“It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.” — Unknown
A couple of weeks ago, I shared with you the news that the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance has outperformed the fundraising efforts of the average human services organization (Giving USA 2011: Good News or More Bad News?). I even shared some insights about how PCA was able to accomplish this feat despite the recession.
In this post, I’ll be taking a different approach. I’m going to share with you information about the Foundation Fighting Blindness. Rather than serving as an example of what a nonprofit organization should do, it serves as a warning about what organizations should never do in their telephone fundraising programs and other development efforts. I also provide ten tips to help you avoid making the same mistakes as the Foundation.
I suffer from Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that will lead to my blindness by the time I reach age 72, unless a cure or treatment is discovered. The Foundation funds research about RP and macular degeneration. Because of my obvious interest in the work the Foundation funds, my wife and I have been generous financial supporters for many years. In addition, before selling my former direct response agency, I managed a successful pilot phone fundraising campaign for the Foundation many years ago.
Over the years, I’ve fought many battles with the Foundation. For example, it took years of effort before they would acknowledge gifts as coming from both my wife and me; for the longest time, despite my objections and both our names appearing on the checks, they insisted on only recognizing me. More recently, I was invited to a dinner-in-darkness fundraising event. I objected for reasons I won’t get into here; I requested not to be invited in the future. Guess what? A year later, I received another invitation to a similarly styled event. Last year, I received a generic telephone fundraising call. At my giving level, I was surprised to be included in the phone campaign. I had other problems with the call, made by a telephone fundraising vendor. So, I called the Foundation and was connected to a lower-level development staff member. As I told the phone fundraising caller, I again requested not to be included in future phone fundraising campaigns. I also requested a call from the Chief Development Officer or Chief Executive Officer. I also offered my services on a pro bono basis; I’m a telephone fundraising pioneer and even wrote the Foreword to the definitive book on the subject, Effective Telephone Fundraising by Stephen F. Schatz, CFRE. To my great surprise, there was zero follow-up. However, I was included in this year’s phone fundraising effort despite my request not to be!
When I received this year’s call, I saved my breath. I told the caller that I would “consider” renewing my support. By the way, the call was again generic, did not acknowledge my very generous past support, and did not recognize my many years of involvement with the Foundation. The caller, in his long monologue, did not even mention any specific research projects that would be of interest to me.
Would you like to guess what I did after I got off the phone? That’s right. I picked the phone back up and called the Foundation office and left an after-hours voice mail message. I did get to speak to a lower-level development staff person. I shared my enormous frustration with the Foundation, its failure to behave in a donor-centric fashion, and it misappropriate handling of its relationship with me. This person was savvy enough to apologize and have the Chief Development Officer contact me. Unfortunately, the CDO was defensive. Furthermore, he failed to satisfactorily acknowledge my special relationship with the Foundation, and he was completely disinterested in tapping my direct-response expertise. I think the CDO should take donor-relations lessons from the staff member I spoke with first.
The final insult came when I received my “considering” letter from the phone fundraising vendor. The letter came in a window envelope with metered postage instead of a live stamp. This is not exactly the best way to make an appeal seem personal. Furthermore, the envelope contained the screaming message, “URGENT: Your pledge confirmation is enclosed.” That’s nice, except I did not make a pledge, a point acknowledged by the letter inside; I only told the caller I would “consider” making a pledge. But, I opened the envelope anyway. It was at that point that I noticed that the letter had been misaddressed to my wife. It wasn’t addressed to me. It wasn’t addressed to my wife and me. It was addressed only to my wife! The text of the letter acknowledged that she was only “considering” support. The letter went on to say that “many studies” need funding. However, it did not cite any specific research projects, particularly any that involve my disease. It was a weak letter. It was also an ugly form letter with an attached response card. Again, not the way to make a personal appeal, especially not to a significant donor. The letter used a modest font size and a sans-serif (i.e.: Arial) typeface; knowing that a large number of the Foundation’s donors — therefore, a large number of recipients of the letter — are effected by degenerative eye disease, a larger font size should have been used along with an easier to read serif font (i.e. Times New Roman). The letter also contained at least one spelling error and one punctuation error! Finally, the letter requested a gift of “$100, $50, or $25.” Given my previous level of giving, such a request can only be described as stupid. It’s been sometime since I’ve seen a single letter commit so many sins.
As a donor, I think I have a right to be offended by the Foundation’s behavior over the years. Most recently, they have disregarded my request not to be included in the phone program. However, because of my extreme, personal interest in the work the Foundation funds, I have been willing to set aside my personal feelings regarding their stumbles over the years. However, I’ve now reached the point where I wonder, how many other significant donors are they alienating? I can only conclude that the Foundation is not raising as much money as it could. And, I know, as a result, I am more likely to go blind than I would be if they were raising the resources they should be able to raise. I’m angry.
Going forward, I will likely no longer support the Foundation Fighting Blindness. Instead, I will do my own leg work to find research projects dealing with Retinitis Pigmentosa that are worthy of my direct support. Giving to the Foundation Fighting Blindness is not the only way to support RP research projects.
If you want to avoid alienating your donors, whether in a phone program or other development effort, here are ten simple things you can do:
1. Listen. If a donor offers to share a particular expertise, acknowledge the kind offer, thank him, and either take advantage of his expertise or explain why you are not. It is essential to listen to people and really respond to them. True engagement is what it’s all about. When opportunities for engagement are dropped in your lap, try to take advantage of them.
2. Honor the Donor’s Wishes. There are obvious limits to how far an organization can go to honor a donor’s wishes. However, if she wants her spouse included, or not, in recognition mailings, respect her wish.
3. Report. When asking someone for money, particularly a past supporter, first acknowledge past support and let him know how gifts were put to use. Then, as specifically as you can, tell the prospective donor how her gift will be used this year. Talk in terms of mission fulfillment and benefits to those the organization serves.
4. Provide Relevant Information. Always strive to provide relevant information. In the Foundation’s case, they know I suffer from RP. So, why not specifically discuss RP research with me instead of research in general? Why speak only vaguely of breakthroughs with no specifics?
5. Keep it Personal. Let donors know they are important by keeping it personal. This means, unless test data suggests otherwise for your organization, use a closed-face envelope, use a live postage stamp, use the correct person’s name, and use a stand-alone letter (maybe even a handwritten one) rather than one with a detachable response card.
6. Be Clean. Letters to donors and prospects should be readable. So, use an appropriate font size for your audience and use an easily readable font. Also, make sure letters do not contain punctuation and spelling errors. Neatness and accuracy count. They reflect on how well run your organization is or is not.
7. Ask for the Right Amount. Make sure that when you ask for a gift, you ask for the right gift. For example, asking a $1,000+ donor to consider a gift of $25 seldom makes sense.
8. Don’t Call. Including a prospect in a telephone fundraising campaign should be a last resort. The most effective form of solicitation will always be face-to-face. While face-to-face is not always practical, organizations should try to see as many prospects and donors as they can. Volunteer leaders and staff should reach out to donors by telephone if a face-to-face visit cannot be done. Only when volunteer and staff resources are fully committed should the remaining prospects and donors be assigned to the phone campaign. While phone campaigns can successfully solicit major and even planned gifts, they should only be used for this purpose as a last resort. When including upper-level donors in a phone program, extra care must be given. And, organizations are ethically and legally required to maintain a Do Not Call List, always respecting a prospect’s or donor’s wish to be placed on that list.
9. Don’t Argue. No one ever won an argument with a donor. If a donor disagrees with you, you can share accurate information with her that might change her view. But, don’t be defensive and don’t argue. Remember, the donor is always right, and a donor can always walk away with her money.
10. Follow-up. If you have a less than pleasant encounter with a donor or prospect, be gracious and follow-up. A personal, handwritten follow-up note thanking the person for caring can go a long way toward mending a relationship.
None of us is perfect. In my long career, I’ve even been guilty of making some of the mistakes that the Foundation has made. While it’s always best to avoid making mistakes, especially foolish ones, what separates the smart organizations from the weak is how the organization responds or corrects itself once it stumbles.
I’m going to invite the Foundation Fighting Blindness to read this post. Hmmm. I guess I’ve made a contribution to them after all.
So, is your organization setting a glowing example of what to do, or is it serving as a horrible warning?
That’s what Michael Rosen Says… What do you say?
Update (July 19, 2011):
While the Foundation Fighting Blindness has not contacted me about this blog post, despite being aware of it, I have now received a “reminder” notice since I told the caller I would “consider” a pledge. Interestingly, the letter was once again misaddressed to wife instead of me. And, once again, the letter asks for an inappropriately low amount. By the way, at about the same time I received the reminder in the mail, I also received a direct-mail appeal from the Foundation addressed to me (because they continue to refuse to merge my records). Apparently, this organization and its vendor are incapable of learning from some of their mistakes.