Guest Post: 10 ways to show a little sympathy to your donors

Rick Schwartz

Rick Schwartz

Because fund raising is such a critical need at nonprofits right now, I asked nonprofit development expert Rick Schwartz for this guest post.

My good buddy Gian Brosco recently took the helm of the Nevada Community Foundation. The first thing he did was get out of the office to learn about the issues in greater Las Vegas.

“Rick,” he said, “I met with the head of the Salvation Army. She told me that last year’s $25 and $50 donors are this year’s clients!”

How is your family doing? Worried about layoffs or pay cuts? Putting off retirement another ten years? Stunned your children’s college savings plans have lost 25 percent or more? Think your parents will be able to stay in their nice senior housing facilities?

Yet, I continue to receive five or six appeals every day from nonprofits that don’t seem to care about me at all. I’ll bet you do, too. Some make their usual pitch as if nothing is different.

This economic crisis is touching absolutely everyone (okay, maybe not top athletes and some bankers, and Mrs. Madoff is probably still living high). You can assume nearly every one of your current and prospective donors has some financial worries, even if their problems are nowhere on a par with your clients.

Donors are never “they” and “we”. Most of the several hundred major donors ($10,000 and above) I’ve interviewed in my career were people of modest means. Each gave for a different reason and each had a different life story.

Even if your organization’s donors tend to be on the wealthier side, I promise you (nearly) all are real people. “They” are proud of their children and grandchildren, “they” go to baseball games, “they” give out candy at Halloween. They are also facing divorces, deaths of friends and loved ones, grown children who won’t leave home, and unmet charitable pledges.

To paraphrase the great Pogo: “We have met the donor, and he is us.”

10 ways to show donors you love them for themselves

Yes, guilt is one of the great motivators, and it is probably true that you and I and everyone on your donor list is better off than the people you serve. But in this case, a little thoughtfulness goes a long way. Here are ten options other than guilt:

1. Don’t ask for contributions (at least in the foreseeable future) without acknowledging that the donor may be feeling the pinch, too. Say “We are doubly grateful” when he or she gives.

2. Institute, right now, a legacy society. Fewer than 8% of Americans leave charitable gifts through their wills, the one time all of us can be assured that we don’t have to worry about running out of money ever again. According to Partnership for Philanthropic Giving, 58% of American adults don’t leave wills at all, which is shocking. (And an opportunity!)

3. Be specific how the economic downturn is hurting your clients. Remember the Salvation Army? “Our food pantry empties in three days instead of seven.” “We’ve seen 900 more patients in the last six months for free care.” “Ask our police force: domestic abuse calls have risen 73% in the town.” Better yet: always tell a human story. Statistics are boring.

4. Personalize the mail every time you can. No mailing labels, no “Dear Friend.”

5. Tone down the galas. This isn’t the time to flaunt class differences. Tracie Rozhon gives you seven great tips in the February 29 New York Times.

6. When you see a donor or a prospect on the street, in a meeting, at a function, or elsewhere, ask how he or she is doing first, and listen patiently to the answer. I was overseeing strategic planning for a human services organization last year. Before one of the meetings I gently asked the Board chair, a successful housing contractor, how business was. We talked for the next ten minutes about his worries about his workers, families with half-built homes, and yes, his wife and children, too. He thanked me, sincerely, for asking.

7. If you’ve tightened your belt, tell your donors how, in terms they can understand. “Yup, everyone is wearing sweaters around the office this winter, but we’re saving $1,600 a month by keeping the heat at 67.” Donors will be even more impressed if you tell them how your nonprofit is being entrepreneurial and forward-thinking.

8. Offer the donor creative ways to give. In the February 10 Wall Street Journal, Mike Spector writes about the wisdom of starting charitable lead trusts during a bear market in “Giving Smarter While Helping Your Estate”.

9. Keep the donor in the loop. Remind donors regularly why your organization is so important. Specifically: e-mail them (and all your friends) at least once every few weeks to tell them something about the topic that you can only know by sitting where you do.

10. Show hope. One of the best rules for departmental retreats is “no whining”. Reassure your clients, your supporters, your staff, and yourselves that we will come out of these difficult times.

Rick Schwartz, Straight Talk


Thanks Rick!

Don’t forget to download a free copy of my eBook on best practices in nonprofits website design!

DOWNLOAD HERE: Best Practices: Nonprofit Web Site Design


4 Responses to “Guest Post: 10 ways to show a little sympathy to your donors”

  1. crossn81 Says:

    Excellent list. I have appreciated when orgs I support have used number 3 and 7.

  2. Larry Ekin Says:

    Timely, relevant, and specific, which means they are useful today.

  3. Top 10 posts of the year: Happy 2010! « IMPACTMAX Says:

    […] 10 ways to show a little sympathy to your donors […]

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