Unexpected (?) fundraising tool: your ears as your moneymakers

Published by Vera Peerdeman on

“Recently a charity asked me if I had put them in my will. I was astounded and felt insulted by this question. After the conversation I immediately went to my notary and changed my will. I deleted all three of the charities that were in there. My kids are once again the only beneficiaries.”

I posted this quote on Twitter about a year ago, after a ‘kitchen table’ conversation with one of the major donors of a charity I work for as a consultant. The conversation was part of a feasibility study for a major gifts and legacies program. A fellow fundraiser has asked me to blog about the subject.

Well, here are my thoughts.

The impact of just saying ‘thank you’

What was the reason for the quoted donor’s frustration? She had been an annual €500+ donor for 8 years and had never received a personal thank you. Yes, she saw these two words on some bank statements and in a letter that also asked her to upgrade her gift. But she never heard those words, because she was never visited or phoned by any of the charity’s employees. Actually, I was the first person she ever spoke to who represented the charity — me, a consultant!

The funny thing was, when I asked if she would appreciate it if I suggested that one of the program managers visit her and tell about what the charity spent her money on, she refused (out of humbleness, I guess). A phone call maybe? A letter? No. That would cost the charity time, and time equals money, and money should be spent on the mission.

A few questions later, I found out what she would really appreciate — an unexpected, genuine and personal ‘thank you’. It could be as simple as a handwritten sticky note (and think of how low-cost and easy that is!).  Another few questions later, she agreed that an invitation to tour the charity’s headquarters, or even, to my surprise, an unprompted visit by the previously mentioned program manager, would actually be greatly appreciated by her.

This example is not just about expressing your appreciation for a donor’s gift, about literally saying ‘thank you’. It is also about personally giving the donor the suitable amount of attention. It is about acknowledging the interest and trust that he or she has shown in your cause through his gift(s), and showing in return that you value him or her as a person.

Even a grumpy old man can be your major donor

Normally it’s very easy to set up an interview with one of my clients’ major donors. The CEO of the charity sends an invitation letter, and then I follow up with a phone call to set the appointment. Well, that wasn’t the case with Mr. Big (don’t bother to look him up in the Dutch Quote 500 or American Forbes 400 list, it’s a fictitious donor). Never in my entire career had I needed to use so many arguments to persuade him to meet with me. It wasn’t about him not wanting to welcome me, he just needed to hear why and why him. After a 45-minute phone conversation, he finally agreed to meet. I could visit him at his home office.

But the visit itself proved even more challenging. He really gave me a hard time. He acted like a typical grumpy old man and wasn’t positive about a single thing the charity has done. I can handle grumpy old men; in fact, I like being challenged in a conversation. But never in one of my interviews had anyone been so negative about a cause or charity that he/she had financially supported.

During the interview Mr. Big couldn’t stop talking about how another, cause-related, charity delivered much better work than the charity I was representing. This other charity supplied him only with information he really cared about, and thanked him for his gifts. As a matter of fact: the relationship manager of this other charity thanked him personally, she visits him every year. He could even tell me that they both love to play golf.

Looking back on the 1.5-hour conversation, I think I only asked him 5 questions. There was no Pareto Principle in this interview. If I had filled even 2% of the time with my questions, it would have been a lot.

On the drive home, I really thought that I had failed the interview. I knew I had to report this back to my client, but the resistance I felt caused me to put off picking up the phone.

It was only one week later that my client called me. She was ecstatic. “What have you said to Mr. Big? What was your conversation with him about?” An uncomfortable feeling crept from my toes to my stomach. Before I could respond, and to my big surprise, she finished her sentence, “Today we received a €15,000 gift from Mr. Big! Never before has he given this much.  Not even his lifetime value approaches this gift level!”

Although this may be a unique experience, I learned a very important lesson. Just being there, and being patient enough to listen to a donor’s story (whether it is a complaint, a compliment or a personal experience), can be enough to move him to give again, or to upgrade his gift. My role was that of catalyst between Mr. Big and the charity. But it could have just as easily been the development officer, the relationship manager or another employee of the charity.

Your ears are your moneymakers

A lot of fundraisers and fundraising consultants have said this before, but the value of a good conversation with a donor is priceless. Taking the time to listen to the personal stories of the people who support your cause, getting to know them, keeping the conversations ongoing by servicing donors in the ways they appreciate most — it all sounds so simple. Still, a lot of charities (or should I say ‘Dutch charities’?) really underestimate the power of listening and investing in it.

So, beloved fellow fundraisers: take a break from investing in major donor mailings or other direct response activities to raise money from high value donors. Instead, get off your chair, jump in that (hybrid) car (or train) and visit the people who support the values of your organization. Have your own kitchen table conversations with your donors and thank them, listen to them, connect to them, and further commit them. Use your ears, and I am sure they will be the best moneymakers you’ve ever had.

Vera Peerdeman

Vera wants to bridge the gap between those who give and those who receive. When speaking with donors, she notices a gap between their perceptions and expectations and those of the organizations they support. She wants to bring donors and organizations together to realize their ideals. That’s why she wrote Handbook Friendraising (Dutch). Vera is proud that people see her as a specialist in major donor fundraising. When she speaks at (inter)national seminars and congresses, she gets inspired by interacting with the fundraisers in the audience. Please feel free to call her if you’d like to talk about whether she could make a valuable contribution to your project or conference.


David · January 16, 2012 at 15:49

Nice story Vera! There is hope after all if grumpy donors seem to dislike your organization…. That’s reassuring and i’ll keep that in mind the coming months during my first visits!

Tara Lepp · January 16, 2012 at 16:01

Good story! I think it’s innate that we all just want to be listened to and acknowledged. And it’s a good reminder that although we may be afraid of talking to people who have complaints or concerns, you can often turn a negative into a positive by just acknowledging the donor’s feelings and listening to their concerns.

Monic Opveld · January 16, 2012 at 16:09

Dear Vera,
Totally agree. I’m working as a fundraiser for more than 10 years. I still believe that every contact can be a ‘gold ticket’. I also have deep respect for the people in te ‘field’. Let me explain.
Recreatie Centra Nederland has become 60 years. RCN want’s to celbrate this by adopting a project from Kinderpostzegels. The employees of the 10 park will organize during the holiday season all sorts of fundraising activity’s for their guests to raise money for the Kinderpostzegels project. During the next weeks I visit these 10 parks to speak about the project, to brainstorm and most of all…to tell the people who are going to raise the money…how I respect them for what they are doing. At that moment something is happening within their minds and hearts.

Michael Balzano · January 16, 2012 at 16:26

Excellent article. People have no idea how far gratitude goes, specifically in fundraising. Of course, just saying “thank you” is about as easy as it gets, but sadly few do it.

Vera Peerdeman · January 16, 2012 at 18:38

Dear David, Tara, Monic and Michael,

Thank you all for taking the time to read my blog…

I wish you all the best with fundraising!

Grtz, Vera.

Sean Triner · January 16, 2012 at 23:00

Thanks Vera, and I totally agree with thanking of high value donors. There are tons of stories and anecdotes that support it.
But recently (October 11) I was challenged by a data guy from the US. He said “There is no evidence that specific thanking increases life time value of [low-mid value] donors.” The year before, Greenpeace Australia had presented evidence showing that the cost of thanking and updating face to face recruited monthly donors did not increase donations by more than the cost. Ie – thanking and updating made no difference whatsoever to net value. Since face to face recruited donors are not good major donor and bequest prospects, acquiring them and then ignoring them appears to be a viable option.
With ordinary donors the American fundraising data guy said “Just make sure you say thank you in the copy of your next appeal, and make sure that appeal is soon.”
Does anyone, anywhere have any real, transactional data evidence across a data set, that thanking ordinary donors (<$500 or so) with separate thank you letters is actually a useful thing to do? Penelope Burke, Ken Burnett and myself have all written about the wonders of thanking, but it is all either anecdotal or from opinion research – never from actually looking at large data sets.
Anyone got any data?

    Mark Stewart · January 17, 2012 at 01:01

    Hi Sean,
    The key difference between peoples experiences in thanking is really about the type of donor they are. You hit a very good point in the difference between a low value F2F donor and regular appeal respondants etc. These assumptions about how to communicate cannot be applied to each of these groups in the same way.

    My survey results across different types of donors and different organisations (and countries) show major variances. The only statement I would make in less than 20 pages would be to ask your donors. There are so many factors influencing their expectations it is foolish to assume you know how they feel.

    Good Luck

Kirsten Giethoorn · January 17, 2012 at 10:05

Dear Vera,
As a very small Dutch Foundation we found out that it’s very important to stay in contact with your donors, even the € 2,50 ones!! (may be, one day they’ll be € 10,00 donors!?) Not only by newsletter, but right at the coffee table, with some pictures and a small present made by the benificaries at our projects.
Thank you, for your reminder: don’t forget your donors! It’s not only about new and more donors, it’s about a continues base of donors.

Andrea Goezinne · January 17, 2012 at 17:25

Dear Vera, I just saw this video by ‘charity: water’ and they really applied what you wrote in their 5th year anniversary video:

Vera Peerdeman · January 18, 2012 at 10:57

Thanks for sharing, Andrea. And thanks Kirsten, Mark, and Sean for your reply. @Sean: if I ever meet someone (in the Netherlands) who can help you with the data your looking for, I’ll let you know!

This video recently was posted on Twitter by Reinier (Spruit) and is also a creative example of saying ‘thank you’ to donors and supporters: http://youtu.be/J8qvyri_lKw

Deodaat · February 2, 2012 at 10:48

So true!!
Thanks for sharing this. Last night I had a meeting in my backyard (at a campfire) with one of my donors. At the end he told me this; this meeting was better than 10 newsletters!
I read your blog about a month ago and experienced it now, thx!

Julie · February 5, 2012 at 20:18

Thanks for sharing, and I totally agree.
But I have one nagging question ;-)

Should we make one2one visits to 500 euro donors? Many charities have very limited High Value Donor or Major Donor staff. I do not think they should invest their valuable time in visiting these relatively low value donors. If we search our databases (using wealth overlay if possible) many of us will find donors that have much higher capacity. I think we should aim for much more. Go out there and ask much more. Our missions and projects need a hell of a lot of money so we need to go out there and aim high.

I am currently working on setting a global bench mark for Major Donor fundraising at 100.000 euro/dollar level.
In every country there is potential, we need to research, contact and ask them.
Be more ambitious and use our time wisely.

Anne-Marie · March 18, 2012 at 21:47

I hear of time being valuable and restricting visits to donors who give a lot of money. Well I would consider that the smaller donor has friends and family they talk to who may become large donors because of anecdotal information they were given. Even a CEO has a Mother somewhere.

    Vera Peerdeman · March 19, 2012 at 13:29

    Good point Anne-Marie. I totally agree with you. At the moment I’m writing a book about Friendraising (to be published in The Netherlands in September 2012) and one of the things I will discuss in this book is the importance of acknowledging every supporter of your organization, whether it’s a regular or a major donor. This can be done via a good conversation or another way of communicating, by a well informed volunteer, a fundraiser or CEO. It’s not the point who is doing it, the point is that you do it.

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