Are You Annoying Your Donors Without Even Knowing It?

If you’re annoying your donors, it could be hurting your fundraising efforts. The challenge is that you might not even know you’re annoying them. Let me give you a personal example.

One of my favorite charities, for well over a decade, has been annoying me lately. I don’t remember when it started, perhaps a year or so ago. For some time, I couldn’t even articulate why I was annoyed. Then, several weeks ago, I received a letter that made me immediately understand the reason for my irritation. Even better, the letter immediately made me feel better by making me feel closer to the organization.

The charity is the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance. The organization brings justice and healing to the survivors of child sex abuse. I have the utmost respect for the staff and the volunteers, including the board. They do heroic work helping children and their families cope successfully with a heinous crime. I’ve written about them here a number of times. I’ve shared insights from the PCA staff about child sex abuse. I’ve also shared their remarkable fundraising successes.

As a former PCA board member, I have remained a passionate supporter of the organization. Because PCA’s mission is so important to me, I have continued my support even when I became mildly annoyed with them. However, if other donors felt similarly annoyed, would they continue to give and, if so, how likely would they be to increase their support? The answer from psychology researchers reveals that it could be a big problem.

Let me tell you what was bothering me and how PCA was able to quickly and easily overcome it.

I had grown accustomed to receiving generic communications from PCA. I received the same cultivation messages and appeals as everyone else was sent. So, I was surprised one day not long ago when I received a hand-addressed, monarch-sized envelope. Inside (because of course I opened it) was a handwritten letter from someone with whom I served on the board.

While the letter was sent in December, I did not receive it until well into January thanks to problems at the US Post Office. Nevertheless, I appreciated the good wishes for happy holidays. I also appreciated that the letter went on to let me know that PCA’s spring fundraising event would take place either in-person, virtually, or as a hybrid. My former colleague, now the event co-chair, mentioned the date of the upcoming fundraiser and told me that more details would be forthcoming. He went on to say that he hoped to see me at the event. However, he did not make a specific ask and, therefore, did not include a response envelope. His communication was simply a cultivation piece designed to make me feel like an insider.

Yes, I appreciated the personal touch of this particular cultivation mailing. However, what I appreciated the most about the letter was that it acknowledged that I am an alumnus of the PCA board.

Bells went off in my head! I finally understood why I had been growing annoyed with PCA. Recent communications from PCA did not acknowledge my identity. I had been addressed just like every other donor. My former board service was rarely acknowledged, which made the handwritten letter particularly special to me.

By acknowledging my identity, PCA showed me they know who I am. They respect my prior service. They appreciate my support, not just my money. They rekindled the feelings I once had as a volunteer leader.

Should this matter? You might think it should not. Was I being childish or self-centered to be annoyed that PCA had not been acknowledging my identity? You might think I am. But, and I say this with full respect, your opinion doesn’t matter in this case. It’s MY feelings that determine which charities I support and how much I give them. As I learned by taking the certificate course Philanthropic Psychology, taught by the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy, there is plenty of scientific research to back me up on this.

One reason most charitable organizations experience shamefully high donor-attrition rates is that they do not acknowledge the individual identities of donors. Let me give you a quick, simple example of what I mean.

When a donor contributes a $100 to your charity, do you thank her for her generous gift? Or, do you thank her for being a kind, caring person who made a gift. The former message describes the gift. The latter message describes the person. It’s a simple messaging shift that can have a massive effect.

In PCA’s case, an individual donor might identify as a Philadelphian, a parent, someone who cares about justice, someone who cares about children, etc. More generically, a PCA donor might identify as being kind, thoughtful, caring, concerned, angry, etc. In my case, one part of my identity as it relates to PCA is former board member. The key for you as a fundraising professional is to understand how your donors think of themselves. You can learn this through conversations with them, surveys, or their responses to appeals.

Here are four tips:

1. When choosing images for your website, emails, brochures, letters, and reports, make sure your donors can identify with what they see. Will your target audience think that they look like the people in the images? Do images of service beneficiaries look like the type of people a donor could care about? Even images that do not feature people can trigger identity. For example, if you raise money for an environmental organization, do the images speak to natural settings that your donors would be likely to see themselves in and enjoy?

2. Track results to better understand what your donors respond to and what they don’t. That will give you clues about how they identify themselves. For example, if your charity focuses on eye disease research, see which donors give to which appeals. Someone who responds to an appeal about retinitis pigmentosa research might have the disease or might have a loved one who does. They might not care about your organization’s work involving macular degeneration.

3. When you thank donors, do not just thank them for their money; thank them for who they are. The self-identity of your donors will depend, in part, on your organization. In any case, do not lead them to think of themselves as a bank machine dolling out cash.

4. Do not make people work hard to sort out how their identity relates to your message. Instead, prompt them. For example, PCA could trigger donors to think about their identity as it relates to the organization by saying something like this in an appeal: “Philadelphians like you who want to protect children….” Or, PCA could do segmented appeals that say, “As a former board member….” In other words, figure out ways to tap into a donor’s sense of self.

There are three basic ways donors are motivated to give:

1. Situational. This is when a charity describes the problem. For example, a hurricane might have destroyed a community resulting in an urgent need for food, water, and medical supplies.

2. Relationship. This is when a charity focuses on the relationship between the service provider and recipient. Or, it could be when the organization focuses on its relationship with the donors. For example, in the first case, a charity offering an after-school program might show pictures of teachers or coaches working with children who are obviously happy with the experience. In the latter case, a university might talk about its special relationship with alumni. For example, the University of Florida refers to its alumni as being part of Gator Nation.

3. Identity. This is when a donor considers whether a message or appeal speaks to them personally and who they are or are not. My Gator Nation example happens to fit both the Relational and Identity categories. In the case of my identity, as it relates to PCA, I’m a Philadelphian; they help children in Philadelphia. I seek justice; they help children get justice. I want to protect children; they help protect children. Another example is a nursing school that featured articles about legacy donors in its alumni magazine. Usually, those stories were about wealthy donors, often not nurses, leaving large gifts in their Will. Could most nurses identify with those stories? Probably not. When the school did a story about an African-American female nurse who made a legacy commitment of $35,000, more nurses were able to identify. This resulted in additional legacy commitments.

There are many types of Identity including:

Relational – For example, a parent, sister, brother, dog owner, caregiver.

Organizational – For example, a church congregant, political party member, college alumnus.

Group – For example, gun owners, gender, sexual orientation, outdoor enthusiasts.

Geographic – For example, city, state/province, region, continent.

Religious – For example, institutional affiliation (e.g., church, synagogue, mosque), beliefs, origins.

While I’ve oversimplified the topic of donor identity, my primary objective here is to introduce you to an important concept that is often overlooked when it comes to communicating with donors. Psychologists tell us that while Situational and Relationship motivations can be powerful, it is Identity motivation that is usually the most powerful. If you ignore this, you could be hurting your organization’s fundraising efforts.

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

5 Comments to “Are You Annoying Your Donors Without Even Knowing It?”

  1. This is a really interesting piece! Thank you for sharing, Michael, really enjoyed the personal anecdote. Always helpful to hear about donors’ experiences. I’m wondering: if a nonprofit doesn’t have, say, good records about their donors or former board members, how might you suggest that they try to figure out the identity piece? Thank you!

    • Angela, thank you for your excellent question. If you don’t mind, I won’t answer it just yet. Instead, I’ll respond soon in a separate blog post. I appreciate the blogging inspiration you’ve provided!

  2. Great food for thought. Highlights the importance of donor data and the personal touch.

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