November 13, 2012; Source: New York Observer

NPQ has published a good deal about engagement fundraising. Most recently, we published a piece by Beth Kanter and Katie Delahaye Paine, and back in 2004, we published an interview with Eli Pariser of MoveOn. But all things get a bit mucked up in implementation when an organization is unused to the new principles in play. What does a large institution do with the concept of audience engagement or social fundraising?

This first-person account in the New York Observer is a harrowing tale of pursuit of a potential donor by the esteemed New York Philharmonic. The author, Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke, says she is called at all hours, from a variety of phone numbers, to be “engaged” by what appears to be a hardworking phone bank. The callers say they are not fundraising but they “engage” thusly…

“‘We aren’t calling for a donation,’ they say, but that’s exactly what they are doing. ‘We are just calling to see if you enjoyed the concert last fall.’ It’s a trap. No matter how you answer, the next question they ask is whether you would like to become a member…

I hang up, but the calls don’t stop. Every few weeks, I get a call from a number I don’t know. I don’t answer. The emails keep flooding my inbox; the mailman keeps delivering schedules and postcards and special offers and invitations to donate. I throw them all away…

I might need a new number. The calls still come regularly. Sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly. I forget about them for a while. And then, out of the blue, my phone rings. I get postcards almost every week. They knew what I did last summer…and it wasn’t going to the Philharmonic.”

A friend of the author who suffers similarly describes the callers as “oddly personal,” and Bloomgarden-Smoke cites a blogger who suggests something about about this “personal” touch:

“‘During the two years I spent in New York City, I attended a total of two concerts sponsored by the New York Phil,’ she wrote. ‘Somehow, this meager action led them to believe that I’m a.) wealthy, b.) philanthropic, and c.) NOT plunged into grad school debt.’”

Bloomgarden-Smoke believes that the Philharmonic’s behavior is related to the fact that she might tend to be on the young side for a Philharmonic attendee and therefore is a highly desirable demographic, but I am here to tell her that I am into my seventh decade and a last-minute decision to attend the Philharmonic’s Don Giovanni at the Met last year created the same kind of stream of check-ins, albeit by e-mail.

Clearly, the Philharmonic is trying like crazy to stay abreast of current styles of fundraising, but here’s a clue: the engagement has to be authentic and tailored to your partner. –Ruth McCambridge