. These loyal donors, who made yearly gifts of $25, $100, and $500 every year without fail for five, 10, 15, even 30 years, remained loyal to the organization primarily because their daughters and granddaughters had benefited from this organization’s marvelous volunteer base.

This particular arm of the organization treated their volunteers like dirt.

The Philadelphia-based national consulting firm the organization hired put all their focus on “major” donors. The vast majority of our major gifts were recent — and brought in by the CEO, a woman of considerable charm when speaking to the “right” people. When I expressed my concerns about the fact that the stewardship of their loyal donors was nonexistent, the consultant in charge told me that, in their experience, “Donors are lucky to get a postcard.”

“Donors are lucky to get a postcard.”

My jaw dropped.

And don’t even get me started on the silos. Or the two databases that never spoke to each other.

One day a gift arrived in the mail. The shaky handwriting alerted me that this was an elderly woman. And inside the envelope I found a small donation. The note included directed the gift towards a memorial program honoring her daughter. I set out to ensure that our donor’s gift was designated as intended. Only to learn that there was no record whatsoever of any such memorial program. Following days of research, I learned that this donor’s daughter had passed away at one of our facilities years earlier. A plaque honoring the young woman was placed on a camp cabins, and a scholarship was established in her name. Every year her mother made a donation to the scholarship fund.

Amidst all the organizational changes over the years, the plaque had disappeared. And the scholarship long forgotten.

I cried for the mother.

I cry for you. Every week, I receive calls and emails from my readers – many who are in-the-trenches fundraisers, trying to do right by their donors. They know the abysmal statistics on donor retention, they know donor service is critical to their organization’s long-term success. But creating lasting change, a culture of where every donor is acknowledged and appreciated cannot be done alone. It starts from the top down.

So what can you do if you’re mired in a dysfunctional relationship?

  1. How do you handle a CEO who says he wants to hand-sign thank you letters…but then lets them waste away on his desk because he’s too busy and three weeks later, he instructs you to re-date and reprint them?  Sign ‘em and send them out yourself!  In lieu of that, pick up the phone and call those donors while they await a printed thank you.  Send them emails and drop them handwritten notes.
  2. Empower your board and leadership by regularly sending along resources like those you’ll find at the end of this post.
  3. Here’s a tip via Kerri Karvetski shared in a Simple Development Systems webinar:  give two (or more) of your friends $10 and ask them to donate online.  Ask them to be brutally honest in their feedback.
  4. The Agitator editors had some suggestions in their post, Antibodies View Retention As Disruption.  One of my favorites:  So, come next week’s staff meeting, raise your hand and volunteer to take charge of the first three or even five donor communications that follow a new gift, explaining that you want to ensure the messages are consistent with each other.

What can you do as an organization?  In her book, Donor Centered Leadership, Penelope Burk notes “the best antidote to a dysfunctional  Development workplace is a Donor-Centered Fundraising Strategy — a plan for raising money that refocuses everyone’s attention on reaching ambitious, yet achievable goals, coupled with management training.”  Everyone in your organization needs to understand that to be a successful, healthy, vibrant nonprofit, they must be as committed to funding their mission as they are to their mission.  Commit to building a an organization that acknowledges the gifts that every donor, from the first-time $10 donor, to the $100,000 major donor. Consider enrolling your organization in a comprehensive training program, such as Simple Development Systems, one that brings everyone from EDs to DDs to volunteers to program staff to board members together,  sharing stories, interacting with donors and sharing what they (the donors) are making possible.

What are you doing to combat a dysfunctional workplace?  Keep doing it — and remember to pat yourself on the back once in awhile.  I salute you.

PS: The major donors brought in by the CEO? Two years later, when the CEO was fired by the board, the major donors went with her.

Additional resources:

Creating a Culture of Philanthropy | Cara’s Motivations
How is your organization creating a culture of philanthropy?  One organization’s story
9 Ways to build a culture of philanthropy
Simple Development Systems  Online training and coaching for small nonprofit organizations
The Donor Retention Project

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