Resilient Fundraising: Show Donors the Love

Mother Nature just ripped our shorts off. We are exposed, bigtime. She took us to a place we were already going, but much, much faster. We were not prepared for the journey, and we had been ignoring the destination off on the horizon for a long time.

In short, our participants and donors have been telling us things we didn’t want to hear. But you can listen to their whispering voices on our quarterly reports.

Email deliveries, opens, click-throughs – all fell and kept falling. How did we react? We tried to get more people to open emails, to fix that KPI.

Participation fell off for many nonprofits. What did we do? Poured effort and money into acquisition, to fix that KPI.

Retention is terrible for darn near everything – peer-to-peer participants and donors alike. What did we do? Tried to bump that KPI any way we could.

That’s like taking a thermometer from your child’s mouth, reading 104 degrees, and dunking the thermometer in ice water to fix the problem. Fixing the KPI does not fix the problem. Not only did we fail to fix the problem, we didn’t even try to diagnose it.

The problem is that our donors and participants don’t love us enough. They don’t open our emails because they don’t love us. They don’t come back to our events because they don’t love us. They don’t donate again because they don’t love us.

They don’t love us because we don’t act like we love them. And when all hell broke loose in late February, everyone took care of the ones they love. Mother Nature exposed us and our dysfunctional relationships.

What to do? Genuinely love your constituent. And show it.

If I love someone, I go to where they are, instead of insisting they come to where I am.

If I love someone, I try to communicate with them in a way that is easy for them, not me.

If I love someone, I find out what they need. I give it to them if I’m able.

If I love someone, I talk to them like I love them.

If I love someone, I want the best for them.

But, you say, I must love my mission first. Let me modify an old adage:  From, “No money; no mission,” to, “No love; no money; no mission.” There’s no alternative if we want our organizations to thrive.

So, how do you put these amorphous and amorous ideas into action?

If I love someone, I go to where they are, instead of insisting they come to where I am.

With an industry average of 28% retention in the peer-to-peer space, we proved that the environments we were creating with our events were not terribly fulfilling. While event day itself perhaps was fulfilling, the entirety of the experience was not. We were leaning on event day to do all the work, when our audience told us they needed more. We were supplying that critical element of connection – community – on one day. That’s all the joy we’re going to give our people – one day’s worth. Meanwhile, other communities were forming in vastly different ways. In those communities, I can get joy from others all the time, the way someone who loves me would give me love all the time.

Something happened to me many years ago that should have impacted me more. My two sons, about 10 and 12 at the time, were gaming in our family room, just the two of them. As I walked through, my older son said, “Trey said to tell you ‘hey’.” Trey wasn’t in the room. I was amazed to learn that my son was with him online, in their community. I did not learn that day’s lesson. That same son spent four months training in India when he was fresh out of college. His relationships did not suffer. He maintained them through the variety of communities of which he is a part. He was removed from his physical environment, (just like he is now) but his relationships didn’t suffer at all.

Communities exist everywhere and are not time-bound by “event day.” The people with whom we want loving relationships are in them. We can go into those communities to woo them. Or, we can build one with similar attributes that satisfies our constituents, which shows them that we love them. Our partner, GoodUnited, helps us have relationships with constituents inside Facebook, in their community. Theirs is an example of where we are going.

If I love someone, I try to communicate to them in the way that is easy for them, not me.

We have ridden email to its death. Per Epsilon’s latest quarterly review of client activity,  email click rates in North America have failed to increase on a year-over-year basis for 18 consecutive quarters. For eighteen consecutive quarters, we spent our time figuring out how to improve click rates instead of asking, “Where are people communicating?”

Europe is several years ahead of us (by law via GDPR) in understanding and reacting to the fact that people do not want to give us their data. They have and are transitioning to diverse ways to interact, often inside the very communities referenced above.

My own two sons will only respond to my email if I text or go through Messenger or Discord to ask them to read my email. Enough. Sure, email is a part of the answer; but email is not the answer. And I get that this is hard. You must exist across multiple communications channels. You have internal stakeholders who lobby for one or another method, competing to keep their jobs and status. You can only afford so much. But we have defaulted to tradition and ignored the data – like 18 quarters of falling email opens and clicks.

If I love someone, I find out what they need. I give it to them.

What do donors and participants need? They need to feel empowered. They need to feel recognized. They need to feel part of something bigger than themselves, and not on just one day. These needs are well-documented by social psychologists as being fundamental to satisfaction. These things are what those we love desire. And yet we design events, communications, and volunteer infrastructure without considering their needs. We design around what we personally like, believe in, and want. We listen to our experience and habits instead of the whispers that come from the data every day. We ignore the ones we are supposed to love.

What I am describing is a lot of work. I am describing empowering people who donate money, who raise money, who solicit others for money, who write big checks and little checks, and sit on boards and committees. Your job is to create an environment to give them what they need. The job I am describing is not “event manager.” It is not “regional director of community engagement.” It is not “direct response director.” It is not “major gifts officer.” It is “lover.” Humans are difficult, and loving is hard. That is your job.

If I love someone, I talk to them like I love them.

“Your support of the work of the XYZ Association allows kids like Tom to have a meal every day.“

STOP IT! STOP! Say this –

“You feed Tom because you are caring and thoughtful. I love you.”

If I love someone, I want the best for them.

I have buried the lead. If you take this path, and truly behave in a loving way toward your constituent, you will increase revenue. In a Pre-COVID world, Dr. Jen Shang of the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy demonstrated this time and again. She proved that speaking to people in a way that reflects how they see themselves increases both their feeling of well-being and their attachment to the nonprofit. Repeatedly, she was able to double revenue this way.

We are resilient. We will find the way. Love is the answer.