Listen to The Whiny Donor and Raise More Money

If you want to raise more money, you need to listen to your donors. Unfortunately, many of your donors do not feel comfortable giving you feedback about your fundraising appeals. Or, if they do feel comfortable, they won’t put in the time and effort to tell you what they think.

Fortunately, The Whiny Donor can help you. “The Whiny Donor” is the name of a Twitter account belonging to a woman who, along with her husband, is a significant donor and who has served on a number of nonprofit boards. Whiny is passionately committed to the philanthropy world making her a fantastic resource for fundraising professionals.

“The Whiny Donor”

Whiny lovingly tweets about charity issues, especially what works and what does not when it comes to fundraising. She provides meaningful, often actionable, insights from the perspective of the donor that she is. She’ll give you feedback that your organization’s donors won’t. Also, she’ll answer questions you would never dare to ask your own donors.

Recently, Whiny and her husband went through the year-end appeals that have inundated them. Then, she shared her thoughts in a valuable Twitter thread. With her kind, thoughtful permission, I’m going to share her helpful insights with you now.

Despite the name of her Twitter account, Whiny seldom whines. Instead, she provides insightful critiques, positive and negative. Here are 10 insights about some year-end appeals she has received recently:

COVID-19 Pandemic: Fundraisers should not be afraid to honestly tell prospective donors about the challenges their organization faces. Whiny says, “A couple of the appeals make a very clear case for their need for funds during the pandemic, and we are increasing our donations to them over last year’s amount. I am actually dumbfounded by appeal letters that DON’T mention anything about being affected by the pandemic. Where have you been all year?”

Mission: When a nonprofit organization has a well-articulated mission that is meaningful to donors, missteps will more readily be excused. For example, Whiny says, “There’s one local cultural nonprofit that always sends a reply form  with no appeal letter at all, and I’m so offended by that, I want to cut them off, but my husband insists that we continue to support them.” Whiny had this reaction to another appeal, “We keep donating to them, but I never read the very long, small-print, no-margin, weird-font appeal letter from a small local nonprofit. I simply don’t have the fortitude to tackle it.” Just be aware that, for most organizations, a clear, powerful mission will work best when paired with a well-crafted appeal, particularly one that is easy to read.

Fake Deadlines: Many charities like to use artificial deadlines for giving as a way to create a sense of urgency, especially at year-end. However, donors tend to care little about your deadlines and more about when they want to give. As Whiny says, “I don’t know how long it’s been sitting unopened in my stack of appeals, but one letter mentions a deadline of December 4, which seems weirdly arbitrary. I think they’ll still accept my gift, though. Don’t you?” I suspect they will. So, what’s the point of the fake deadline? Arbitrary deadlines just come off as hucksterism. When a fake deadline is impractical, it can become downright annoying. As Whiny has observed, “Another one I’m just opening, and it says ‘Nov 30 deadline!’ right on the envelope. But the postmark is November 23! C’mon!”

Postage: Unless you’ve tested a postage-paid response envelope versus one requiring a donor to affix a stamp, you should opt for a postage-paid response envelope as your default. You’ll likely get a better response rate. When requiring the donor to affix a stamp, avoid being condescending in the envelope’s postage box. For example, Whiny doesn’t like statements like “Place Stamp Here” or “Postage Stamp Required.” Whiny says, “I do know how to mail an envelope, you know.” A postage-box statement she likes is “Thank You for Your Support.”

Gift-Amount Suggestions: It’s almost always a good idea to suggest how much you would like a prospect to contribute. If you’re asking a past donor, the amount you seek should be related to what the donor has given in the past. In other words, don’t ask a $5,000 donor for $25; conversely, don’t ask a $25 donor for $5,000. When presenting a gift chain, make it legitimate. “The four choices on this gift chain are $250, $260, $265 and $275, which has got to be the narrowest range I’ve ever seen. They had the good sense to add a ‘Surprise Us!’ box, just in case I want to bust loose,” says Whiny. Generally, your gift-chain amounts should vary by more than $5 or $10.

Dopamine: The act of giving should feel good. Research shows that if you can help people feel good about giving, they will be more likely to give and more likely to give more. There are many ways you can enhance a donor’s sense of well-being and make them feel good about donating. There are also many ways you can leave donors feeling cold. Whiny was not feeling the love when she saw a response card that said, “Yes, I want to make a tax-deductible gift.” As she says, “Absolutely no dopamine is released when you have me declare that I want to make a tax-deductible gift.” Instead, why not reinforce the individual’s identity to make her feel good about giving? For example, if this was from an animal-welfare charity, why not have the response card say, “As an animal lover, I want to help care for the kittens and puppies.”

Matching Gifts. Challenge grants can inspire people to donate and can create a sense of urgency. However, some donors find them to be gimmicky. “Honestly, I don’t really pay attention to [challenge grants], though. I always figure that donor will give the money whether the match is met or not. Am I wrong?” asks Whiny. Sadly, Whiny is not wrong. Many charities create bogus challenges, which are less effective and unethical. I explored this issue in a previous blog post.

Competition. Your organization is likely not the only one approaching an individual for a contribution. On Giving Tuesday and at year-end, there is a flurry of fundraising activity that inundates potential supporters. Don’t assume that your appeal will automatically capture attention. Whiny receives so many appeals, she can’t keep up, as she puts it, “I opened about half as they came in, and left the rest unopened till now.” To make sure your appeal stands out, put some thought into the design of the outer envelope, and test various options. For example, you might experiment with size, color, teaser copy, graphics, hand addressing, live stamp, etc. Remember, before you can compete for dollars, you have to compete for eyeballs.

Giving Channels. Different donors will give in different ways (e.g., check, stock, online, Donor-Advised Fund, etc.). Your job is to make it easy for people to give through their preferred channel. In Whiny’s case, “We do a combination of checks sent directly and grants from our donor-advised fund rather than online donations.” Others, particularly at year-end, will prefer to donate online. So, let people know their options. In the case of DAFs, remind supporters of this giving option, provide a widget on your website that makes it easy and, once you receive a DAF gift, thank both the sponsoring organization and the person who made the recommendation. For important information about how DAFs are evolving, click here.

Thank. An essential part of the fundraising process is the thank-you communication. Thank donors promptly. Ideally, Whiny wants you to thank her within three days of receiving a gift, certainly no more than three weeks. You don’t want them thinking what Whiny has on occasion thought, “Seriously. How long are you going to make me wait for that thank you letter?” Make the thank you heartfelt. In addition to a thank-you letter, consider making thank-you calls to as many donors as possible. Especially now, when many people are feeling disconnected due to the pandemic, many donors will be surprised by and welcome your friendly call.

Feedback from donors, whether positive or negative, provides us with valuable information we can use to improve our fundraising efforts. I thank Whiny and her husband for their philanthropic passion. I also thank Whiny for regularly providing fundraisers with constructive feedback, and for allowing me to share her thoughts with you here.

Now, it’s your turn. I’m sure you’ve also been inundated with year-end appeals. What have you seen that you particularly like or dislike? How is your own appeal doing?

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

10 Responses to “Listen to The Whiny Donor and Raise More Money”

  1. Hi, one thing that is definitely worth testing is the reply envelope. I’ve tested this several times recently and for donors, using a courtesy reply envelope is cheaper and actually generated higher response than a business reply envelope. just something to think about.

  2. Wow. One of your most insightful, entertaining, and content rich posts ever. Maybe we should all aspire to be “whiny” donors.

  3. Love “The Whiny Donor” Twitter comments. Always good reminders and sometimes a “slap in the face” to even the best efforts…so hard to get everything right every time but worth the effort.

    Totally agree on matching gifts…typically don’t motivate me. And I checked out your prior blog, Michael, and totally agree…they need to be specific, time-bound, and limited. When I do matching challenges I try to indicate that matching gift from said donor is in addition to his/her annual gift or other giving this year. To me that says it is more than just the board or development office approving use of some funds for a challenge match.

  4. I come from the volunteer, board member and donor side as well. I think that most of Whiny’s points are valid but every donor is different. I am always more intrigued by a donor match as well as others that I know and it recently prompted me to donate. I also think a deadline helps to speed up a potential donation. Tracking data from your specific nonprofit will help with some of these fundraising decisions.

    • Debra, thank you for sharing your perspective and experience. Your thought about tracking data is spot on. It is important for charities to test different tactics, track the results, and then move forward with what works for them. While there certainly are best practices, not all of them will work equally well for all charities. Studying results is essential to finding the best way forward.

  5. First time commenter here. Very good insights here, though I do think matching gifts work. They caused me to donate to a new nonprofit that I’d never heard of before, because they were doing a 5 times match. I think if an organization can do more than the usual double match, that is a good way to draw people’s attention.

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