I’m fortunate in that many a cheery charity solicitation finds its way to my mailbox. A recent favorite was the letter that began: “Dear High Value Donor,” thus proudly proclaiming to my friends and family that I had finally escaped the ranks of mere mortals and was now very firmly officer class material.
No more “donor,” or “low-value donor,” or “pathetically inadequate,” or “why did you bother at all donor” labels for me. My elevation to such lofty heights was clear, complete and would have been immensely satisfying were it not for the fact that to my knowledge I have never been a supporter.
In the five years since I arrived in the United States I’ve been the target for socks, T-shirts, bracelets, small coins, trinkets, flat-pack pens and other miscellaneous junk that is somehow supposed to enliven my interest in causes as diverse as international aid, reproductive health and the environment. I’ve been regaled as Drs Sargeant, Sargunt and Sangfant, offered a plethora of variously unattractive giving options and been hounded morning, noon and night, by telemarketers with auto-dialers hoping I will upgrade my giving.
Yes, I know. I know. I can always use the Do Not Call Registery, but I can’t imagine the sound of my world without the seemingly daily call from someone called Wanda. Perhaps she’s the head of high-level giving?
I can’t help thinking we’ve become obsessed by technique. When we discover that labeling donors, offering them premiums and talking to them through multiple channels works, we grind away at it neglecting the fact that we won’t be alone. The poor donor is left sinking under the weight of our technique while we proudly congratulate ourselves on yet another stonking leap forward in our response rates, return on investment (ROI) or other such meaningless measures of performance.
It’s little wonder the donor pool is contracting. We’re manipulating technique to squeeze every last cent out of donors without pausing to reflect for even a moment what we might be doing to philanthropy in this country. Donors want to be treated as individuals with their own interests and preferences. They don’t want to be treated as piggybanks. They want to be seen as partners in a cause and are demanding ever more meaningful ways of expressing their support than simply offering money.
Rather than invent the next generation of technique, perhaps our time would be more fruitfully spent developing multiple and meaningful opportunities for engagement and in those aspects of our cause that would be genuinely of interest to them.
At the risk of suggesting a revolution in fundraising, perhaps might we even encourage our donors to think through for themselves the nature of their own philanthropy and help them to find outlets and expressions of that philanthropy that would be more personally fulfilling? “Dear Mr. High Value Donor,” the letter might go, “you could support us, but wouldn’t you be better off supporting … ” It sounds heretical, but imagine the impact on philanthropy if donors were guided to their passions and facilitated there to have a meaningful impact.
What is genuinely sad about the current focus on technique is that we already know how to do better. Great fundraisers blazed a trail a generation ago. Great fundraising should be focused on the gentle art of teaching people the joy of giving.
Fundraising legend Hank Rosso worked largely in the realm of major gifts, but there are lessons in his words for us all. If we truly want to grow the donor pool and increase giving in this country we need to realize that fundraisers are ONLY the servants of philanthropy.
Fundraising and its associated ROI must never become an end in itself, for when it becomes so, both the organization and philanthropy are diminished.
Let’s hold off on the socks.
Adrian Sargeant, Ph.D. is the Hartsook endowed chair in fundraising at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, Ind. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org