The over-solicitation blues: How Canadian charities can prevent donor fatigue

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In one corner we have fundraising experts who say that what’s needed is just two more appeal letters, while in the other corner, we have experts who say we’ve got to reduce the volume of mail donors receive. As fun as it might be to pit these two philosophies against one another and see which one wins, we thought it would be far better to find common ground that would actually result in better donor relations and more donor dollars.

You have to ask

In an Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) paper, Juniper Locilento, director of annual giving, operations & strategy, YMCA of Greater Toronto writes, “At the heart of philanthropy is the willingness to ask. A professional fundraiser understands that the act of asking is essential to enabling the social good that the sector aims to deliver.” The 2015 version of the bi-annual AFP survey What Canadian Donors Want points out, “Not surprisingly, asking for a donation significantly increases the chance of getting a donation. Three-quarters of those contacted for a donation donate compared to only 53% of those who were not approached.”

And, as Canada HelpsFall 2017 Giving Report points out, fewer families are giving to charities, with the wealthiest in the country showing the deepest drop in giving.

Still, Locilento concedes, “I can understand why some donors might feel they are over-solicited. A typical person gets an email in the morning from a charity they support; then when they pick up lunch, they might be asked at the cash register to contribute to a cause; a street fundraiser might catch their eye on the way home; and then there might be more requests in the mail. With an increase in channels, people might feel like they are being asked more.”

But is it perception or reality? Here are the arguments.

The enough already argument Penelope Burk, president of Cygnus Applied Research and author of Donor-Centered Fundraising and Donor-Centered Leadership, whose organization conducts an annual Burk Donor Survey, is one of the strongest voices in this camp. In the 2017 version of the survey, Burk says her findings show that “Over-solicitation is the number one reason why donors stop giving.” She cites a 65% attrition rate between a first gift and second ask, with a 90% attrition rate by the fifth request.

Burk says, “It’s hard to figure out over-solicitation because there are donors who will give to every single appeal, and if you hammer donors and some give, you can track that and see it as successful, but you’re never sure why a donor doesn’t give a next time or why their gift value doesn’t rise.”

Burk also believes that nonprofits send out unintentional messages to donors when they solicit too frequently. Her advice? “When you have a message, say it once and only once. Craft it in a way that is truly compelling and meaningful, and people will remember it.”

While sending frequent solicitations may be easier thanks to digital technology, Burk cautions from experience that once a donor stops opening emails, their own server begins to send such emails directly to a spam filter. She also observes that while older donors will read and consider solicitations, younger donors are quite happy to do the equivalent of swiping left, with no guilt.

The argument for never enough

It’s helpful to keep in mind that not all nonprofits do ask their donors. Tom Balke, ‎associate director, strategic initiatives, Faculty of Science - ‎University of British Columbia recalls a nonprofit client that did only one appeal a year to its donors, while Locilento says of her organization “we don’t have a strong history of asking.” When Locilento recently convened focus group of YMCA members, she says, “The overwhelming response was that they did not give because they didn’t know giving was an option, they hadn’t been asked, and/or weren’t clear what difference a donation would make.”

Although most organizations ask their donors, they may wonder whether they are mailing them too often. Leah Eustace, founder and chief problem solver at Blue Canoe, tells of being at a presentation given by US fundraising gurus Steven Screen and Jeff Brooks where Screen anticipated that very question. As Eustace recalls, Screen’s answer was: “Whatever you are doing, add two.” In fact, in Tom Ahern’s 20 Questions: The Donor Communications Test, Brooks said in 2014 that his answer to how often you can ask in a year without driving off donors was 20. Ahern adds, “In focus groups, veteran donors complain long and loud about being over-solicited by their favorite charities. But if you watch their giving behavior, you will find that they don’t stop giving as a result.”

Rather than donors being over-solicited, Eustace says, “I primarily believe in too much bad solicitation. If solicitation was good and was balanced with good stewardship, no one would complain.”

This last point is one that both sides can actually agree on. But what does good stewardship look like?

What donors want

Donor-centricity — meaning, as it indicates, “placing the donor first” — is at the heart of good, balanced solicitation. Burk says her survey shows that “Most donors tend to agree on what they like, don’t like, what inspires their philanthropy.”

So what do donors want?

To be listened to

Ronen Tal, philanthropic counsel, Good Works, observes, “When we are immersed in our own organization, it’s easy to think we know what donors want to hear about and how. But we forget to actually listen to them.”

Eustace agrees, saying a prime example of this occurs when a donor gives more than an annual campaign threshold. “When this happens, an organization hands the donor over to a major gift officer and stops asking them to be part of an annual campaign. It can be disastrous if the decisions are made internally rather than asking how the donor wants to be approached.”

Listening also involves making good use of the information you have about a donor, says Balke. “Many organizations don’t make use of the information they already have about donors and their preferences.” Ahern observes that a “cure for complaints about ‘oversolicitation’ [is] choice...about their ‘communication preferences.’” Another often overlooked source of information about donors, says Tal, comes from telephone solicitations. “Many organizations use the phone to acquire monthly donors. But they miss the fact that these phone calls offer a chance to conduct invaluable market research about why the donors give as they do, what their priorities are, etc.”

On the important topic of donor preference about communication, many of the experts we talked with addressed what they called the “dreaded do not mail code.” Only one in four of Burk’s respondents was fully satisfied with how charities responded to requests for reduced solicitations, which means that organizations aren’t listening well to preferences. At the same time, Eustace observes, “Be careful what you promise and how you execute it”, while Balke advises, “Be proactive and turn this around: consider what your organization is willing to invest in donor stewardship so donors don’t evoke the do not mail code.”

Relationship

“Philanthropy is all based on relationship building,” says Burk, “but too often we chase volume.” Burk advocates using the same relationship-building strategies for all donors as are usually reserved for more major donors. Burk’s 2017 study found that 35% of Canadian donors reported they “under-gave” last year; this was even true among the most generous donors, 32% of whom said they could have given more. “If you can effect a one-third improvement by altering your strategy to build a relationship, why wouldn’t you?”

Balke notes the importance of bringing emotional intelligence to fundraising. “Donors often feel they are treated as bank accounts.” For example, Balke says, “If we know on the basis of the information we have that a specific donor likes giving for scholarships, why would we ask them to support building? We need to be smarter than that, and to demonstrate emotional intelligence by effectively using existing reports about our donors.”

Engaging and important information communicated well

“We need to move beyond the same-old, same-old in our communication offerings,” says Balke. Unfortunately, few organizations do this: Eustace and fundraising coach Shanon Doliitle invited attendees on a webinar to send them their draft year-end appeals in advance. Of the 45 or so letters they received, Eustace reports only one was excellent. “I really think few people understand the fine art of storytelling, the importance of keeping it simple,” says Eustace. “Sometimes too there is pressure from above from leadership who want an annual appeal to sound like an annual report.”

Instead, Balke suggests including the voice of those who benefit from your organization’s charitable activities, or sending appeals from internationally based charities from the countries being served. “You need to get direct mail open. We all want something that stands out, that is personalized. Think about the link between the image your communications are projecting and your charity.”

This comes back to listening, to Tal. “As long as you have engaging, important material that matters to your donors — not to you or your CEO — you aren’t over-soliciting. If donors are engaged in your content, they want to hear from you and to hear the next step.”

“I have a high regard for all the charities I support,” says a 2017 Burk Survey respondent. “Therefore it comes down to which invests the most in cultivating and recognizing my support. Everyone sends form letters but only a few make personal contact and offer opportunities to see the results of my philanthropy. Not surprising they are the ones that get more support.”

All the feels

“When someone donates to a charity,” says Tal, “they don’t receive a tangible product but a good feeling. Fundraising is entirely emotional. It’s a far harder value proposition to deliver on, but if a donor says they feel over-solicited, it tells you that you didn’t strike the right emotional chord.”

This means that communication needs to go beyond appeal letters. Locilento says, “We have stewardship touches between asks. We make sure our donors learn about the impact of their gifts — we want to both educate them and engage them on an emotional level.”

Burk says that charities worry that donors will burn out if they receive too many appeals, but that this is not chiefly the cause of donor fatigue. “In fact it has more to do with charities not communicating what they did with the money and what will happen going forward. That’s what makes donors feel like they are part of the solution and that their donation was worth it. That knowledge actually makes philanthropy soar and makes donors donors.”

Impact

This is precisely what impact is about: showing what a donation has done or will do. According to Burk, “Donors are saying: asking me before I’m satisfied with what happened with the last gift I gave is what makes me feel over-solicited, not a particular number of appeals within a twelve-month period. You asked me to give to something that seemed urgent or compelling and now you are asking again without showing me the difference my gift made or giving me a reason I should.”

“Nonprofits have to understand why donors feel they are hearing from you too much. If you are making a legitimate case and show what good will come from this, my hypothesis is that you aren’t making too many asks,” says Tal.

Burk notes that donors make a first gift because they are familiar with the organization or like the sound of the mission, that it is compatible with an area of their interest. “Once they’ve made that gift, however, their thinking changes and they see themselves as an investor and see a need for return on that investment. Letting them know what was accomplished satisfies the investor inside the donor. Once they’ve experienced that, they are ready to give again.”

Thanks in a timely fashion

Not only do donors need to see impact but they need to know that they are appreciated as necessary partners. “On Valentine’s Day,” says Locilento, “we called all our donors to say thank you. And they loved it, in part because we didn’t want anything other than to show our gratitude for their support.” When Tal worked with Parkinson Canada, he says, they sent handwritten letters to monthly donors in the month they had started giving, acknowledging how long they had partnered with the organization, neither asking for money nor even talking about impact. They also enclosed simple origami tulips made by a staff member, using the organization’s symbol.

It’s also imperative to thank donors in a timely fashion, says Tal. “The lag time between a gift and a thank you receipt varies dramatically between organizations, but this can lead to donors receiving several appeals before a thank you goes out.”

Good solicitation

“Good solicitation,” says Eustace, “means approaching the right people at the right time with the right offer.”

“This might mean remembering that donors don’t have the same fiscal year as your organization,” says Locilento. “It means acknowledging that many donors sit down in the last few days of December, pull out a basket of requests and make their gifts.”

Timing also comes into play in terms of natural disasters, says Burk, who observes that during a disaster, there is no need to fundraise at that moment because the disaster does it for you. Instead, use, the goodwill established during a disaster to develop a post-disaster campaign or to build up reserves for future disasters.

Ultimately, says Burk, the answer to "how often is too often?" is unique to your charity and your donors. She advises analyzing your current retention and attrition rates, noting where the average gift amount levels off, as well as talking to active and lapsed donors about what affects their giving frequency, amount, and the choice to discontinue. It’s also important, especially in an age of social media, not to be unduly influenced by how often other organizations are soliciting. Locilento says, “In a race to be the most impressive, it’s possible to lose sight of your donor needs. What’s most effective is to be strategic about what’s important to your donors.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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