The Death of Best Practices and The Birth of True Donor Centricity
by: Katie Lord
Last year has taught us that the status quo is fragile. Not only can our day to day lives change quickly but our belief system of how things ought to be done can be completely disrupted. Many in our sector are overwhelmed with financial, process and communication challenges. Now is the time when we need the input of our donors more than ever.
As the third largest industry in the United States, the nonprofit sector serves an overwhelming number of organizations that serve a multitude of causes and missions. It is the most diverse industry sector in our economy. So, when I see an article or a ‘how to guide’ on ‘best practices’ for fundraising I am becoming more and more skeptical. It simply isn’t conceivable that with all of the different missions, organizational models and donor diversity that a one-size-fits-all plan is even reasonable, let alone can be summed up in a homogeneous model.
For the sake of risk management and efficiency, we often try to adopt our organization’s marketing and fundraising based on what has worked for others in the sector. In other words, we mold ourselves into pre-prescribed “best practices.” If you think about it, implementing such practices is an admission that you aren’t unique, that you aren’t different.
Now is truly the time to examine and redefine your “best practices.” The sacred cows of nonprofit marketing and fundraising need to be re-examined with an open mind. They may never have been ‘best’ for your organization in the first place. Each of our organizations has a distinct “personality” and operational circumstances. It is time to embrace your organization’s particular donor’s needs and motivations for support. It is time to partner with your donors and allow them to be the author of your nonprofit’s unique best practices.
You are unique. You are different. And it is time to start acting like it.
The Old Way
For many organizations, ‘donor centric’ means giving donors options of pre-selected programmatic items that your leadership team or board has decided are appropriate. This means checking boxes for giving campaigns, running transactional events to reach the masses and blasting impersonal messages hoping you hit on something that is an interest point for the majority of your constituents. It means hiring a third-party to prime our major donors for an ask instead of deepening our personal relationships with them. The old way is dying.
It isn’t as if we aren’t trying to be empathetic to our donors, we simply lack perspective. Because we live and work in our organization’s day-in and day-out, we have unknowingly created a set of personal and organizational biases about why our donors give and why our organization’s mission should matter to our donors. This is backwards. We unintentionally create messages that resonate more internally within our organization rather than resonating to our most important external audience, our supporters.
The New Way
How do you truly understand the nuances and intricacies of your organization’s individual donor populations? You ask them.
Renowned behavioral economist, Daniel Kahneman, discovered a principal of value that applies specifically to our sector that he called, The Endowment Effect. In essence, The Endowment Effect establishes that people overvalue things of which they feel they have ownership or an invested interest. Nowhere should this be truer than in the social sector, where it is not only our donors’ treasure that is being committed, but also their time, talent, ties and testimony.
A popular saying in the nonprofit sector is this, “If you want a gift, ask for advice, if you want advice, ask for a gift.” Why is it that we only ask people for advice when we want something? We should constantly be engaging and asking our donors, volunteers and supporters how we can best serve them as they serve our mission and vision.
There seems to be a fear of authentic communication with donors. Perhaps it is out of respect for their time. Or perhaps that is the easy excuse. If you aren’t applying the time and resources necessary to identify donor’s motivations, relational expectations and visions for your organization, then you are not operating as a donor centric organization, but as a transactional charity broker.
Challenge the best practices of assuming you know why your donors engage with you, giving them buckets and boxes to check for the sake of assumed convenience. Treat best practices what they really are… old… and embrace the new world of true donor centricity. One where you are unique, where you are different and where you are hungry to learn from those that ensure your mission and sustainability.