Fire Your Donors

Published by Josh Bowman, CFRE on

Customer Service 2Over the past year, I’ve seen/heard/had a number of discussions around fundraising trends. They tend to revolve around the following topics:

  • Acquisition ain’t what it used to be, and retention is abysmal. It’s time to really love our donors!
  • Donor-centred fundraising – do it. You can’t thank these guys enough!
  • What’s the next thing after direct mail? WHAT IS IT?!?
  • You are a bad fundraiser. Bad! Work harder!

And finally…

  • What’s with this high fundraiser turnover?

I would suggest that perhaps the root of the problem lies in a genuine disconnect between why people are giving today, and how we, as passionate – but misguided and kind of terrified – professionals are misinterpreting what we are being told by our donors. I would also like to propose that we are not being truly transparent, and thus our donors are misinformed, and are making major financial decisions based on inaccurate or incomplete information. I would also like to propose that it is time we shared our responsibility as fundraisers to keep our organizations going.

So, let’s begin with Dan Palotta. Mr. Palotta did a wonderful thing. He spoke truth to power, and intelligently deconstructed myths about charitable giving (if you don’t know who or what I’m talking about, go out and buy all his books). Myths that a charity can survive with 1% or no administration costs, no marketing spend, no investment in the future (we can almost never risk money in the short-term), and woefully inadequate pay for our leaders and employees.

As fundraisers, we bop around from job to job, frustrated that nobody understands our pain. Our Executive Directors/Board of Directors just don’t get it. Our donors ask us the same questions over and over (“well, how much do you spend on administration?” “Why do you waste all this paper on letters?”). And then we criticize each other (and ourselves, most of all) when retention rates are down.

I think the problem is that we know things that nobody else knows. We know why direct mail works, and why it has to be written in a specific and odd way. We know our budgets, and we know how much of those budgets are funded by individual giving. We know how to run capital campaigns, we know industry metrics, and we know how much we truly spend on administration.

But, as Dan Palotta says, we are all afraid to tell our donors the truth. We’re afraid to stand up to our bosses…afraid to share the information that validates us, that makes us jazzed to do our jobs, that informs how we raise money and where we spend our time and our energy. We get burned out.

Sometimes it feels as though I’m playing basketball with four other players (ED, Board, donors, marketing) who all know that the ball has to go through the hoop, but don’t know anything about pick and rolls, triangle offense, or any other strategy. We’re losing, the crowd is booing, and I’m just throwing up my hands, wishing the rest of my team knew what I know.

So, here’s my proposal:

There are business realities to running a charity. A charity needs to run properly or it can’t do the thing it was created to do (provide services to people in need, create beautiful art, save koala bears). Our donors are our investors, and we know that they want to know where their money is going.

Customer Service 1Additionally, our EDs want results. Our Board wants results. Employees want to know that they aren’t going to lose their jobs because of a bad fundraising year. And our clients, most of all, need us to be around tomorrow.

Thus, we are responsible, and that responsibility is a heavy burden. But we, as fundraisers, aren’t the only ones responsible. Our donors share in that responsibility. Our funders too. Our staff, Board (in fact, they are legally responsible…even if they don’t always act like it)…once we decide to raise this charitable baby, we are all responsible for it.

So what if we treat donors as responsible partners. We tell them what we know. How much we spend on lighting bills and rent. What it’s like trying to get foundation grants. What our salaries are, and why we pay them. We give them our budget, and let them ask questions. We tell them what their money pays for. Yes, it really does keep the lights on.

And we aren’t afraid to fire difficult donors (credit to Seth Godin for this idea). And give them their money back. “I’m sorry you don’t like how we do business. Here is a full refund. Maybe this just isn’t for you.” What if we spend our time on the passionate people, who know that their money is making this thing happen?

What if, instead of worrying about saying thank you seven times after every donation, we honour the money we’re given with information? Honest information. Information that helps our partners make informed decisions.

And, what if, when we’re flush (or, rather…if we’re ever flush), we send out an email. “We don’t need your money right now, because we’re doing ok. But we will need it in a few months. Because, you know….bills and so on. So, here’s our budget, right now…just so you know.”

If anybody asks how much you spend on administration, tell them.

“What? 30%? That’s outrageous!”

“Is it? Who would you fire? Would you fire the person that brings in the money? Would you fire the person who sends you back your tax receipt? Would you fire the person who goes out and serves food to people in need? You can’t run a business on volunteers, because you can’t rely on people you don’t pay. There are no consequences if they don’t show up. And that’s why we pay our employees. But if you still aren’t happy, here’s a full refund. Have a great day.”

This thing we do isn’t about donors. It’s not about us, and it’s not about making our Board happy. It’s about taking money and putting it where it’s needed. Passionately. Intelligently. And effectively. And we all have a responsibility to make things better. It’s time to stop coddling everyone around us, and treat them like the intelligent, critical, and passionate people they are. Our jobs will become easier, our donors will be more diligent, and our leaders will be more receptive.

Josh Bowman, CFRE

Josh is a blogger and development professional who has consulted and worked in Vancouver, Toronto, and New York for over a decade. Josh has raised millions of dollars for theatres, hunger relief organizations, and is the current Fundraising Director for CAPE. Josh writes for the Huffington Post and the Good Men Project, and has been published online at Forbes.com, OpenFile, Gender Focus, and a variety of other blogs. He has been a speaker at the Queen's Media and Journalism Conference (QMJC), and often posts on new media, blogging, and other buzzwords. Josh is currently working on a children's book, because he is a glutton for punishment.


Stephen Pidgeon · May 12, 2014 at 15:35

Hey Josh, great stuff. Love it, thanks!

Andrew S. Dungan · May 12, 2014 at 16:11

Credit where credit is due and I don’t give out credit much. This is tremendous work! This is spoken well. We don’t treat organizational stakeholders with intelligence and while there are differences between nonprofit and for profit work, those who value nonprofit work need to be treated more like for profit shareholders. We need to get them in the loop and talk to them with candor. Without educating the donors who believe in what we do we will continue to perpetuate the myths that Palotta fights so hard to disarm.
Again, well done.

Kevin Feldman · May 14, 2014 at 14:29

Josh, I agree with most of what you have written. I would say that your choice of words needs some work.

“Lay-off” your donors, don’t “fire” them. You would hope that in offering a dissatisfied donor a refund, they would be retained not lost.

Also, the idea of saying to donors, “we don’t need your money now” is troubling to me. For nonprofits it is important to have a perpetuating and sustainable stream of funds, whether you need the money now or not. Because you will need the money, and best to capture it now rather than have the donors express their philanthropy to another organization.

For many donors, giving is a habit or routine. This is why “recurring gifts” have grown in popularity. Many want to give as a routine, so they don’t miss a donation to a charity or cause that they care about.

Adrian Salmon · May 17, 2014 at 12:33

Hi Josh – really good thought provoking blog, but I’d like to take issue with a couple of things, if I may?

First off – it’s a cracking title, (and maybe you’ll say, ‘Well it got you here, job done!’) but you are being a bit disingenuous, aren’t you? You don’t really mean “Fire your donors” at all! You’re asking us to tell the truth to them, and treat them like intelligent human beings.

We can’t ‘fire’ donors – as you so rightly point out about volunteer staff, they’ll either turn up, or they won’t. There are no personal consequences to them in not doing so. And they’ll base their decision on whether to do so or not depending on how we treat them.

It’s a tricky road, trying to educate donors. Jeff Brooks lists it as one of his sure fire ingredients for losing them: http://www.futurefundraisingnow.com/future-fundraising/2014/05/podcast-5-ways-to-drive-away-donors.html

What if they don’t want to know about your budget? What if they don’t care about that? What if they simply care about the people, animals or thing they’re trying to help?

Which brings me to my other point – where you say ‘We know things that nobody else knows’. Which is half true. But within our organisations it’s often a bit worse than that. We often know things that a certain number of our colleagues – our bosses in particular – should know, or take pains to learn, but don’t wish to. They don’t want to know that a certain way of writing, or the use of a certain kinds of image, or a certain frequency of mailing, is way more effective than another, because it offends some notion they have of how things should be.

They’re the ones we should try to educate, and if that fails, fire. Not our donors. Because if we carry on with that kind of leadership, our donors will probably jump before they’re pushed.

Deena · May 20, 2014 at 20:54

This just about makes my day, week, month and year – Bravo!

Nishen Naicker · September 17, 2014 at 07:39

So glad to have read this , we fundraisers must be more troublemakers , internally and externally. We must speak the truth and be prepared for having those uncomfortable conversations with whoever. NPOs are doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. Its time to first be honest about our work and activities and change it . I belief that we are all leaders in our right, and we must take responsibility to changing our mindsets if we want to bring real change.

Here’s to being a troublemaker that sends shivers downs spines with truthful words .

Fundraisingwoche vom 12.-18.05.2014 | sozialmarketing.de - wir lieben Fundraising · May 19, 2014 at 18:00

[…] How to collect 100 millions for research in three years 101Fundraising: Fire Your Donors bloomerang: Will Good Grammar Save Fundraising? Veritus: You’re Never Too Busy Veritus: How to […]

Why you should fire some of your donors | Center for Digital Business Transformation · August 8, 2014 at 15:08

[…] via Fire Your Donors | Josh Bowman |. […]

Leave a Reply

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