What do donors want? Experienced fundraising professionals should be constantly asking themselves this question, and they should be earnestly working to learn the answer. Upon seeing this headline at the Chronicle of Philanthropy, our interest was immediate. It seems that so many articles these days address the emerging promise of increased results through technology and new communication channels. Rather, this refreshing article serves to remind fundraisers of the quintessential factors of success by presenting several donor testimonials. Nothing too earth shattering here including hands-on awareness through on-site donor tours; increased levels of involvement through volunteering; basic donor stewardship through timely gift acknowledgements; and, a reminder to value the donor relationship and maintain the donor’s perspective.
October 19, 2014
People who give to America’s biggest charities crave candor, connection to a cause, and respect.
Najlah Feanny, for the Chronicle
Cash donations to the Food Bank For New York City have surged from $16.5-million to $24-million in the last two years, largely because the nonprofit has aggressively sought ways to show supporters what the organization does to help the needy. The food bank, part of the Feeding America network (No. 5 on The Chronicle’s Philanthropy 400), now runs “mission engagement tours”—corralling existing and potential donors, local politicians, and other people for half-day excursions to see the work the charity does. Participants meet on Manhattan’s Upper East Side before boarding a bus that takes them to food pantries and soup kitchens in the Bronx or Brooklyn that are supported by the food bank. A client of the charity accompanies them and talks about its work.
“We get them to see people beyond the executive team, to meet people serving on the line and people being served,” says Arthur Stainman, a money-management executive for First Manhattan who has supported the charity for two decades and now serves on its board.
The tours are “a powerful way to draw people in,” he adds. “When you actually meet a client, it is hard to say no.”
Here are some additional approaches that have worked for other charities on the Philanthropy 400 list:
Give donors meaningful roles.
Like Mr. Stainman, Henry Jarecki, a New York psychiatrist-turned-billionaire businessman, says that the Food Bank For New York City is one of his favorite charities. That’s because the organization’s staff members get him involved in their work and make him feel like he’s making the city a better place to live.
“When we did fundraising, the development staff would ask me if they could write a talk I could give. This was an enormous help,” Dr. Jarecki recalls. Fundraisers at the food bank, he says, “make people feel they are genuinely making a difference. You have to have development staff thinking about more than just getting a grant.”
Hire personable fundraisers.
One donor, who has been giving to his alma mater for decades and asked to remain anonymous, says he doesn’t understand why his university has continued to employ a big-gift fundraiser who rubs donors the wrong way.
“I chaired a campaign when there was no donor who wanted to meet with this development officer, and I got a lot of negative feedback,” the donor says. “He is still there, offending people, but nobody ever replaces him.”
Charities want their most-generous donors to say yes to invitations rather than thinking, How can I get out of this?, he notes.
To make sure fundraisers are a good fit with wealthy supporters, the donor says, universities and other nonprofits should require fundraisers to go out to dinner with a loyal supporter or two as part of the interview process.
Ask for what you really need.
Tim Hanlon, president of the Wells Fargo Foundation, which made $281-million in grants last year, including $20-million to United Way Worldwide (No. 1) and its affiliates, says too many charities write proposals based on what they think the company will support, not on what they actually need.
“A lot of grant proposals talk around the need,” Mr. Hanlon says. “If you need a grant to help you pay the rent or keep the copier running, then ask for that. Don’t be ashamed or shy about asking.”
Show off the frontline work.
Mr. Hanlon gets turned off by groups that invite him for a visit and focus on the office space instead of the work they do.
“Walking us through cubicles is a waste of time,” he says. “Let’s get where the work really happens. If it is a food bank, let’s go into the dining room or the food line.”
Mr. Hanlon recalls one of his favorite site visits, a 1994 trip to a new charter school that was just getting off the ground.
“I sat on the floor with about six or eight students during a math lesson,” he recalls. “It was very bare bones but very real.”
The charter school, which went on to receive a national award for elementary-school excellence, Mr. Hanlon says, “always reminds me how important it is to see what is going on.”
Quickly acknowledge all gifts—even the small ones.
Anne Taylor, a donor and board member of a local branch of The Y (No. 13) and a regular donor to about a dozen nonprofits, along with her husband, Dave, says that in recent years, charities have been slower to acknowledge the couple’s donations than they were five years ago.
She makes it a point to call charities that don’t respond to a gift within three weeks. One nonprofit official Ms. Taylor contacted after getting no response for a $200 donation was “completely blasé,” she says. While she and her husband have continued to support the charity, “I feel no urgency” about responding to its requests, she says.
While it may sound petty, Ms. Taylor says, “I want to make sure you received our donation and it was credited properly. A gift is a reciprocal thing; it is not a gift until it has been received and acknowledged properly.”
Display thorough knowledge of donors’ giving history.
People who are often asked for large contributions get annoyed when solicited by charity officials who know little or nothing about their interests or previous gifts.
“A couple organizations have come at us for a really, really big amount without qualifying that we would make such a gift or had any interest in it,” says Tom Friel, a donor and trustee at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (No. 8) who, with his wife, supports numerous charities.
For one of the offending organizations, Mr. Friel says, “we kept giving, but at a lower level, and in the other case, we stopped giving entirely.”
Charlotte Jones Anderson, executive vice president of the Dallas Cowboys, which has made generous donations to the Salvation Army (No. 3), says she was turned off by a fundraiser from a youth group who never asked her what she or the sports team cares about. “This group’s interest was, How much is your check and how much can we get from the rest of you,” she says, referring to the fundraiser’s attempt to get donations from football players and others.
“They didn’t try to link my passion to the cause,” Ms. Anderson says. “When agencies fail to do this, it becomes a money grab.”
Don’t get pushy with donors.
A donor who has a fund at Fidelity Charitable (No. 2) and asked to remain anonymous, says she and her husband continue to support a certain religious organization because they believe in its mission, even though they’re both annoyed by the organization’s overly aggressive solicitations.
“There is a particular man, and he is always asking,” the donor says. “He comes every year and we don’t feel appreciated. Sometimes it hasn’t even been a year.”
She got even more frustrated with the organization a few years ago. “We gave a substantial gift, of about $800,000,” she recalls. “Not long thereafter, this guy came to us and said, ‘We invested your money in the stock market and lost it.’ ”
That revelation caused the couple, who had earmarked their gifts for general operating costs, to tie all subsequent gifts to specific projects, such as supporting a girl’s dormitory at a summer camp operated by the charity.
“Why would they tell us they lost our money?” the donor says. “That is not good stewardship. We did not like hearing that. It would have been better for them to keep that to themselves.”
Avoid discussing the economy when making solicitations.
Anne Tatlock, a donor and fundraising volunteer at the Mayo Clinic (No. 46), says she has winced during solicitation visits when a fundraising colleague starts talking to donors about the bad economy. It’s not effective, she says, “to have general statements about the bad economy and other macro trends.”
Such information, Ms. Tatlock says, “makes it harder for the donor to sift through how the organization is affected and if they are too negatively affected to use a gift well. You have to establish a record of success and confidence the money will be used wisely.”