Do You Really Know Your Donors? — Part 2

In a cautionary tale earlier this week — Part 1 of a two-part series — I looked at the missteps one nonprofit organization took by not taking the time to get to know one of its loyal donors. In Part 2, I now examine a horrible fundraising appeal from an organization that actually knows its potential donor quite well, though it failed to leverage that knowledge.

Stethoscope and Piggy Bank via 401(K) 2012 via FlickrI originally got the idea for this post from one of my readers who contacted me with a link to an interesting New York Times article: “A New Effort Has Doctors Turn Patients Into Donors.” My reader wanted to know what I thought of the emerging trend of having doctors actively contact their patients for fundraising purposes.

I delayed writing about this subject because I have mixed feelings about it. Then, in December, I received a year-end appeal from my surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Cancer Center. The letter helped crystallize my thinking.

First, let me share a bit of background. A recent study by Dr. Reshma Jagsi, a radiation oncologist and ethicist at the University of Michigan, was published recently in The Journal of Clinical Oncology. It was the first major examination of the role of physicians in fundraising.

The New York Times reported:

In an unprecedented survey of more than 400 oncologists at 40 leading cancer centers, nearly half said they had been taught to identify wealthy patients who might be prospective donors. A third had been asked to directly solicit donations — and half of them refused. Three percent had been promised payments if a patient donated.”

Involving doctors in the fundraising process raises a number of ethical concerns. Dr. Arthur L. Caplan, head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, shared some of his concerns with the Times:

Patients may be emotionally vulnerable; doctors have very close ties to their patients, which can strain asking on both sides; and the fact that incentives to ask sometimes skew toward the doctor’s own program rather than the most needy areas of the hospital.”

Another issue is, how will giving or not giving affect the level of care, or perceived level of care, from the doctor? Will patients feel coerced to give?

While I see the enormous potential for ethical pitfalls, I also see the significant potential benefit of having doctors involved in the fundraising process. The issue is how and when they are involved as well as the quality of development training they will receive.

For example, if I’m half-naked in my doctor’s examination room, I certainly do not want to receive an ask for a contribution. If I’m drowning in hospital bills, I’m not going to be particularly receptive to a fundraising appeal. However, if a development staff member wants to have lunch with me and my doctor to discuss the physician’s latest research, I’m perfectly amenable to that.

There are right ways and wrong ways to involve doctors in the fundraising process.

UPMC DM Appeal

UPMC Cancer Center Direct-Mail Appeal.

That brings me to the letter I received from Dr. David Bartlett in December. Dr. Bartlett is a world-class oncologic surgeon and medical researcher. He is one of the leading experts dealing with Appendiceal Carcinoma with Pseudomyxoma Peritonei (PMP), a very rare form of cancer I am currently battling. (You can learn more about my fight by clicking here.)

Dr. Bartlett knows me very well. In addition to knowing me as a patient, he knows that I’m a professional fundraiser who shares his passion for finding a more effective treatment for PMP. The development staff also knows me. Prior to going for surgery two years ago, my wife and I reached out to and met with one of the development professionals for the UPMC Cancer Center.

Yet, despite their knowledge of me, they sent me a piece of garbage intended as an appeal letter. The direct-mail solicitation was definitely not the way to involve my doctor in the fundraising process.

Let me outline the ridiculous mistakes that the UPMC Cancer Center made:

1.  The letter was sent in December. Why would they send an appeal at a time of year when the competition for resources is so great? The year-end competition for charitable dollars is the fiercest at that time. In addition, potential donors are spending significant sums on holiday gifts and entertaining. See my post: “It’s Not Too Late to Think about Year-End Giving.”

2.  The letter attempts to look like a personalized letter, but misses. The misplaced inside address with code is a dead giveaway that this was not a personal letter. The salutation to “Mr. Rosen” reveals another lack of personalization; Dr. Bartlett knows me well enough to call me “Michael.” The letter was not hand-signed, another indicator that this was not a personal appeal.

3.  The letter uses a miniscule font size and a sans-serif typeface that ensures that the letter is unreadable by nearly everyone over the age of 50, at least not without eye-strain or a magnifying glass. Dr. Bartlett knows I’m over 50 and seeing impaired; if he was really the one sending the letter, he would have known I’d find this version nearly unreadable. (To learn more about fonts, read my post on the subject by clicking here.)

4.  The letter mentions a form of treatment made possible from the past funding of research. However, there are two problems. First, the treatment has nothing whatsoever to do with me and my condition. Second, the letter does not tell me about the current research projects. Oddly, in October, Dr. Bartlett published new research findings related specifically to my cancer. However, the letter does not reference that research at all. Bizarre. By the way, the development office never attempted to cultivate me by sending me information about the new PMP research prior to sending the appeal. Another missed opportunity.

5.  The letter did not contain a specific ask. Any good direct-mail appeal will contain a specific ask; it’s Direct Mail 101. When the organization knows something about the prospect, that ask can even be well targeted to an appropriate level.

The fundraising incompetence of the UPMC Cancer Center is infuriating. As a result of their horrible appeal, UPMC left countless dollars on the table, money that could have funded ground-breaking, life-saving research.

UPMC had a good deal of information about me. However, it chose to willfully ignore virtually all of that information to send me a poor, generic solicitation vaguely disguised as a personal ask. In the process, they inappropriately utilized a top doctor; I’m actually embarrassed for Dr. Bartlett. Although I am highly motivated to assist Dr. Bartlett in his research efforts, the appeal left me cold.

You should get to know your prospects and donors. When you know your prospect or donor, you should be sure to appropriately leverage the information you have to educate, cultivate, and engage them. Then, you should make an ask that is appropriate for the individual, both in terms of amount and timing.

Sure, go ahead and involve my doctor. However, involve him in the right way. Having him simply be the signatory to a stock direct-mail appeal, and not a very good one, is nothing but a monumental waste that is alienating.

When I met with the UPMC Cancer Center development professional, I offered my professional assistance. My offer still stands.

While UPMC has not provided you with a good example of what to do, it has certainly provided you with some good insights about how not to do things. For that, I suppose we should be somewhat appreciative.

Get to know your prospects and donors. Then, use the information tactfully. Approach them in the right way, at the right time, with the right people, for the right thing. Otherwise, what’s the point?

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

2 Comments to “Do You Really Know Your Donors? — Part 2”

  1. Really excellent post! Wish you so well in your health battle. I learn a lot from you. Thanks!!

  2. Reblogged this on Communicate! and commented:
    Don’t embarrass your supporters with your feeble appeal letters. Know your audience and speak to them!

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