The other night I was watching the show, “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO. There was an interesting segment he did on why President Obama was struggling with fundraising this year compared to four years ago. He reported that after the 2008 election Obama failed to thank his large donors properly and they were so upset that some were vowing to not help him this year.
These are titans of industry; celebrities and extremely wealthy people who were hurt that they weren’t acknowledged properly for helping him get elected. Now, the panel that Bill assembled quickly shot down the idea that a President should have to thank these people. “I mean, doesn’t he have more important things to do?” they chimed in.
But I disagree. Even the President of the United States needs to acknowledge his donors. If he loses this election this could be one of the greatest studies in how important it is to thank major donors.
This little story really just highlights what I see to be a massive problem in our industry. Ironically, I think we thank the $10 to $25 donor better than we do our $10,000 or $100,000 donor.
For many years I worked for a large, direct-response fundraising agency. We spent an enormous amount of time coming up with new strategies and creative to thank and welcome donors. We designed elaborate systems to make sure the receipt, along with a genuine thank you, would get back to the donor within a couple of weeks from when the gift was made.
Why? Because we had data showing that the more promptly we thanked a donor after a gift was made, the more likely they were to give again. We were obsessed with it and spent thousands of dollars trying to figure this out.
However, in the major gift world, I don’t see that same obsession with thanking and stewarding donors. I see a lot of energy trying to “get the gift,” but not nearly enough energy on what happens after the gift is made.
Why? I believe there could be two main reasons.
- You’re too busy going after the money. That’s right, you get the gift and you’re so eager to move on to the next donor that you no longer think much about the last one. I’ve seen MGO’s who, after celebrating a big gift, are immediately thinking about the ten donors they have to go after next. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is when you immediately forget the donor who just gave. I see this in the attitude of organizations. They get the gift from an individual, foundation or corporation and then their attitude immediately becomes, “What have you done for me lately?” rather than “How can we show our gratitude to this donor?” It’s terrible.
- There’s more emotional payoff in getting the money than in thanking the donor. This is what separates great MGO’s from ordinary ones. A major gift officer who enjoys thanking her donors as much as cultivating them for a gift is someone who ultimately will be successful. I’ve actually seen MGO’s who, after helping obtain a large gift from a donor, go into somewhat of a depression because it was all about “getting the gift.” When I sit down with MGO’s to work on their strategic plans for the year and they have a number of donors who are in the middle of a multi-year pledge, their creativity and energy toward stewarding those donors is sorely lacking. What I think MGO’s are forgetting is that the thanking and stewarding of a donor is actually the first step in obtaining the next gift, not the last step in getting one. That is a huge shift in thinking.
I don’t put all the blame on the MGO here. This comes from the top of the organization. If the culture of your organization is not donor-centered, it makes it extremely difficult for individuals within the organization to change it. Thanking and stewarding donors as a priority of the organization has to come from senior leadership.
I often hear from leadership and major gift officers, “Well, our donors don’t like to be thanked and stewarded after they make a gift. They just want to be left alone.”
Do not allow yourself to believe this lie. Just ask President Obama. Everyone likes to be thanked…perhaps in different ways but, believe me, they want to be thanked.
Here is my challenge to you. This week, I’d like you to spend half a day brainstorming with your colleagues on ways you can steward and thank your major donors. Get into a conference room with a white board and spend some quality time thinking about this.
You’ll be amazed at what you come up with. Then, execute. Look, if our colleagues in the direct-response fundraising world can spend days and thousands of dollars on how to thank a $10 donor, you can surely spend four hours thinking about your $500,000 donor.
Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.