What Matters More - Donations or Donors?

| by Bert Armstrong

Yep! Summer is just about over. Our son is back at college and our daughter has started her senior year in high school.  We will be lucky to get one last long weekend at the beach over Labor Day, but that's about it.  Whatever summertime rest and relaxation I was supposed to have experienced is complete and whatever tan I'm going to have has set in. It's time to get back to work. 

For many of you who read our blogs, the work you are getting back to is the rewarding and challenging business of leading nonprofits all across North Carolina and beyond. Executive directors, board members, development officers, and volunteers in every nonprofit sector are approaching the time of year that most view as the busy season for raising money.  According to Blackbaud's 2014 Charitable Giving Report, 40% of giving to nonprofits last year occurred between September and December, with almost 18% of all gifts coming in December alone. 

As we enter into this season of special events, direct mail appeals, email solicitations, and peer-to-peer asks, I am reminded of a conversation I had over two decades ago with a special donor who had supported my organization (his alma mater) for many years. He and I had gotten to know each other during his regular visits to campus.  I was a young development officer trying to learn my way around this exciting world of philanthropy. He was a faithful donor and volunteer who enjoyed sharing stories with me about his love for the college. I like to think we became friends during my time working at the school.  

While traveling to visit donors during our annual campaign season one year, I called the donor (my friend) to see if I could stop by for a short visit.  My plan was to stop in for a mid-morning coffee and talk about his annual gift renewal.  His plan was to start with coffee, take a golf cart tour of the coastal town he had called home for many decades, and have lunch at his favorite local sandwich shop.  Obviously, his plan ruled the day and we had a wonderful visit. He shared stories of his teenage courtships, military service, his wife and children, and even a slightly off color story about a drinking experiences he regretted while on a trip to Europe. 

As part of the visit, I asked my friend if he would consider increasing his annual gift.  We talked about the incoming freshman class at the school and some of the exciting things that were happening around campus. Listening to his questions and his stories of his own college experience, it was obvious that the school held a very special place in his heart. Without hesitation, he committed to a generous increase in his annual gift. I thanked him and we talked a while longer.  Actually, he talked a while longer and I listened, enjoying even more stories about his college days as well as a few that he repeated from our earlier conversations.  

When the visit was over, he walked me out to my car.  As I opened my car door, I turned around and thanked him again for his wonderful support.  The gentleman leaned in and gave me a big bear hug and said, "I am just so grateful that you were able to spend the day with me. Please come back again soon."  

That simple encounter has stuck with me for years and is one of the great reminders of the thing that often gets lost in our haste to organize big events, draft appeal letters, and meet fundraising goals. Too often we don't take the time to get to know our donors - who they are; why they give; what they really want in exchange for their gifts. While we can't spend a special day with every donor who makes a gift to our organizations, we can find appropriate ways to let every donor know that we are paying attention to the person behind each gift we receive.  

Recent research into donor stewardship shows that donors who receive "stuff" in exchange for their gifts (i.e. return labels, coffee mugs, t-shirts, etc.) are more likely to decrease or stop giving to an organization over time.  In contrast, donors who receive personalized thank you's (personal letters, stories of how their gift is making a difference, calls and visits from the organization's leaders, etc.) are more likely to increase their giving and remain loyal donors to the organization.  Why is that?  I think it's because most donors want us to understand and genuinely value the meaning behind their gifts - not for the recognition, but because they want to feel like they are impacting the work of our organizations.  I also believe most donors, especially major donors and faithful long-time donors, want a meaningful connection to your mission and to the people they entrust with spending their gifts wisely. 

A coffee mug may have its proper place in some donor stewardship programs, but it is no replacement for the genuine relationships you establish with your donor over their lifetime of giving. So as you gear up for busy season, make sure you take some time to ask yourself (and your development director, your executive director, your board members, and your fundraising volunteers) how you can build in time and strategies that focus on listening to your donors, getting to know your donors and thanking your donors in meaningful ways. You'll be glad you did!


Side note: Last week Armstrong McGuire was proud to serve as a sponsors of the annual NC Philanthropy Conference, hosted every August by the Triangle, Triad and Charlotte chapters of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.  Shout out to this year's planning committee, to our top notch event planner Sharon Tripp, and to all of the great speakers, volunteers and other great sponsors who worked so hard to make it a great experience for the 430+ attendees.  Special thanks to Brian Maness, President & CEO, Children's Home Society of NC; Buck Cochran, Executive Director, Peacehaven Farm; Alexis Trost, Executive Director, Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation; Daniel Pietrzak, Director of Development, Boys & Girls Clubs of Wake County; Andrew Herrera, Executive Director, Curamericas Global; and Michael Poston, Vice President of Advancement, Guilford College.  These terrific professionals joined with April Anthony, Shannon Williams and myself in leading three of the day's breakout sessions.  All of them were outstanding! 

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