Do You Really Know Your Donors? — Part 1

How well do you know your donors?

How well do you need to know your donors?

The first question is for you to answer. I’ll answer the second question:

You need to know your donors well enough to know how to effectively steward them in a way they will appreciate. You need to know them well enough to know to avoid doing something stupid that will alienate them. You need to know them well enough to engage them in meaningful ways.

Let me share a story that illustrates my point.

Smith PG Package 2My wife Lisa is a proud Smith College alumna. She has been a leader with the Smith College Club of Philadelphia. She has referred students to the College. She has donated to the annual fund and capital campaigns. She has volunteered as a Class Agent. Several years ago, she even included Smith in her will, becoming a member of the College’s Grécourt Society.

Over the years, Lisa has received mailings specifically for Grécourt Society members, including invitations to special member events. Recently, in advance of her landmark reunion, she received a fold-over postcard mailing that included an option to request a replacement Grécourt Society pin if she needed one. As it turns out, Lisa did need a replacement, so she happily responded.

So far, so good.

Then, Lisa received the package from the Smith College Office of Gift Planning. The package included the Grécourt Society pin, a surprise magnet, and a preprinted thank-you card that was hand-signed by Lisabeth.

Ouch! While trying to do something nice, Smith stumbled badly.

Here are the mistakes the College made:

1.  The package contained a preprinted note instead of a handwritten, personal message.

2.  The preprinted note was officious: “Thank you for replying to a recent mailing sent to you by our office.” Instead of naming the individual responsible for sending the mailing, the card uses anonymous, institutional language.

3.  The card goes on to say, “We hope you will enjoy this Smith College magnet which can be displayed in a variety of places — even on your golf cart.” What? Really? Do that many Smith alumnae own a golf cart? As for Lisa, not only does she not own a golf cart, she does not even play golf, unless you count the occasional round of miniature golf. Why would Smith presume she owns a golf cart? I suppose it’s possible that the author was attempting to be humorous; if so, he or she failed. On the other hand, I suppose it’s possible that many Grécourt Society members actually do own a golf cart. If that’s true, then it raises the issue of whether or not the College really needs Lisa’s bequest commitment. Had Smith taken the time to get to know Lisa better, had Lisabeth picked up the phone to personally thank Lisa for her continued support, the College would have learned just how foolish it would be to send this preprinted card.

4.  The card contains a general phone number for the Office of Gift Planning as well as a general email address. Because Lisabeth only signed her first name, Lisa has no idea what her last name is. Lisabeth should have provided her full name and direct phone number and email address. Again, the card strikes an institutional rather than personal tone.

5.  Not only did Smith not seize this opportunity to get to know Lisa better, an annual fund staff member, major gift officer, or gift planning professional has never called her. The only calls she receives is from student callers whenever the College wants more money. A call from professional staff would make Lisa feel more appreciated and give the College an opportunity to learn more about her. While this annoys Lisa somewhat, what really bothers her, as a professional fundraiser herself, is that the College’s behavior is undermining its fundraising efforts. See my post: “The Greatest Idea for Retaining and Upgrading Donors.”

While the preprinted card says that Lisa’s ongoing support is “deeply appreciated,” the mailing contained none of the warmth that would make that statement believable. What could have been a very nice cultivation package instead left a sour impression.

Fortunately, for Smith, Lisa’s positive feelings toward her alma mater offset the periodic failures of the development staff that happen to pass through.

Unfortunately, not all donors will be as tolerant as Lisa. Nonprofit organizations need to recognize that bequest commitments are revocable. If you tick-off a donor, they can very easily remove you from their will. Make a donor feel their bequest gift is not really needed, and the donor can very easily transfer their support to another charity.

With just a little bit of extra effort — a handwritten note and a quick phone call — Smith could have taken the relationship with Lisa to another level leading up to her landmark reunion. Instead, they left her shaking her head before she passed on the material to me with a request that I blog about it as a helpful warning to others of how not to steward one’s donors.

While this post dealt with a nonprofit organization that stumbled because it did not make a sufficient effort to get to know one of its donors, Part 2 will involve a charity that knew its donor very well but still blew the appeal.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

3 Responses to “Do You Really Know Your Donors? — Part 1”

  1. I feel Lisa’s pain. When an organization I support makes basic mistakes in their communications with me, I wonder: how are they treating other donors? Am I throwing good money after bad when I give to the organization?

    • Dennis, thank you for your comment. Lisa and I have had the same thoughts you have had. It’s a real shame when a charity we care about drops the ball. Fortunately, I’m pleased to be able to report that I received a nice email from Smith’s Director of Gift Planning. The message struck the right tone. We appreciated the quick response.


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