The Future Of The American Donor

*Editor’s Note: During the next 10 days The NonProfit Times will publish commentaries looking to 2021 and beyond from some of the sector’s most accomplished leaders. All of the commentaries are available in The NonProfit Times’ digital edition on this website.

The United States of America unarguably has one of the most developed philanthropic traditions in the world. Having lived in four countries and visited more than 20, I have yet to find its equal. The fact that more than 1.5 million tax-exempt organizations are registered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) gives statistical evidence of this fact.

In many countries, personal wealth is considered almost exclusively as a legacy for family. Many charitable organizations here, that do not have a particularly aggressive Planned Giving/Legacy departments, still receive a good percentage of their income from testamentary gifts.

But large gifts are not just part of a donor’s legacy. Food For The Poor (FFTP) received two record-breaking gifts of seven figures each during October from generous donors who are very much alive.

FFTP has 13 fundraising departments. Except for our Speakers’ Bureau of priests, pastors and ministers who are not able to visit churches during the pandemic for the safety of all involved, the remaining 12 departments have all done well — at times surpassing budget and 2019 results.

These gains were made despite the many hardships suffered by donors and FFTP staff — such as working from home, mastering new technologies, virtual events, radical changes in messaging, an atmosphere of worry, stress, fear, anxiety, loneliness, depression, and mourning.

American donors always respond well to crisis, whether at home (Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, September. 11, 2001) or abroad (Haiti earthquake of 2010, the Tsunami in Banda Ache). Donors in this country find themselves with a need to give in times of crisis, at times for extended period, as long as the media acts as a constant reminder of the crisis.

The American donor generally gives single gifts, with the exception of child sponsorship, but more and more, the emphasis on the acquisition of monthly donors is beginning to popularize this form of giving with its many advantages — longer retention, better lifetime value and greater percentage of legacy gifts, to name a few.

One wonders why it is that, of the 1.5 million charities registered with the IRS, some do exceptionally well, many do well, while others barely survive. Why do 60% to 75% who give a first gift to a charity, do not give a second gift? Is this the donors’ fault? No.

Starting with the acquisition of donors, if currently our only source of acquisition is the exchange or rental of lists that have been circulating for decades, then we are doing a disservice to our organizations.

If we are not taking advantage of co-ops, that are able to model our files and choose donors who are more likely to be attracted to our organizations, then we are missing a lucrative opportunity. Also consider that co-ops will not share your unique names, but only use them for modeling purposes. They also save our organizations from having to pay for duplicate names, since their list names are de-duped before they are sent to us.

Fundraisers should have an open mind regarding the newer science that is beginning to play an important role in the social good sector — Machine Learning. Their models use thousands of variables that better inform us as to whom we should be mailing and what we should be mailing them … both in acquisition mailings and appeals to our file. The use of these gifts to our sector, help us to better match our organizational values to those of the donor, resulting in a donor who will be more generous and loyal to our organizations.

The combination of recency, frequency and monetary value (RFM), has been a very useful tool for our sector, and it continues to be, but it should not be the only factor to be used when making important decisions about our donors. Why? It is because the American donor is not satisfied with a transactional bond to an organization. They hunger for a true relationship that makes them feel like an integral part of something larger than themselves.

A good friend, Tom Gaffny, who is a mentor to the social good community, frequently repeats this important mantra, “Donors do not give to you because you have needs; but because you meet needs … especially their own.”

If Moses were to return to us with a third tablet for the social good sector, the first commandment would be, “Know Thy Donor,” and the second, “Let The Donor Know You Know Them.”

This might be easier to say than to do, but there are many ways to achieve it. Some of the simpler ways are surveys (so affordable digitally and easy to put together and study results and trends), focus groups, phone conversations, tours of the facility, good Donor Services associates (or associate, depending on size of organization) who are skilled at listening and recording trends, rather than reacting. We need to listen to our donors, and act on what we hear.

FFTP hired a company some years ago to do what they called an Emotional Inquiry Study (EIS). A well-trained team of interviewers had long conversations with many of our active and loyal donors. We found out so much about our donors. Helping the poor was the fourth reason for supporting FFTP. What was the number one reason for supporting us? They wanted to feel like good, generous, decent human beings. They wanted to feel good about themselves.

This, together with Tom Gaffny’s mantra, and a presentation in Holland on donor centricity from Tom Ahearn, a friend and sector guru on that subject, totally changed the way that we communicated with our donors, with amazing effects.

We realized that saying, “Donor is King” at all our meeting was not enough.

This discovery of the number one reason for the generosity of our donors is likely a universal truth. Therefore, if we want to experience the true mettle of the American donor, their beautiful compassion and generosity to so many diverse causes, let us stop talking about the founder, about the organization and what it accomplishes, but rather, let us give credit where it’s due — to those who selflessly, and often sacrificially, allow us to achieve our joint missions to save the world and make it a better place.

It was this change in paradigm that has allowed FFTP to be successful in the year of COVID. As a Christian inter-denominational organization, with an active prayer ministry, the first thing we did was send texts and emails offering prayer — to pray for them and their needs or with them by phone. The response was incredible. When we later began fundraising, we always started by recognizing their pain. Again, the response was incredible.

Even after years of witnessing this type of response and generosity, it is still amazing that, with all they were experiencing here, they did not forget those in our 17 countries that have extreme poverty exacerbating the effects of this deadly virus.

When we present our values and our needs to our donors, let us make them full partners in the work that we do, and the hope for its happy resolution.


Angel Aloma is executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Food For The Poor in Coconut Creek, Fla.