If there is one thing that this pandemic has done to donors it’s this: they are even more focused on doing good than they were before. And they’re less patient with “business as usual.” The pandemic has brought what is important into sharp focus. Donors are getting more aggressive about expressing their dissatisfaction with business as usual. While there are many enlightened and progressive non-profit leaders who are proactively changing in this area as well, a majority of them won’t change until donors force them to change.

You’ve heard the stories – the one about the donor who wanted more information from the charity she supports and was told that that information was only available to employees. Or another non-profit, in order to save money, has adopted a policy that they won’t send receipts to donors because “they can use their canceled check or credit card bill, so why should we waste paper and postage to replicate something they already have?”

Jeff and I continue to be amazed at the arrogance and ignorance of so many people who claim to be “in service to humankind” but behave in ways that prove they’re only serving themselves. To be fair, there are thousands of well-meaning non-profit managers and leaders who want to do what is right in this area, but they just don’t know how to do it.

Think about it. How do you change the culture of an organization that has been operating for over 75 years where the leadership practice and protocol has been passed down through various generations, and the bureaucracy is so strong that the free exchange of ideas is discouraged? It’s pretty hard. So we sympathize with these good people.

But donors are getting more impatient and vocal about all of this. And as a person working in major gifts, you need to (a) be aware of this dynamic, and (b) know what to do about it in your situation.

Here are the two reasons donors are getting impatient with the status quo:

  1. The relationship between a non-profit and the donor is changing from one of implicit trust to one that requires evidence. In the good old days, you gave to your favorite charity just because. Now, the donor wants to know how the money is used, how it works, and whether a difference is really being made. The days of “just trust me with your money” are slowly fading.
  2. Donors want to sit at the table and participate. The line between the insiders and the outsiders is fading. The “who do they think they (the donors) are” attitude is being replaced by a “let’s ask them what they think” attitude. Inclusivity is in. Exclusivity is out. And for many old timers, and young ones with the old-time mentality, this is hard to take.

Here’s what you specifically need to do as a front-line fundraiser this year to align yourself to this trend:

  • Make the donor your priority. I know. This seems like a no-brainer. But being donor-centered takes work and thoughtfulness. When you start your work day, start with the donor and ask yourself what you can do today to make her day better.

    Listen more than you have ever listened. If you’re a good MGO you’re a good listener. But with this point I ask you to listen even more. Be slow to react. Listen for the nuance. Discover the meaning behind the donor’s words. Listen way more than you did before.

    Engage in two-way conversation and exchange. You know how it is. You’re having a conversation with your partner, friend, business associate, spouse or even a stranger and, if you’re honest, your only interest is in what YOU have to say – not what they’re saying. This is a separate point because here’s where you proactively interact with what the donor is saying. You’re embedding yourself in their topic. And you’re exchanging ideas and points of view on what they’re interested in.

    Facilitate participation. When the donor asks to participate, rather than find a thousand excuses why that request can’t be honored, just do it. Let them participate. And if the bureaucrats are saying no, make a case, become an advocate for the donor. Treat them as a partner. Elevate them above the gift they’re giving.

    Answer all questions. Now this one gets a little ticklish. I know. Because there can be some pretty tough questions. In fact, some of the answers to those questions could get quite embarrassing and uncomfortable. I know. But you have to do it. You have to answer all the questions. Why? Because the donor is your partner. And you always treat a partner with respect and openness. Always. Plus, you know that when you try to manage the answer, you’ll always get caught. And then the problem gets worse.

    We had a situation where a donor asked a “how did you use my money” question. The answer was potentially embarrassing because some of the money was used for a different but related purpose – and there were good reasons why the money was spent that way. But the leader of the organization decided that the donor wouldn’t understand, so he fudged the answer. And that was a mistake. Huge mistake.

    Because eventually the truth came out and the donor was NOT offended by the decision to use the money as it had been used – in fact he understood it and accepted it. He was offended by the cover-up. And that’s why he went away and took his 7-figure giving somewhere else. Just tell the truth! Answer ALL the questions. You can’t lose.

    Report back aggressively and frequently. Jeff and I have said this over and over again, and we’ll continue to say it. You cannot report back enough. You can’t. Donors want to know they’re making a difference. And still, to this day, too many non-profits are doing a very poor job in this area. That’s why they’re losing donors at such high rates. Think about it. If you give money to someone, don’t you want to know what happened? Of course. So do it. Frequently and fully.

There you have it – some ideas on treating a donor as a partner vs. a source of cash. You may have something to add to this list and if so, please write us. One thing I assure you of: if you don’t start treating donors as equals, letting them have a voice and telling them they’re making a difference, you’ll find that they will literally run away from you. (Tweet it!)

But if you care for them, honor them, listen to them and invite them to sit with you, they’ll be with you for a long time. And that is what you want.