How to get your donors to stay

25 Apr

In April 1992, 25 years ago, a book was published that should have changed the course of non-profit fundraising: Relationship Fundraising, by Ken Burnett. I say should have, because what the book talked about was common sense: Treat the donor like a person and forge a respectful, listening relationship, and the donor will stay with you for a lifetime.

Sounds simple, right? But as it turns out, common sense is awfully hard to implement. In particular, when faced with the compelling attraction and urgency of acquiring donors.

In an article to mark the 25th anniversary of the book, Ken warns against the kind of fundraising that the UK subsequently pursued: “Data swapping, mass direct mail campaigns, unscrupulous tactics and short-term income targets have all had their entrails publicly and painfully examined.”

We in India don’t have look very far to know that we are exactly on this path.

Data theft (aka swapping) is already here. Donors for one cause being solicited by tele-calling agencies for another. Face to face fundraisers diverting donors to causes based on targets that they need to meet. Not paying attention to basic calling courtesy to the donor – or, for that matter, attention to the dignity of the cause or person for whom donations are being raised. Not listening when donors say they do not want to be disturbed.

Here are five ways in which we can still steer this ship on to the right course:

  1. Look at communication as an investment, and not as a cost.

Investing in donor relationships requires good, i.e. effective and sustained, communication. “Good” does not mean glossy. But it does mean putting yourself in the donor’s shoes. What does the donor really want to know? What would make the donor’s eyes light up, strike a ray of the warm and fuzzy that we all need? What would it take to make the donor feel special and feel a part of the cause?

Communicate, consistently, professionally, warmly, and well, and keep doing it. There’s no other way of building long-term relationships.

  1. Technology should make relationship fundraising better, not push us further away from the donor.

We have donor databases, mailing systems, ways of personalisation, and means of communication more advanced than any generation of fundraisers. All of this can make relationship fundraising easier and better.

When we accept that the fundamental premise is to treat the donor like a person, we can customise all these forms of technology in ways that make our communication respectful, courteous, and open to dialogue and feedback.

  1. Plan for the short, medium and the long-term.

A fundraising strategy needs to span the short, medium and long-term. So, while we plan for acquisition – and before the donor walks in through the door – we have a plan for how to nurture the donor in the medium and long term.

  1. Budget for institutional strengthening.

Organisations also need to plan for institutional strengthening, a vital part of which is income diversification. One way would be to have a conversation with long-term donors and sponsors about the need to invest in building capacities in fundraising and communication. For this to happen, donors need to get off the impact bandwagon that seems to be the guiding principle these days and look at strengthening the institutions they fund.

  1. Build in ethical standards for fundraising.

As an agency working exclusively with not-for-profits, we’ve listened to dozens of problem statements from our clients on the way fundraising in currently being done. All this has resulted in us putting in place a system of checks and balances that are firsts for the not-for-profit space in many ways. We find that putting it down in writing – so that everyone understands what our ethical obligation to the clients and donors and people we serve are – and ensuring that these are legally enforceable, helps.

Ken concludes his article with a dire warning: “If you are reading this in a country that isn’t part of the U.K., watch out. There’s a regulator about. He or she could soon be coming after you, as ours did for us.” Nuff said.

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