Most of us in the field of development are familiar with the term “donor fatigue.” While specific definitions will vary somewhat, the most broadly accepted definition is the effect on donors when nonprofit organizations “go to the same well” too many times for support. We have this image in our minds of donors responding to our request for funds by saying, “Really? Again? Am I the only one who gives to this mission?” So, let’s start with addressing this definition of donor fatigue with some honesty—and then we’ll get to the root cause for donor fatigue.
Too Many “Asks”
Yes, it is true that most nonprofits go to the same donors too many times each year. In fact, our (Mission Advancement Professionals) work with private schools throughout the country tells us that schools ask their core donor base for money an average of 22 times each year. Now, before you start excusing your own school from committing this crime, consider how this could actually be true.
You probably have the stock repertoire of development activities present in most schools that include a golf outing, auction, and a couple of annual appeals—and maybe even a few more activities if your development office has been at this for a while. Then add in athletic boosters, band boosters, Parent Teacher Organization, cheer leading activities, homecoming, and prom fundraisers, and the list goes on and on. No matter if it is a request to buy cookie dough, Christmas wrap, or Booster-thon sponsorships, they all count. And regardless of where the request for support comes from, donors associate it all with the school. If you are being honest about your school, the number of requests is probably in the 20s by now.
So that it doesn’t seem like I’m only picking on private schools, social and human service agencies ask an average of 16 times each year. In other words, every time most nonprofit organizations interact with their key donors, their hand is out. And if you consider that the average donor supports five different nonprofit missions, the number of requests is astronomical. You can easily see how donors could become fatigued with this extraordinary number of solicitations.
To be fair, there are marketing professionals who will tell you that the more times you ask, the more gifts donors will give. Since I am not a marketer, I am not versed on the exact statistics, but I have listened to professional marketers propose dramatically increasing the number of asks believing their axiom “ask more often, get more often.” So, at the risk of alienating some of my good friends in the mass marketing world, I say, “Enough already!” Just because you can ask more often and get a little more doesn’t mean you should!
Here’s a practical example: if I ask my best friend, Stuart, for $20 today, he will give it to me without hesitation. If I asked him for $20 more tomorrow, he would give it to me again. If I asked a third time, he would probably ask me what is going on, and then give it to me a third time. But now I am stressing our relationship. If this went on, he would eventually say “no” and our relationship would be damaged.
Getting to the Root Issue
Before I suggest some solutions to this enigma called donor fatigue, I’d like to offer one additional definition and perhaps even a simpler one. I believe donor fatigue is really donors being underwhelmed with their giving experience. In other words, it may not be as much about how often they are asked to give; rather, it may actually be more about how they are treated after they have given. Many organizations, schools included, do a good job inviting donors to give. But once they have given, most nonprofits are quick to send a “thank you” and then are on the next donor. If all nonprofits took the time to truly empathize with their donors and view the entire process through their eyes, the process would almost certainly change. Consider what steps your school development operations take to send and affirm the message: “Your decision to financially support our school was the best decision you could have made!”
News flash: Development really is about relationships! Most schools would agree with this when asked, but then behave in a way that says otherwise. And these relationships must be kept in balance—meaning that donors should receive in return for their giving something equal that they personally value. If this basic principle is adhered to, then there would be far less donor fatigue. Sure, donor fatigue is probably partly caused by asking too many times, but it’s also caused by donors being unfulfilled in their giving, underwhelmed with the experience, and whose relationships are out of balance with the nonprofits they support.
With these principles in mind, what practical steps can schools and development offices take to avoid donor fatigue?
- Remember that you are establishing and deepening relationships with real people.
- Try to step into your donors’ shoes and gather a sense for how they experience your school.
- Consider consolidating the number of requests you make to one or two for your most important donor relationships. Then make a point of interacting with them two or three times without asking them for money. In other words, treat them as something more than a checkbook.
- Put creative energy into how you help your most important donors feel fulfilled by their giving. If someone gives $25,000 to the annual fund, then help them understand how you utilized their gift and how it changed students’ lives.
If you do these things consistently and with excellence, you’ll likely find that donor fatigue is replaced with donor passion.
About the Author
Schuyler Lehman created Mission Advancement Professionals (MAP) with the objective of helping nonprofit organizations develop the capacity for relationship-based major and principal gifts. Throughout his career spanning nearly four decades, his unwavering focus on serving the passions, interests, and needs of the donor has helped to redefine institutional fundraising. Schuyler has authored three books outlining his unique philosophy and approach, and he is also a frequent speaker and presenter at regional, national, and international conferences.
Schuyler has helped raise more than $6 billion for a wide variety of nonprofit organizations (religious, educational, social service, civic, youth, community, healthcare, cultural, associations, etc.). He has provided consultation and advice to more than 1,000 nonprofits throughout the U.S. and Canada for major capital and endowment campaigns, annual funds, and general development activities.
Residing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area since 1992, he lives with his wife, Jennifer, and children in McKinney, Texas.
He can be reached at email@example.com.