The Big Chill: can we cure donor’s emotional breakdown?

Published by Francesco Ambrogetti on

We had all hoped it would go better with time and we tried to ignore it. But the disease is still here, how is it possible?  Is it me or is everyone experiencing the same? Everybody is tweeting and blogging about this virus eating away our income and infecting our database (among many see  Roger Craver and  Tom Belford and also the rants from Lucy Gower and Reinier Spruit). Notwithstanding the ‘prescriptions’ on donor’s loyalty and relationship by Adrian Sargeant and Ken Burnett we still sadly look mainly at the numbers: call it retention or attrition, loyalty or stewardship, donors are leaving us.

We know the data, on average (and depending on the market) we can lose between 30 and 80 percent of first time donors (in some case, like face to face, even within the first 12 months) while the commercial sector lose only 6 percent. Only a limited number of existing donors (20-30 percent) give more than once a year.  And this is not just the average donor. In the US 30 percent of high net worth donors stop supporting at least one organization and 32 percent stop giving to two organizations.

We all know the basic cure: a (personalized?) welcome note, email or call and personal thank you to donors, show them the impact and the difference their gift make, engage them in various activities not only in giving money, invite them to events and  field visits, etc.  So why don’t they stay and why don’t they give again?

I argue that the answer is not only a well-executed donor care program (although we can and must always improve!) and of course finding the right target audience to begin with but it is also the growing emotional gap with our donors. Think about it. Our first meeting with donors (or our first date) is all about emotional engagement: we have the power to trigger powerful emotions like anger, fear, and sadness and we make feel people happy through their gift. This is thanks to the incredible experience that a donor lives through a myriad of senses stimulated by the power of the stories we tell with our images, sounds and words. And what happens next?  They receive a (personalized?) thank you letter or a note (maybe a call or an email), some newsletters or a glossy report, more appeals and requests for funds or requests to increase their donation. Like in the saddest love stories, the spark of the first date is gone; there no emotion in our relationship, therefore many donors look for other experiences or new relationships.

Delivering-Happiness1. Delivering happiness, or not? Donors are not happy and we are not taking them seriously according to Joe Saxton. We are not listening (whether they complain or they change address) and we fail to keep them as happy as they were when they first donated.  Last year I conducted a number of mystery calls to some Italian charities to re-live the experience of the donors. A summary can be watched here and you don’t need to know the language to understand. Apart from the long time waiting on the line and the ill-informed respondents about charity activities or about what difference the donations can make, the overall experience of the donors has been dull and emotion-less.  Examples of what donors said after the experience of calling their charity with a query:  “Lack of courtesy. She didn’t know the programs and she is not passionate about the cause, she didn’t engage with me at all” or “He gave me comprehensive information about their programs but sounded very cold and even when he thanked me was like he was reading a script”.

No surprise we lose most of our first time donors while the commercial sector retain most of their customers. One of the best examples is the mythical Zappos, an online shoes seller in US. This company grew into a multi-billion dollars company, starting without a marketing budget but relying only on customer satisfaction and referral through word of mouth. Zappos vision is “Delivering Happiness” (a vision that could apply to many charities!) and is based on few simple principles like “wowing customers” (they deliver shoes overnight for free and, in case they don’t fit, you can return them for free within 365 days), build open and honest relationship with communication, be passionate and determined.  Results: 75% of purchases come from returning customers, and repeat customers order more than 2.5 times every 12 months. Repeat customers also have higher average order volumes, and year-over-year revenue has gone up by 30%.

When I spoke with Zappos Chief of Happiness (or head of customer care) she explained that the key of the success is that each of the people in customer care team – 1,300 people for 25 million customers – has total autonomy both in terms of decisions and budget. When a customer experience a problem, a delay in the delivery or has a complaint,  everyone picking up the call or reading the email can decide to do whatever it takes to make the customer happy (including sending flowers or a pizza and stay on the phone for one hour or more), without supervisor approval. Can you imagine if our donor/supporter care team, our people in call centres or our face to face teams could be empowered to take any decisions they deem necessary to make donors happy, including spending money, without approval from managers or directors?

clarence2. Do it like George Bailey! Christmas is well gone, but there is still something we can use from the festive spirit. Everyone knows the movie “It’s a wonderful life” from Frank Capra where the angel Clarence shows to George Bailey (played by James Stewart) how the world would look if he hadn’t been born. This is called “counterfactual reflection” and strengthens the engagement of customers and employees. Researchers at Northwestern University and UC Berkeley found that having people visualize historical alternatives made them more engaged and committed with institutions and organizations.

Jeff Brooks argues that to improve engagement and loyalty we should show the donors the world without their giving. We can use the idea of a magic wand or simply show and make them imagine a world without our charity or without our donors. An example from an Italian NGO called Emergency shows in two  minutes, through clever use of info-graphics, how the world look like thanks to the donors and Emergency successes. No wonder why Emergency last year received most of the Gift Aid from donors. Or look at the way Amnesty International in Australia use one page of images and donor’s quote to show the world in 2012 or the superb campaign of American Red Cross in which people helped telling the story of how their life changed thanks to Red Cross.

We need to recreate the emotional connection with our donors and stop treating the donor care or support team like a cost or a simple newsletter. Our causes and stories are able to trigger powerful emotions but we fail to keep the same emotional connection with our donors after the first gift. More important than the technologies or the RFM model we use  is the actual experience and that donors decides  they will stay with us because, as the poet Maya Angelou said: “People will forget what you said or what you did, but will never forget how you made them feel.”

Francesco Ambrogetti

Francesco is Innovative Finance and Partnership advisor at Capital Development fund of the UN. Before joining the UN in NY, he was the Director of Fundraising and Marketing for UNICEF Italy, leading a $70 million a year revenue programme. He has over 20 years' international fundraising experience with UNICEF, UNAIDS and UNFPA in Geneva, Bangkok, and Panama, and has advised organizations like the World Bank, WWF, MSF, and The Red Cross. He is teaching fundraising at the University of Bologna and authored various articles and books on marketing and fundraising, including "Emotionraising: How to Astonish, Disturb, Seduce and Convince the Brain to Support Good Causes" (Civil Society Press, 2016).


barbie bebek · May 25, 2013 at 14:34

I’ve exciting having, lead to I uncovered what exactly I was looking for. You’ve got was over my personal three evening lengthy hunt! Lord Thank you guy. Have got a nice day time. Bye

[Headlines] Your Annual Report – in 6 Words? | Growing Your Donors · February 12, 2013 at 06:10

[…] The Big Chill: can we cure donor’s emotional breakdown? The answer is not only a well-executed donor care program and of course finding the right target audience to begin with but it is also the growing emotional gap with our donors. […]

[Headlines] Your Annual Report – in 6 Words? | · February 12, 2013 at 06:12

[…] The Big Chill: can we cure donor’s emotional breakdown? The answer is not only a well-executed donor care program and of course finding the right target audience to begin with but it is also the growing emotional gap with our donors. […]

How to keep your donors wanting to come back · February 27, 2013 at 11:18

[…] me to a blog post by Francesco Ambrogetti, the Fundraising Advisor for UNAIDS in Geneva called The Big Chill: can we cure donor’s emotional breakdown?. In this post, he draws on lessons from Zappos to George […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *