Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during May/Jun 2005, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
I am sitting with the fundraising committee of a small organization that provides a variety of free services to elementary schools. They tutor kids in math and reading, coach various sports, staff libraries, and teach swimming and music. Because of this nonprofit program, the public elementary schools in their community have a library, a small sports program, and a music program — all of which had been cut from public school funding. Prior to the cuts, this group was a tutoring and sports program only, but they gradually expanded to meet the needs of their public schools. They do all this with about 50 volunteers and two (low-) paid staff. They raise their $150,000 budget from two special events, one mail appeal, a mobile bookstore specializing in used children’s books, and a handful of donors who give $500–$2,500 annually. Their sources of income are nicely diversified and they have managed to raise about $25,000 more each year for the last two years with some major gifts and an expanded mailing list. However, they need to grow by at least that much again this year, and they are dubious that is possible. I have just suggested the following as a solution to their shortfall:
- Add two mail appeals to their fundraising calendar — one in spring and one in early fall — in addition to their current “year-end” appeal. Each appeal can highlight an aspect of their program. (Goal $7,500)
- Add a “donate now” feature on their website and, since they are about to employ a new webmaster, explore a cyber-store to help sell their books and to seek donations. (Goal: $1,500 in the first year, growing quickly as they drive more traffic to the site.)
- Identify all their donors who have given $100 or more for three years but have not increased their gift and ask each of them to double their gift. (Goal: $21,000)
I expect some resistance in the form of the usual reactions I get to such suggestions, such as “That’s so much work,” “Isn’t there a foundation we can write to?” and “What about asking Oprah Winfrey?” Instead, they bring forth a common, but always surprising, refrain: “We don’t want to wear our donors out.”
Like many small nonprofits, they worry about donor fatigue. The capacity of grassroots organizations to worry about their donors is one of their most endearing qualities and one of the things that has kept me working in this part of the sector for 26 years. I sit in one office after another with organizations that are understaffed and overworked. As government and foundation cuts continue to come at them with the relentlessness of a hailstorm, as they try to stretch themselves to meet great gaping maws of need, they still find time to worry about whether they are wearing their donors out by asking them for money. And they are right to do so.
Before I go further, let me caution you about one thing: do not confuse donor fatigue with your own fatigue. Particularly in organizations that do the same important work year in and year out (feed hungry people, shelter homeless people, advocate for better health care, rescue abandoned animals, save the environment, organize for fair welfare policies), you can feel as you write your mail appeals or compose your phone-a-thon scripts or think about what you are going to say in your proposals or to your major donors that there is nothing new to say or report. This is your fatigue and it is understandable, but you need to deal with it and not project it on the donor. If you can remain excited about your work, see progress even when it is tiny, see setbacks as opportunities, and generally maintain optimism, your donors will be infected by your enthusiasm.
Donor fatigue is real, however, the result of one or more of five elements. The first is that many organizations are using the same strategy to raise money. Direct mail is the main example. People who give or buy by mail receive, on average, 800 to 1,000 unsolicited pieces of mail a year.
Most people I know, including me, sort their mail next to a recycling bin, throwing most of it away unopened. This week alone I declined to save the whales, protect farmworkers, stop child sex trafficking, provide health care to indigent seniors, help more women get elected to office, fund breast cancer research, protect the California coast-line, or create jobs for people with disabilities. I did this with some twinges of regret — both because I believe in all those causes and because I know how hard it is to raise funds through direct mail. People have become inured to pleas from even the most heart-
wrenching cause because they are tired of getting so many of them.
The second — and related —cause of donor fatigue is the existence of just too many causes. The size of the nonprofit sector has doubled twice in the last two decades. If it were a single entity, the nonprofit sector would be the world’s seventh-largest economy. If we were a single industry, we would be the nation’s largest industry. Almost 10 per-cent of the workforce is employed in a nonprofit business. The choices of groups and issues to give to have become overwhelming. People are saying “no” based on the strategy and not the cause — “I don’t give at the door,” or “I don’t give over the phone,” or “I don’t give by mail.” It is a defensive mechanism to narrow the range of possible requests.
The third element is loss of confidence in the non-profit sector. The last few years have seen a lot of scandals, particularly among the larger nonprofits. Donor confidence is much lower than it was even five years ago. “How do I know my money is being well spent?” “How do I know my money is going where it should?” These questions, on top of the questions of which causes to support and how to decide how much to give, definitely add to donor fatigue.
The fourth and fifth causes are the only ones an individual organization can really do anything about, so before I get to those, I want to return to the organization I described at the start.
They (and they are not alone) kindly and rightly don’t want to wear their donors out. The solution they propose is to ask only once a year so that donors won’t feel deluged by them and not to ask for increased gifts so that donors won’t feel they can never be satisfied. But through this strategy, they will shrink into the woodwork, doing more and more with less and less. I said to them, “Why don’t you just cease to exist altogether and then you won’t have to worry about bothering your donors at all?” Though I said this jokingly, this was the outcome they were headed for.
I advised them instead to return to their mission because when they do their work well, they make their donors most happy and the donors respond by giving —some give more frequently, some give bigger gifts, some invite their friends to give — all because the work is good and the organization asks often enough to stay on the radar of the donor and often enough to raise the money they need. From a donor point of view, an organization that only asks once or twice a year is an organization that doesn’t have a lot going on. You have to see your requests for money as a percentage of the
requests the donor receives from all the organizations that he or she supports (most people give to between six and 15 groups) and all the organizations that would like that donor’s support (likely to be hundreds).
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No one organization is the cause of donor fatigue. Even those organizations that insist on sending 14 mail appeals a year, and even those organizations that have wasted money on fancy office space or high salaries or lavish gifts for board members are not the cause of donor fatigue. It is a combination of these factors, and one group opting to ask their donors infrequently is not going to solve it.
The fourth element of donor fatigue is one of the two that organizations can do something about: not treating donors personally.
Donors feel worn out when they do not feel appreciated. The main complaint I hear from donors is not how often they are asked, but how they are never asked person-ally. No matter how many years they have been giving or how much money they give, they are rarely called or visited, and they rarely receive a personal note from a board member asking for another gift or an increase in their gift. They receive form letters or mail-merged letters. The message they get is that their gift is not important enough for someone to take time out of their day to talk with them about it.
Even worse is how infrequently donors are thanked. Though everyone seems to agree that a thank you note is a good thing, many organizations don’t send them at all, and many more send pre-printed thank you notes, possibly with the donor’s name scrawled in where “Friend” was crossed out in the “Dear Friend” salutation.
I have worked in organizations where some donors were not only thanked personally for their gifts, but were asked as often as twice a month for various projects. They didn’t always give, but they liked to be asked. The tone of the request is the critical element. Basically you need to get across this message: “I know you have given recently and generously, and we really appreciate it. I wanted to let you know about this project and invite you to be part of it if you want. You have certainly done your share this year, but I didn’t want to leave you out of this if you were interested.” The solicitation becomes a chance to educate the donor further about all that you do and an opportunity to thank them again without appear-ing obsequious. Everyone knows the truth of the saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” The same is true about giving, “If you want a donation, ask a donor.” Often the person most likely to give you a gift is the one who gave most recently.
The thank-you note is an opportunity to appreciate the gift and to create an atmosphere where the donor will be open to being asked again. Form thank you notes are fine if you add a short personal note, “Your gift was such a morale boost,” or “I look forward to keeping you posted on our progress with this program.” Even if you use a standard thank you for all your donors, vary the language from time to time. At least write a new thank you note each year!
The fifth and final cause of donor fatigue is another macro problem similar to the first three, but one that even the smallest organization can at least acknowledge and possibly, collaborating with other organizations, work on. It is a problem rooted in national politics. I call it the privatization of the public sector.
We all know that relentless government cutbacks of the last several years are having a huge effect on groups that received government funding. But groups that never depended on such funding are also deeply affected. The reason is this: Organizations that were once publicly supported with government funding and no longer are now must raise money from the private sector, just as nonprofits that were supported entirely by individuals, foundations, and corporations have always done. As a result, institutions that were once fully supported by public funds — public schools, parks, social services, and the like — now compete with traditional nonprofits for private funding. At the same time, because of the increasing gaps between rich and poor, many social service agencies are experiencing double- and triple-digit growth in the number of people who need their services.
Everywhere I go I hear these stories. In Detroit, food programs are trying to feed more than twice as many people as they did just two years ago; in Mecklen-berg County, NC, a food program is distributing food to 70,000 people a week, doubled from 2000. Ditto for people doing job counseling, offering mental health services, providing affordable child care. Many organizations are having a very hard time keeping up with the enormous increase in demand.
And this stress is felt not just by social service and health organizations, but also by arts and culture, education, and environmental protection groups. No one, except those in the business of weapons development and deployment — and they are rarely nonprofits — is spared. According to a report from OMB WATCH, a nonprofit government watchdog organization, in 2003 state governments faced their worst budget crises since World War II.
Government cutbacks are not just an economic problem, though. They represent a philosophy that began under President Reagan in the 1980s, continued under Bush I, continued to a lesser extent under Clinton, and continue profoundly under Bush II. It is a philosophy of privatization — less government is better government (except when it comes to the military). This means less spending of tax money in areas where the government thinks private funding should be supporting that work. Under this philosophy, federal, state, and local governments are cutting funding with little consequence because the public does not demand that public schools, public libraries, public pools, public hospitals, or public parks and the like be funded with money taxed from the public. OMB WATCH’s Gary Bass points out, “Being silent on tax and budget issues is not an option for those who care about the individuals and communities that the government and nonprofits serve.”
The American Association of Fundraising Counsel, which publishes the nonpartisan annual report, Giving USA, points out in this year’s report that the United States government does less to support health care, education, or the arts than the governments of most other developed countries. This is a serious state of affairs — one that demands some hard thinking about what taxes are for, how they are raised, and how they are spent. That will be the subject of a subsequent article.
For now, it is important to understand that a major cause of donor fatigue is that donors are being asked to do too much. Individuals, foundations, and corporations cannot support all that they were supporting before and also take on all that is left when the government pulls out.
In the next issue of the Journal, I will present a fuller discussion of the role of taxes and what your organization can do to address the vitally important issue of diminishing public support of public services. In the meantime, however, treating your donors well — staying in touch with them and giving them more rather than fewer opportunities to support a cause they obviously endorse— will go a long way toward overcoming any fatigue or indifference they may feel toward your organization and will help generate more dollars.