A Little Sympathy for Your Donors, Please!

My good buddy Gian Brosco recently took the helm of the Nevada Community Foundation. The first thing he did was get out of the office to learn about the issues in greater Las Vegas.

My good buddy Gian Brosco recently took the helm of the Nevada Community Foundation. The first thing he did was get out of the office to learn about the issues in greater Las Vegas.

“Rick,” he said, “I met with the head of the Salvation Army. She told me that last year’s $25 and $50 donors are this year’s clients!”

Sound familiar?

How is your family doing? Worried about layoffs or pay cuts? Putting off retirement another ten years? Stunned your children’s college savings plans have lost 25 percent or more? Think your parents will be able to stay in their nice senior housing facilities?

Yet, I continue to receive 5 or 6 appeals every day from nonprofits that don’t seem to care about me at all. I’ll bet you do, too.

Some make their usual pitch as if nothing is different. Other nonprofits only write about the impact on their organizations: “The state is cutting our budget,” “our donations are down.” Others tell me, but only vaguely, how their constituencies are suffering.

No one asks me how I’m doing.

What Do You See in Your Mind When You Hear the Word “Donor”?

Number 1 in my workshop Ten Effective Ways to Raise Money for Your Nonprofit is “See your donors as more than wallets.” This economic crisis is touching everyone. You can assume nearly every one of your current and prospective donors has some financial worries, even if their problems are nowhere on a par with your clients.

Donors are never “they” and “we.” Most of the several hundred major donors ($10,000 and above) I’ve interviewed in my career were people of modest means. Each gave for a different reason and each had a different life story.

Even if your organization’s donors tend to be on the wealthier side, I promise you (nearly) all are real people. "They" are proud of their children and grandchildren, "they" go to baseball games, "they" give out candy at Halloween.

They are also facing divorces, deaths of friends and loved ones, grown children who won’t leave home, and unmet charitable pledges.

To paraphrase the great Pogo: “We have met the donor, and he is us.”

Ten Ways to Show You Love Me for Myself

Yes, guilt is one of the great motivators, and it is probably true that you and I and everyone on your donor list is better off than the people you serve. But in this case, a little thoughtfulness goes a long way.

Here are ten options other than guilt:

  1. Don’t ask for contributions without acknowledging that the donor may be feeling the pinch, too. Say “We are doubly grateful” when he or she gives.
  2. Institute, right now, a legacy society. In my workshop, Bequests: The Secret Route to Your Nonprofit’s Stability, I point out that fewer than 8 percent of Americans leave charitable gifts through their wills, the one time all of us can be assured that we don’t have to worry about running out of money ever again. (According to the Partnership for Philanthropic Giving -- the former NCPG -- 58 percent of American adults don’t leave wills at all, which is shocking. And an opportunity!)
  3. Be specific how the economic downturn is hurting your clients. Remember the Salvation Army? “Our food pantry empties in three days instead of seven.” “We’ve seen 900 more patients in the last six months for free care.” “Ask our police force: domestic abuse calls have risen 73 percent in the town.” Better yet: always tell a human story. Statistics are boring.
  4. Personalize the mail every time you can. No mailing labels, no “Dear Friend.”
  5. Tone down the galas. This isn’t the time to flaunt class differences. Tracie Rozhon gives you seven great tips in the February 29 New York Times.
  6. When you see a donor or a prospect on the street, in a meeting, at a function, or elsewhere, ask how he or she is doing first, and listen patiently to the answer. I was overseeing strategic planning for a human services organization last year. Before one of the meetings I gently asked the board chair, a successful housing contractor, how business was. We talked for the next ten minutes about his worries about his workers, families with half-built homes, and yes, his wife and children, too. He thanked me, sincerely, for asking.
  7. If you’ve tightened your belt, tell me how, in terms I can understand. “Yup, everyone is wearing sweaters around the office this winter, but we’re saving $1,600 a month by keeping the heat at 67.” I'll be even more impressed if you tell me how the nonprofit is being entrepreneurial and forward-thinking.
  8. Offer creative ways to give. In the February 10 Wall Street Journal, Mike Spector writes about the wisdom of starting charitable lead trusts during a bear market in “Giving Smarter While Helping Your Estate.”
  9. Keep the donor in the loop. Remind me regularly why your organization is so important. Specifically: email me (and all your friends) at least once every few weeks to tell me something about the topic that you can only know by sitting where you do.
  10. Show hope. One of the best rules for departmental retreats is “no whining.” Reassure your clients, your supporters, your staff and yourselves that we will come out of these difficult times. It’s already one of America’s most amazing moments that a man named Barack Hussein Obama replaced someone named George Walker Bush in the White House, no?

About Rick Schwartz

Rick Schwartz’s 36-year career weaves communications with his commitment to nonprofit organizations. He spent half his career with the Rhode Island Foundation, one of the nation’s largest community foundations, and the Mass. Council on the Arts and Humanities, a premier state arts agency. In both cases, he was in charge of all communications, deeply involved with policy-setting, and working directly with grantees.

He spent the other years as a journalist, in government (Mass. Senate Committee on Human Services and Elderly Affairs), and consulting with nonprofits on communications and strategic planning.

His favorite work is what he does now: consulting with nonprofits and foundations on communications and strategic planning, under Rick Schwartz/StraightTalk.

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