Sunday, November 25, 2007

All I want for Christmas is a few good donors...

In honor of the recent Thanksgiving holiday, and some thoughts that I had in response to Charity Navigator's Holiday Giving Guide 2007, I'd like to offer my own thanks for the donors of the world who give wisely.

Of course, as the desperate fundraiser that I am, I appreciate any and all donors. I will not be so bold as to say that I have never bent over backwards to take some fool's charity. I have certainly done so, and will likely do so again as we approach the year's end and my concern for reaching a surplus overrides my better sense of how to build my organization's long-term sustainability.

But as I prepare for December, when we receive in excess of 1/3 of our gifts from individuals, I would like to offer thanks for the elite few whom I see as wise givers.

What makes for a wise giver?

  • They take time to get to know the organizations that they support -- whether through conducting their own online research, having conversations with staff or visiting in person, they ensure that their gifts are made to worthy organizations.
  • They either enroll in the organization's recurring gifts program (i.e. monthly charges to their credit card) or they send checks throughout the year... not just at the year's end.
  • They give without restrictions, and invest in the overall organization rather than in one of its projects.
  • They opt out of receiving print communications, including printed receipts for their gifts, in order to save the organization money.
  • They help introduce people to the organization who might be interested in supporting it.
  • They get involved in advocating on behalf of the organization's mission.
There are likely many other things that donors could do to be a wise giver. For example, for some organizations, it might be very important for a donor to be involved as a volunteer in the delivery of the organization's mission. For others, though, there is no such need for volunteers -- in fact, outside volunteers can frequently be a distraction imposed on programs by the development office in order to cultivate gifts.

But these items above are what I consider the gold standard of wise giving. I would rather have a donor give me half as much money while meeting this standard than twice as much money while falling short of these bars. Perhaps I am myself a grand fool, but I believe that I have one true goal as a fundraiser:

"To put myself out a job."

I know that, in reality, this is not a likely possibility. But we as fundraisers must strive to build a core group of committed donors who do not need a professional fundraiser to cultivate their gifts -- they are firmly committed to the organization, and draw other committed donors into their orbit. By focusing on creating this kind of momentum, fundraisers can move their organizations closer to that day when they no longer need to rely on professional development staff to help pay the bills.

Until we get there, we have much to do. For every wise giver, there are hordes of charitymongers who need counseling. Here is some advice on how you can impart wisdom unto the masses:
  • Don't fear the reaper. Put your financials and Form 990s directly on your Web site for easy downloading, as well as links to your listing on Charity Navigator or Guidestar. If you're on it, be sure to link to your listing on Charity Watch.
  • In every receipt letter, offer to meet with donors to take a tour of your organization to see their dollars at work.
  • Call every donor who makes a gift to your organization. If that sounds like too much to do on a daily basis, set aside one day per month in which you and a handful of other staffers/board members make calls to the last month's donors just to say thank you and to invite them on a tour. Be sure that they know that you are not calling to ask for money.
  • Offer free events that are easy for donors to attend, meet staff, learn more about the organization and invite others without feeling pressured to make a gift. At Central Dallas Ministries, we have a free monthly book club that attracts around 80-100 people each month to our ministry; this has been a great way to meet people and to get to know our donors better.
  • As much as I hate special events, you should offer at least big fundraiser per year that provides your closest donors with an opportunity to engage their contacts in supporting your organization. Remember that there are many ways to evaulate such events beyond their own bottom line: there is great value in making your top donors more committed to your organization, and in attracting new donors to you (particularly if you follow up with phone calls and invitations to tours).
  • Offer a recurring gifts program that includes both monthly charges to credit cards as well as monthly transfers from banks. Promote this program in your communications with donors (including finding a way to mention it in receipt letters without directly asking for more money... cite it as a convenience for busy donors).
  • Let donors know that you need funds throughout the year, not just at the year's end. Find ways to educate them on the cash flow of your organization in your communications pieces. Many donors do not realize how difficult it is for organizations that rely on the "feast or famine" style of year-end fundraising.
  • Offer options for designations, but show the benefit of giving without restrictions. In your communications, feature stories about donors who invested in the overall organization rather than grants to one project.
  • Provide donors with the ability to opt out of receiving print communications, including printed receipts for their gifts, in order to save your organization money. Ensure that you have the ability to follow through with this promise, if you offer it.
  • Provide donors with meaningful ways to introduce people to the organization who might be interested in supporting it. In addition to public events, let your firmly committed donors know that you would be able to host a tour for any of their contacts that they might be interested in introducing to your organization. At board meetings, highlight the contributions of board members who have successfully brought new donors to the table.
  • Explore ways for donors to set up their own fundraising site for your organization. There are many tools out there that can help with this. Here is an example of one that we use at Central Dallas Ministries.
  • Educate your donors on how they can advocate on behalf of your organization's mission. Let them know about the public policy ramifications of your work, the barriers that you face and how public representatives could be engaged to help your organization. Regardless of what comes from these actions, providing your donors with the ability to get more engaged in your mission will strengthen your relationship to them.
  • Provide meaningful ways to get involved as a volunteer on a case-by-case basis. Get to know your donors and their interests, and then map those interests to your needs -- and be sure that it is a genuine need. Do not create something for donors to do simply for the sake of giving them something to do. It will inevitably erode your relationship because they you will both realize that they are not helping you.
A belated Happy Thanksgiving to everyone who reads this blog. I hope that you are well and warm, and that this blog continues to be useful to you. As always, I welcome your feedback on how I can improve it.

Good luck with the rest of your year! As we approach 2008, I hope that you can avoid the fate of this poor Santa...