questioneverything 2014-Feb12
It used to be that all the average charity would have to do was simply ask and the donor would simply give, no questions asked, whether they be in the donor’s mind or in actuality.
All of that has changed, but this change has not dawned on many non-profits or major gift fundraisers. And this can be a major block to success for an MGO.
I’ve been reading some work on the subject of skepticism and advertising. A recent blog post from the magazine, The Economist (Schumpeter – “We Want to be Your Friend”), lays out a pretty realistic picture on how more and more consumers (read donors) are just not believing the same old stuff from the past. Let me share a few highlights from that post and then relate them to major gift fundraising:

  • Advertisers are confronting a proliferation of new “channels” through which to pump their messages.
  • Consumers are bombarded with brands wherever they look. The average Westerner sees a logo (sometimes the same one repeatedly) perhaps 3,000 times each day, and thus is becoming jaded.
  • Consumers are increasingly familiar with the tricks of the marketing trade (read fundraising) and determined to cut through the clutter to get a bargain (read understanding if their giving is making a difference).
  • Respect for traditional voices of authority — from priests to political leaders — has eroded.
  • Faith in brands (read non-profits) has also eroded. Havas Media, a big marketing agency, says trust in brands has been declining for three decades. Last August it published the latest in a series of worldwide surveys in which 134,000 consumers in 23 countries were asked what they thought of 700 brands. A majority of those taking part would not care if 73% of them just vanished. In Europe and America 92% would not be missed.

The blog writer goes on to say that advertisers are combating this growing skepticism with a number of different strategies:

  • An ad for FirstBank of Colorado, showed a new leather sofa and television in the middle of a square, with a large sign saying “Free.” People strolled by, ignoring the bounty. A voice-over asked, “What if ‘free’ really just meant ‘free’?”
  • A second method is to drown the skepticism with humor: a depressing number of brands nowadays rely on chirpy talking animals.
  • A third is to disarm it with honesty. In 2009 Dominos launched a campaign featuring consumers talking about how awful its pizzas had been for the past 50 years.
  • Then there is do-goodery: innumerable brands argue that the best way to save the planet or help the poor is to buy their products.
  • The holy grail of advertising is to make friends with the consumer. Companies used to do everything possible to convey authority and reliability. Now they are more interested in conveying chumminess.

Then there is the case of Charity:Water, the organization that guarantees donors that 100% of each donation goes straight to program and none of it is spent on overhead. They call this the “100% model,” basking in the belief that there is virtue in not paying for overhead.
Simon Scriver writes about this in his blog: “…the 100% Model is damaging to nearly every other charity because it gives the public unrealistic expectations. It implies that ‘100% to the field’ is desirable, truthful and even possible. It’s not.” You can read more of Scriver’s comments here: Why I Don’t Donate to Charity:Water.
The Charity:Water 100% Model is just one more gimmick that will cause donors to wonder what is really real. And I agree with Simon’s assertion that it hurts the non-profit community.
Here’s how all of this applies to your work in major gift fundraising:

  1. Like commercial advertising, fundraising faces a growing amount of skepticism about how the money is used and has donors asking “does my giving really make a difference?” Donors are wondering if the asks, offers and proposals are really true. They are wondering about all the strategies, messaging and promotional packaging – not in technical terms, but are they really real? And, yes, they are wondering about overhead as well. They know it’s needed, but how much is OK? (That’s another whole blog for me to write about.)
  2. More and more donors want to be involved in guiding how the non-profit actually operates, a trend that is frustrating to many non-profit managers who want donors to stay out of their business.

Here is what you can do about these real-life situations in fundraising and find ways to navigate these waters with your major donors:

  1. Jeff and I have consistently said, “Tell the truth!” Now, just these three simple words might imply that we believe non-profits are not telling the truth. No, we do not believe that. Most do tell the truth, but we can always do better. We can do better at spelling out what we are going to do with the donor’s money. We can do better at telling the donor specifically what we did with the money. And, we can do better at proving that the donor’s gift actually made a difference. Also, to comment on the “100% model,” I do not think there is either virtue or honesty in selling a donor a “no overhead” donation approach. It is just another gimmick.
  2. Make it a habit to be authentic in all of your communication. This could be a sub-set of telling the truth, but I choose to list it separately because this encompasses dealing with problems, complaints and “situations” in a disclosing and open manner. I have been a part of too many meetings where “insiders” were trying to construct a narrative for a donor about what happened in a given situation. Instead of just telling it like it is, a lot of time was spent constructing a story. One meeting I sat in on illustrates this point well. A donor had given $2 million for a project that was not managed well and did not work. Instead of just simply coming out and saying, “It didn’t work, we screwed up,” the room was filled with a plethora of mirrors and smoke so suffocating I almost had to leave. I finally said, “Why don’t you just tell them what happened? Tell them the unvarnished, unedited story and be done with it.” And they did and the donor appreciated the fresh honest approach.
  3. Avoid and ignore the voices that say that taking the donor to the need, i.e., the use of emotions in words and pictures, is wrong. We have written about this extensively. When the need is so compelling there is no better way to communicate – no more motivating way – than to just tell it like it is. But there are folks who would want you to tone it down, soften it up and package it “nicely.” I think that approach is gimmicky. Just tell it like it is and allow the donors to experience the situation as if they were actually there. I have a very deep conviction on this point, born from personal experience. I have taken scores of donors to the “scene” where they personally interact with a starving child, a women who has been abused, a father whose son has taken his life in a drug overdose, a homeless person who has wandered for years without a place of his own, a refugee who has escaped a horrible situation, an animal that has been mistreated, a forest that has been brutally decimated. I have watched the donor’s reaction. You cannot be human and not feel it. And that’s why Jeff and I counsel you, again and again, not to sugar-coat need. Just tell it like it is.
  4. Let donors be involved. I know it’s hard to do, but let them sit at the table. They will contribute a great deal and, yes, you can say “no” to them and re-direct their ideas.

I believe that if you continue to do these four things: telling the truth, remaining authentic, telling it like it is and allowing the donor be involved, you will continue to provide your good donors with an experience that is real, honest, open and authentic – the very things that are the only means to combating skepticism.