“Donor Fatigue” an Excuse for Poor Fundraising Practices

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In a previous column, I discussed a fundraising theater production, a marvelous extravaganza on the final day of the 2012 Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Toronto Congress. As part of the production, we worked our way through the alphabet. I previously wrote about my role in the “L=Love” segment, but I also participated in “F=Fatigue.” Along with my two fellow presenters, I was wheeled on stage, sitting on a sofa, sipping coffee. All of us were so very grumpy! We complained about the nonsensical topic of “donor fatigue.” We all agreed that there is no such thing.

Here’s what I think about donor fatigue. I think it is an excuse that fundraisers and bosses and boards use to compensate for poor fundraising. And it’s a cheap excuse! I think lousy fundraising and poorly informed fundraisers make donors frustrated, angry, and fatigued by that particular organization.

For instance, as a donor, too often I feel “unknown” by organizations. I’m grumpy when I get a letter addressed to Simon Joyaux. “Simon” is the male version of the name “Simone.” My name is Simone. I’m a grumpy donor when I receive materials that are of no interest to me. If I’m your donor, you should have some sense of what interests me. During the 2012 U.S. election campaign, I received solicitations from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Anyone who knows me, has ever heard me speak, visits my website, etc., has a sense of my politics, both social and electoral. Me? Give to Romney? I ask myself, what’s the quality of the database these people are using? What kind of research did they do? Pay attention to me. Please.

Another problem is that fundraisers and organizations produce donor fatigue by operating as “fact deniers.” For more on that, read my column on opinion versus expertise. I’m so tired of competent fundraisers having to fight their bosses and boards. How sad that the fundraisers who read the research and learn the body of knowledge have to waste so much time trying to convince their bosses and boards. (Yes, of course, fundraisers have to explain their thinking beyond some fundraising facts. But too many boards and bosses think fundraising is all about opinions!)

I’m also tired of fundraisers who don’t know their craft and don’t follow the body of knowledge. All of this makes donors (or prospective donors) very tired. Often, donors and prospects don’t know what’s wrong or why they’re dissatisfied with the organization. These donors and prospects try to read your stuff – even when it violates all the standards of good journalistic writing and readability. But keep in mind that, eventually, donors and prospects don’t bother paying attention to troubled organizations. These donors and prospects are just too fatigued because of the organization.

Sometimes, I’m a very fatigued donor. But that’s not because so many organizations ask me for a gift. If I love you – and you do your fundraising well, according to the body of knowledge – you can ask me for gifts multiple times each year. If I love you, I might not give every time. But I’m not fatigued by your requests. I just won’t give each time. (But maybe I will, or some donors might. So keep asking.)

It’s not the asking that fatigues me. I’m tired of insufficient love from you. You don’t tell me how you spent my money. You don’t tell me that I’m a hero, even if my gift was only $25. I’m not looking for stunning creative. Stop it! I want good old-fashioned well-written fundraising letters. And, by now, you’d best know how I feel about social media!

I suspect I’m being pretty darn clear in this column. The concept of “donor fatigue” is not caused by so many solicitations from great nonprofits. The fatigue comes from bad fundraising. Do good fundraising and good relationship building instead. Your donors will love you and stick around. Your qualified prospects (not your fantasy list) will be intrigued and they will give.

  • Prentice Zinn

    Donor fatigue is as real as rain.

    But you are spot-on to chalk up most of donor fatigue as one big fat excuse for lame fundraising.

    I see it every day. I work with many of those fatigued donors on foundation boards.

    They get exasperated, irritated, and bored with the lackluster, perfunctory, and unenthusiastic stewardship out there from many nonprofits. There is not a lot of empathy going around a foundation board room table.

    But donors do change and “donor fatigue” is not a myth.

    I used to love the carne adovada at Lupitas, for example, and would eat there often, but I don’t so much anymore. The food is still excellent, but I’m jonesin’ for the chile rellenos at La Frontera.

    (Sorry Lupita. Its not you, its me.)

    It is also fair game to point a fat salsa covered finger at the donors.

    What nonprofit does not know that Bright and Shiny Syndrome (BSS) is diagnosable disorder among foundations?

    What nonprofit has not experienced the scourge of Foundation Attention Deficit Syndrome (FADS).

    I’ve seen many a-project lose funding in a flash. Not because the stewardship, communications, or the work was markedly different from the past several years, but because the donors just wanted to move on to some chile rellenos across the way.

    Projects also have life-cycles in the psychology of donors. Funder collaboratives are a great example of how energy and enthusiasm can fizzle like the carbonation in a warm Corona over time. We all know how they can hit fundraising plateaus. Watch how the funder/leaders start sneaking out the door to catalyze, pivot, and have collective impact or whatever they do somewhere else.

    So, is donor fatigue real or mostly an excuse? I’d love to hear some examples making the case either way.

    Thanks for hitting hard on an important issue!

  • Mark Hindle

    Thank you, Simone.
    Now, if only those same panel members would be as frank when speaking with BOards and CEO’s as they are when speaking to the fundraisers fighting the good fight.

  • Elaine Fogel

    SimonE… you make several excellent points. One thing I’d like to add to this topic has to do with nonprofits’paradigms. I’ve known of several good fundraisers who were hired by organizations with decent intentions but no budget. No matter how talented a fundraiser can be, s/he cannot work in a vacuum. Just like a carpenter… you can’t build a home without the proper tools.

  • Beth Ann Locke

    Spot on! As fundraisers we need to be present with our donors and seek to engage them where they are. The only way to do that is to understand them. That is relationship building. Thanks for another great article and reminder.

  • Wendy Helmkamp

    What do you think about Crowdtilt? It seems crazy to ignore social media or internet channels as a way to reach out to donors, if that is a preferred way of engaging with them. My sense is that there is no longer a one size fits all approach to how donors want to be engaged to prevent fatigue, but it is important to know who your donors are to determine this, and that is where relationship building comes in.

  • Aaron Sanderson

    Dear Simone,
    As always, you’ve nailed it. When we start to blame donor (being ‘fatigued’ –who likes to hear they look tired?!), we know its time to take a closer look at our practice. Sometimes I’m fatigued–of having conversations with fundraisers that have given up on their donors, which is essentially what we do when we call donors fatigued.
    Donors need to hear it from us; we won’t give up on you, because you don’t give up on our cause.

  • Tom Benjamin

    The excuses of donor fatigue coupled with greater competition are the best myths promulgated by the unskilled less seasoned “professional fundraisers” I hope they keep these myths alive so those that really do know the profession can continue being successful. These myths help to make my job easier.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thanks all for these comments. Here’s a question for you: How about having this conversation within your organization? With the development staff. With your fund development committee. Let’s ask them (the donors) how they feel? Are they tired? Or, what are they tired of or about?

    I don’t believe in competition for donors…Because, to me, that sounds like all donors are interested in the same things. Or that all donors can be convinced of the importance of your charity or mine … and will be smart enough to give.
    I don’t believe in donor fatigue…Because there are many loyal donors and many loyal customers in life.

    I think we invent issues or barriers to try to figure out what isn’t working. But mostly we don’t understand why something isn’t working. And we don’t quite own enough our role…the role of the organization and the fundraiser.

    Yes, indeed, donors change their minds, lose interest. Sometimes it’s because we aren’t doing fundraising well. Sometimes it’s because people change their interests.

    I love some of your phrases, Prentice: Lame fundraising. Bright and Shiny Syndrome. Foundation Attention Deficit Syndrome. I do, however, think that foundations are different than individual donors. Foundations often have a policy that they don’t give over and over. So let’s focus on individuals.

    Development officers need to get smarter about where they go work. See the UnderDeveloped Report released by CompassPoint in January 2013: Development officers that don’t know the body of knowledge. CEOs that don’t do what their competent fundraisers tell them to do. And boards and board members who don’t know what is going on and aren’t even participating. Get really good at interviewing the people who are interviewing you. Don’t take a job with an organization that doesn’t have a culture of philanthropy and fundraising performance expectations for board members…unless the organization agrees to work on these with you. And the organization commits to change.

    Thank you, Aaron, for your comment about “are we giving up on our donors?” when we refer to them as “fatigued.” As you say, it is as if we are giving up on our donors. What sadness. What an insult to them.

  • Kevin Baughen

    Donor fatigue is real, I agree. Bad fundraising doesn’t help, I also agree.

    But looking at all the comments above I have just one question to add? How do charities attract new donors in the first place?

    Building relationships with existing donors is an excellent strategy. Learning more about them as your relationships evolves is also excellent… but we have to start with the prospecting activity somewhere. And by definition, just like in real life, we don’t know as much about people we’ve just met as we do about our friends.

    Just a thought.

  • Susie Bowie

    Fabulous commentary. We just published a blog post sharing this perspective with the nonprofits that participated in our recent 36-Hour Giving Challenge. What timely advice for a crew that needs to be reminded of the “hero factor!” http://thegivingpartner.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/fatigued-donors-or-heroes-for-your-cause-its-up-to-you/