Your Donor Is Watching

It always amazes me to find out how many non-profit professionals actually believe that donors are not watching what they are doing.  I’m not sure they actually believe that – but they behave that way.

This “not watching” belief/behavior happens in a number of different ways.  We seem to actually believe that donors are:

  • Not watching WHAT you do with their money.  It used to be that donors just gave you the money and then moved onto other things.  Not any more.  Several weeks ago I heard the story of a charity who lost a multi-million dollar per year donor because the non-profit could not account for how they spent the money.  The funny thing was some people in the charity were actually “bothered” by the fact that the donor checked!  Goodness.
  • Not watching HOW you spend their money.  You believe they don’t read your annual reports and financials, so you don’t need to be concerned with how efficiently you are running your organization. Not any more.  Now, don’t confuse this statement with the amount of overhead your organization spends.  Jeff and I have been telling you that any non-profit that claims their overhead is less than 15-20% must be living on a different planet.  You just cannot manage a good organization and pay talented people what they should be paid by running it on air.  Doesn’t happen.  But I am not talking about overhead here.  I just had to take that side trip on the subject because it is a pet peeve of mine.  What I am talking about is HOW you spend the money other than overhead.  Like stating in your appeals that your organization has an economic crisis, that “things are really tough”, then spending a wad of cash on buying a piece of property or renovating a building, etc.  Donors can see what you are doing.
  • Not watching how you treat them.  I have in my possession a series of thank you letters to a major donor who decided to give a local charity $500 a month.  This is no small commitment!  Over a year this will turn into a $6000 gift.  I have four of the letters laid out on my desk right now.  They are personally addressed and signed by the Executive Director of the charity.  The ONLY difference between each of the letters is the date – one for every month the donor gave! Everything else is exactly the same.  Exactly. Including the signature.  Not one word has been changed.  There is even a hand written “Thank You” at the bottom. What do you think this Executive Director is thinking?  One thought I had was that this gentleman is coming from the annual giving philosophy.  So, in his mind, people only give once a year, therefore his whole system is set up for that.  The other thought is that he actually believes the donor is not watching.  Hmmmm…..

This “donors are not watching” behavior is symptomatic of an underlying belief system on the part of a non-profit’s leadership that views donors as sources of cash vs. partners.  How do I know this?  Because the donor’s value in the equation is not lifted up, honored or valued.

We see examples of this every day in many non-profits.  We see it in program, in fundraising, in operations and in finance.  It is an attitude of disregard that positions the donor as the least important part of the effort.

I really don’t know how this happens.

Think about it.  The donor is delivering the cash that the non-profit runs on.  The donor is fueling the engine that makes everything happen.  How is it we can just ignore this fact?  I don’t know.  But it happens all too often.  And then the leadership and the board wonders why there is such high donor attrition in the organization.  Why are the donors going away??

There are two basic reasons why you need to pay more attention to donors in your organization:

  1. They ARE the critical part of what makes your cause happen.  Without them you do not exist.  Without their financial input you cannot function.  This is 99% of the reason you should pay more attention to your donors.  And the second reason is…
  2. They are watching.  They know what you are doing.

So, take a look at how you do things in your organization.  What attitudes do finance, program and operations people have about donors?  What does your leadership think of donors?  How are you treating them?

What are your own attitudes about the donors on your caseload?  Is your heart warm and open toward your donors?  Do you care about what they think and how they are treated?  If your answer to these questions is “no”, then you really need to find another job OR change your attitude.

Look at it this way.  The three most critical aspects of a non-profit are:

  1. Donors.
  2. The cause itself and the clients you serve.
  3. The program you deliver.

All the rest of it is the system that puts these three things together.  I am not saying the people involved in the system (i.e. the staff) are not important.  I am saying that our service is to the cause and the donors.

So, do an attitude inventory right now on how you and others in your organization are behaving toward donors.  Find those things that need changing.  Then create an action plan to change them.  Your donors will appreciate it, you will be more authentic in your work and the organization will benefit financially from it.


About Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry

Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry have over 55 years of experience fundraising for non-profits. Richard Perry was co-owner of Domain Group until 2005. Jeff Schreifels was a Senior Strategist for Domain Group for 12 years. They came together a few years ago to start Veritus Group, a full-service major gift fundraising agency. Veritus Group has a unique, data-driven approach unlike any agency focused on major gifts. Jeff and Richard are passionate about their work, passionate about life and hopes this blog will provide you with insights and tangible benefits for you and your work. Thank you for reading!
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