The things donors say

People’s philanthropic priorities and interests fascinate me. How they determine what’s most important and the thought (or lack of) they invest in their giving is always interesting. Warning, these are actual quotes that have stuck with me over the years. Do not try this at home, except for the last one.

“I don’t care about sustainability. If the organization isn’t here in 10 years, then it wasn’t important enough.”

While I believe in and understand Darwinian tendencies, when it comes to organizations, I’m not so sure it’s that easy. Instead of sitting back passively and waiting for organizations to fail, why not seek out those that show true results and invest in measures that help them become sustainable so they continue to serve the community in the most efficient and effective ways? If they don’t have proper assessment measures, invest in that before letting what could be the best solution to a social problem go down in flames.

“We’re not going to fund you because you’re not a sinking ship.”

The first person wants organizations to die and this person wants to save them. They’re set on either perpetuating failing organizations or they like to be the savior. Unfortunately, it shouldn’t be about either. Basing funding decisions solely on cash flow management or calls of desperation don’t help anyone. Instead, save those that show plans for true change and improvement.

“I can’t support you because my boss makes me give to United Way.”

I’ve heard this more times than I care to count. I know it’s unintentional but United Way is slowly killing philanthropy. Every time this is said, I’m pretty sure a Unicorn dies. It’s peer-to-peer fundraising gone horribly wrong, inserting arm-twisting corporate power and authority into what should be a beautiful giving experience. In most cases, their boss, boss’s boss or boss’s friend is chairing the campaign and IT. CAN’T. FAIL. Instead of encouraging philanthropy first and letting people support organizations they feel compelled to, campaign captains leverage their authority and often literally stand over underlings until they write a check. It makes me sick. If they don’t give, or don’t give the right amount, they’re called in for a (bad) chat with their supervisor and it even shows up on performance reviews. Really? If ‘Living United’ is really ‘Forced Giving’ – count me out.

“I want all of my donation to go directly to the cause.”

Usually what they mean is that they want to support programs and don’t value or understand the importance of administrative and fundraising costs. This is an elementary approach to philanthropy. I’ve jumped on this soap box enough. Read why here, here and here. Instead, think of it as multiplication philanthropy. ‘Nuff said.

“We’re not going to support you because our friend doesn’t work there anymore.”

This is a classic case of misdirected giving. It was clear they weren’t giving for the cause, but only as a favor. Sure, we all support our friends in their walks, runs and efforts to help causes that are close to them. This rarely turns you into a life-long supporter of charity X. It’s important that the organization staff build relationships between supporters and the organization, not between supporters and themselves. The latter is not sustainable and will do damage when/if there’s ever a change in staff. If there’s a transition, discuss the implications of departure on organization communication and donor relationships. As a supporter, we do want to support and do business with those we care about but do your best to give for the cause’s sake. All will be better off.

“I’m not going to specifically fund or sponsor any particular program. I’m going to trust you do what is best for the organization and those you serve.”

The stronger your relationships and conversations, the more this will start to happen. Similar to this lady, this person fully trusts the organization and the people that run it. Once you’ve done your homework and believe in an organization, give them your dollars and time, but more importantly, trust them to do what they need with it. Don’t create arbitrary rules and recognition for them to follow.

What have you heard or said? Do you agree with my concerns and reactions? Let me know in the comments.

8 thoughts on “The things donors say

  1. I too have heard that many people feel forced/compelled to give to the United Way as part of their corporate culture. It is then up to the United Way to steward those donors so they know where their money is going and how it helps. That component is vital in making the experience of giving a pleasant one.

    1. Sharon – thanks for your comment. Linh shares below that they don’t have that information, but if they did – how would you suggest they make that case?

  2. Great post, Nathan. My two cents on United Way… it’s unfortunately that some corporate campaigns have created this attitude, and as a former UWCI employee, I can assure you that the organization does not endorse or encourage arm twisted giving and that it truly does come for the corporate competitive side. And to Sharon’s point of stewarding donors, United Way often isn’t able to do so because many corporations don’t share the names or contact information of employees who give to United Way. So unfortunately, there are many, many donors whom United Way wishes to thank, but they lack the info to do so.

    1. Linh – thanks so much for the ‘insider’ perspective! I feel like they have to know it’s happening and may not be encouraging it, but are they discouraging it? Also – I’m VERY surprised to hear they don’t have the information for their own donors? Are the companies collecting all the funds and writing one large check? Wouldn’t collecting donor information be on the forefront of their marketing, retention and fundraising strategies – let along acknowledgment? Weird…

      1. I’m sure there are cases where it might not be discouraged as much as it should be; ignorance is bliss, right? 😉

        It depends on the company about what and how much employee information they share with United Way. It varies on the spectrum of everything (like name, contact info, donor designations, meetings with individual donors) to just a little (name and mailing address) to as little as possible (e.g., we had these number of donors from our office give through payroll deduction and we’ll give you a big check at the end of the year). I don’t know the percentages of how all companies giving to UW break down. That would be interesting. And you’re right, this is one of the many frustrating things about fundraising and marketing for UW. Those who give less often receive just one form letter a year; those who give more and/or work for one of the major partner organizations get a little more attention. The old model was quantity over quality of donors. UW nationally is trying to change that, but old models die hard. Glad I could share my insights.

  3. Nate, you’ve really had me thinking about this in the days since you first posted it — so thank you. I wonder if the overall theme for non-profits boils down to the usual advice (which is surprisingly easy to overlook in trying to meet today’s goals, especially with volunteers in the mix): Beware of anything that detracts from a long-term relationship built on trust and mutual passion for a cause.

    I’ve worked in and around non-profits, and maybe that’s why I’ve never felt the pressure you describe when it comes to United Way. Instead, I’ve been fortunate to have personal relationships at United Way and to have been engaged enough to be a zealot for the mission of ensuring broad service in our community with accountability and lack of redundancy. Still, I don’t doubt for a nanosecond that over the years many non-profits have been complicit in sacrificing the long-term relationship for the short-term win — directly or indirectly (doesn’t matter, still their fault).

    So I wonder: What if you (Nate, or any readers here) were to join an organization that had the perception in the community of “strong-arming” or pursuing other short-sighted tactics to get gifts? How would you go about understanding and addressing this reputation? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


    1. Rick, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. It’s an extremely difficult matter to balance the immediate funding needs and develop long-term responsible relationships with donors. In fact, I’ll likely slate it for an upcoming post. For now, suffice it to say that I’ve tried to help organizations understand why society hates used-car salesman, telemarketers, etc. and how important it is that we prevent people from hating the organization and its fundraisers. I also ask if the leadership would rather get a large, one-time gift begrudgingly from a donor who’s annoyed or offended – or several smaller gifts over the course of a nice, long, healthy and positive relationship. Their preference is always the latter.

      It’s also important to ‘level’ with donors as you’re out and about. As you gain trust, they may share negative interactions with other orgs or even previously with the organization you represent. It’s a bit grand, but you might find yourself apologizing for, and repairing the donors thoughts about philanthropy in general, before you can even discuss their interest in supporting your cause.

      Hope this helps a bit – thanks for the great food for thought!!


  4. I worked at United Way in the early 90’s and I am shock to hear that they have failed to capture the name and information of donors. This is absoluately unacceptable in 2012. I am sure they are still creating turn-key campaign packets for the corporations, which means they have the ability and capacity to create an opt-in form to allow people to give certain information. It sounds they are still functioning in an outdated model, and have not felt the pressure to change. When I think back to my own career at UW, the folks leading the development campaign were novices at best. I realized their level of incompetency once I entered the real world of development. Today it is clear their Resource Development people lack a full breadth of development experiences and reside in the own little insular world. It is time for United Way to stop pitching fundraising as sales and understand they are in the world of development. Development is about retaining and expanding relationships with donors. This can only be done if you capture the names of your DONORS! I thought people had learn from the 1990’s that sales people may not make the best development professionals. Geez.

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