Why This Donor Opted Out: A Cautionary Tale

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Opt Out

“You never know what that last straw will be. You never know what’s finally going to say, loud and clear, ‘With this behavior towards me, these people are not worth a gift.’ You unfriend them. You unsubscribe. You never again give to them or recommend them to others. You edit them from your personal story.”

This is the beginning of Tom Ahern’s blog post, “‘Dear Numbskull Robot….’ My Name’s Tom, not Thomas: How MoveOn.org stupidly and avoidably lost me as a donor.”

I’ve been relating to it a lot recently.

Today’s post is going to be a little longer than most, but stick with me—there’s an important lesson in here for all of us.

I am heartsick to report to say that this week, I am seriously considering withdrawing my financial support from my beloved undergraduate alma mater, Colgate University.

This was no easy decision. In fact, I have been on the fence for months, agonizing about whether or not to break up with them.

Because, you see, I love Colgate. I had a (mostly) fantastic undergraduate experience. I loved my classes. I played soccer with wild abandon. I was involved in a bazillion clubs and had a wonderful group of friends. I embedded myself in the life of the university. In fact, I am still friends with four of my professors!

Now, you would think for a rabid alumna like me, Colgate would be among my top philanthropic priorities. And they are. But they only get 1/10th of what Boston University School of Social Work, my graduate alma mater, is getting out of me financially, and about 1/1,000,000th of what BUSSW is getting out of me in terms of my time and talent.

Why is that?

My donor experience with Colgate hasn’t been all that great. For years after my graduation in 1987, I diligently donated $25 a year. Colgate didn’t ask me to increase my donation to $50 until our 10th reunion. If they’d asked sooner, I would have gladly given more. And while my annual gift has since doubled, it certainly isn’t reflective of my giving capacity.


Because quite frankly, Colgate has been a sloppy suitor.

I get solicited by the soccer team. I spent most of my life, from age 5 to 45, playing soccer. I was obsessed! But I am not obsessed with the Colgate women’s soccer team. My complete lack of response to every last one of their solicitations hasn’t stopped them from hitting me up, year after year. Um, Coach Whoever-You-Are? It’s getting tiresome.

I also get solicited by my class gift chairs as part of the annual fund. Every university needs operating funds, and I am happy to support a university that I love. Well, I was happy to support them…until I started getting an impersonal, two-line thank-you email instead of a thank-you card.

Apparently, I am one of only two percent of Colgate alumni who have given consistently since graduation. With graduating classes of about 600 students each year, two percent is a pretty small pool of donors. You’d think they’d zero in on this group, get to know us a little better, do a little investigating, cultivating. But no!

For a few years in a row, I’ve received a note with a sticker in it notifying me that I am a member of the Acorn Society, which is apparently a giving society for people who have made a gift at least three years in a row. I’m not really sure what that means, or why it’s special, or what I’m supposed to do with the stupid sticker they send each year. There aren’t any additional communications, events, or benefits for Acorn Society members, so the whole thing comes off as random and arbitrary.

Beyond this, I am a member of the Willow Society, a small (perhaps even tiny) group of alumni that have let the university know we have made provisions for a gift to Colgate in our will. Again, a small group of donors who have raised our hands and said, “Um, I’m pretty serious about you and would like to go steady,” yet we remain ignored.

The fact that Colgate has missed hundreds of cues that I am a donor who’s ready to go the distance for them has left me wondering if anyone’s paying attention. Intentional or not, it’s sent the message that I—and my gifts—don’t really matter. That’s left a really bad taste in my mouth. At the end of the day, if my gifts don’t matter, then why should I keep giving?

Still, I’ve continued to give—despite what the university is doing, not because of it.

Conversely, BU School of Social Work has gotten to know me, gotten me involved in a variety of meaningful activities, solicited my advice, tapped my time and talent. As with Colgate, I’ve been giving every year since I graduated. Only BUSSW has consistently asked me to increase my giving. Beyond what I ever thought I could “afford.” But you know what? I’ve been happy to go out to dinner a little less frequently so I can support a prize fund for graduating students who want to go out into the world and make it a better place. You can see why BUSSW is getting ten times the money out of me that Colgate is!

I received word from a fellow alum that a major protest was going on at Colgate over racial injustice and lack of diversity. More than 400 students took over the administration building, holding a sit-in that started on Monday, September 22nd and lasted five days in response to racist remarks posted on social media by some students and a denigrating comment made by a professor about students of color—sent via email to a student!

While racism, sexism, homophobia, and elitism are nothing new at Colgate (the campus has always been overwhelmingly white and privileged), what made me consider opting out as a donor is the fact that in our diversified, multicultural world, this is still going on, 27 years after I graduated.

As part of the protest, students posted videos about their experiences in and out of the classroom. It was heartbreaking and infuriating to witness the outrageous and disrespectful ways they have been treated by their professors, classmates, and other students. I cannot believe this is going on in 2014 at an institution of higher learning.

Is something about the culture of Colgate that fosters sexism, racism, classism and homophobia? And if there is, what is the University willing to do about it as an institution?

Although the students and administration came to an understanding and the protest is over, still, I am waiting. And watching. I am teetering on the brink, standing on the thinnest of ice, just about ready to call it a day with Colgate. Whether or not I will continue to donate depends largely on the administration’s willingness to put its money where its mouth is, to take bold steps to examine the ways in which the school, as an institution, may be contributing to an environment in which not all students feel welcome. I hope that Colgate rises to the occasion, shows up as its best self, and does the work it needs to do in order to make the campus a more welcoming place for all students. However, until I see some action, I will continue to withhold my financial support.

So, what does this have to do with you?

Are your donors having an experience like the one I’m having with Colgate, or like the one I’m having with BU School of Social Work? And how many of your donors might be standing on the brink, waiting for and watching your next move?

Remember: it’s far easier (and cheaper) to retain an existing donor than to find a new one. Yet with role compression being what it is and development staff operating under more and more pressure to raise more money, we often take short cuts or do what’s expedient in the rush to get to the next dollar. However, without proper acknowledgement, cultivation and stewardship, that next dollar might just be the last that donor ever gives you.


  • Norman Todd

    I have stopped giving to organizations that arbitrarily made me a “member” instead of a donor. Then they send me a bill every so often to “renew” my “membership,” which is a cheap, sloppy and ineffective way of asking me to donate again to their organization. Instead of telling me what impact my last donation had; instead of telling me what good I can do in the world by donating now; instead of telling me what they’re doing and what more they could do, if only I would give… they take the lazy way out and bill me for a “membership.” I don’t buy “memberships,” I donate to worthwhile organizations that use my money wisely to make a difference in the world. If you want to be a bill collector, then do that and stop pretending to be in development… I gave to one nature conservation organization for 26 years (!!!) until I finally had enough of this minimalist, “membership renewal” stuff. And then they called me, reminded me that I had been a member for 26 years (!!!!!) and hadn’t renewed this year, so they were calling to let me take care of that… Hello, anybody home there in that nature conservation organization?

  • Sarah

    As a BU alum myself, I say thank you. I’m glad to hear they are cultivating and stewarding donors properly – and that it is paying off!

  • Mary Blain

    This is great stuff, Sarah, but the one thing I do not see mentioned is that you are going to also send this message to Colgate.
    I hope you do.. give them a chance to improve. There may be powers at work that are prohibiting their Development Dept. from becoming effective communicators to their donors.
    Thank you!

  • Sue

    Is this for real? I take issue with many of your points. First, if you only give when asked, you are giving out of the wrong attitude. Perhaps, maybe, instead of waiting to be donor worshiped you can just write a check for extra one year? Also as a fundraising professional who has spent some time in academia, $50 is lowball. There are alumns who give millions, so even though each donation is important – you need a relatity check. It probably cost more money for the university to get your $50. Also, if you are upset with a university policy it is fine to withhold your donation. Recognize though that all the things you listed: sexism, racism, etc is a construct of our current society. To expect one small college to change an entire societal paradigm for your continued $50 is a tall order (and a bit grandiose honestly).

  • Sarah Lange

    Mary – thanks! I actually got a call from Colgate today (Monday, 10/6) which hopefully marks the beginning of a productive dialogue & improvements on their part! 🙂

  • Leigh Kessler, CharityEngine.net

    Both your blog and these comments are really insightful. Thanks for sharing and providing this dialogue.

    One of the issues you highlight is a lack of unified awareness of your participation across so many areas of Colgate.This is a problem area for lots of nonprofits and so much of it can be attributed to one thing – using too many disparate technology solutions for fundraising and communications.

    The reason is, that causes too many databases. And too many databases silo data so you don’t get a 360/365 view people in our donor universe. Each Database sees the individual separately, so there is no cohesiveness in outreach and targeting.

    Failure to sync the data manually (let alone properly) and broken Importomatic automating tools between databases keep the silos up, and instead of being recognized as a single, valuable and versatile member of the institution, you become five people with no connection. The data doesn’t know how to value you so you end up feeling un-valued.

    It’s why we preach the best practice of single CRM fundraising technology.You eliminate this risk which is pretty significant.

  • Amy

    There is no excuse for Colgate’s lackluster performance as solicitors, given that I have to assume the college doesn’t lack the means and personnel necessary to follow up with its donors. Naturally, most people need to be encouraged to open their wallets if self-gratification isn’t the result or if the repo man isn’t the threat. However, I’m dismayed by the number of donors who seem to abandon organizations merely because their egos aren’t being stroked. Isn’t the point of philanthropy ideally supposed to be that supporters wish to help a worthy cause — period? And it’s arguable that the groups most in need are the ones who have the fewest staffers or volunteers, meaning that thank-you notes can be delayed or even overlooked. The reason so many charitable organizations have resorted to sending impersonal email thank-you notes is not only that the method saves on postage, but also saves time. I would urge donors to research and, when possible, visit organizations to judge whether the work they do is impressive; if it is, that consideration should trump slick solicitations. The author of this post reveals that she isn’t happy with the behavior of her alma mater’s administration, but that seems only to prolong her hesitation about donating, not to provide the sole reason for her doubts. I agree that the Acorn and Willow societies have not been up to snuff, but if the author were thrilled with Colgate’s performance, would she still allow the school’s subpar fundraising campaigns to keep her from donating? If so, that would, in my opinion, beg the question of what her motivation really is. From a strictly business standpoint, though, there’s no question that the author’s point stands: woo donors obsequiously, or risk losing them, no matter how noble your cause.

  • Nicole

    Does it make me a tiny minority that I don’t care at all if I ever get a thank you email, letter or phone call when I make a donation? In fact, except for a basic confirmation that my gift has been received, I really prefer to be left alone. Organizations that won’t stop emailing, writing and calling me after my gifts are the ones that do NOT get further donations from me.

  • Sarah C

    I actually posted this to their facebook page asking someone to call this woman! lol.

  • PWD

    Sue, your points are extreme. Many donors don’t have giving to alma mater necessarily in the forefront of their minds at all times, the way alumni volunteers and the annual giving staff do. Sometimes, just the reminder is enough for people to write the check: that doesn’t mean “donor worship.” Characterizing a donation as “lowball” is just plain impolite, because any gift, regardless of size, is an indication of engagement, which is why participation rates (which do not factor in amount) have always been considered so important. Making a donation is entirely voluntary, so it’s not really correct to characterize withholding of a donation as “fine” – but in the case of a regular donor (by that I mean one who has given regularly over a period of years) it is important for the donor to convey to the institution exactly why they are not giving. About your claim that giving $50 on the expectation of changing “an entire societal paradigm” is just snide: an institution taking small steps to initiate a change in viewpoint can lead to larger things. No one is under an obligation to donate, and alumni gifts matter very much to the bottom line, so much so that they are an important budget line item. The hard sell that your comment reveals wouldn’t go over very well at private higher education institutions.

  • Keith Kerber

    I have given a nominal gift to my rather impersonal alma matre, UCLA, probably for more than 15 consecutive years. Just a few days ago I opened the annual fund letter that addressed me and my wife (I appreciate that they spell her name correclty) and it began with this sentence in bold: “Thank you for your annual gift to UCLA through the UCLA Fund. We look forward to your renewed support this year.” Can you guess where they lost me? No acknowledgement of xx years of continuous giving, no “can we count on you again” just an assumption that I will renew my support.

    And then what I think is an odd PS, This year, I will give $1 to UCLA for every new “like” on our Facebook page at facebook.com/uclafund. GO BRUINS!” (letter signed by chair of the UCLA Fund).


  • Keith Kerber

    Yes, I’d say that attitude puts you in the minority.