How Real is “Donor Fatigue”?

When I was a fundraiser I attended many events.  You receive invitations from your peers, and you also want to keep tabs on what is happening out there.  When my role was reversed, the first thing I realized was how many times I was solicited.  From the door to the end of the event, someone could be selling me raffle tickets, asking me to sign up for a silent auction, inviting me to participate in a live auction…and finally just emotionally respond and donate to the cause.  By the end I was exhausted.  I honestly felt like everywhere I turned a hand was being stuck into my pocket.  I worked in fundraising!  I should get it. The issue was they were taxing my wallet before connecting to my heart.  Donor Fatigue is real…but not for the reasons we all think.

Donor Fatigue is defined as: a phenomenon in which people no longer give to charities, although they have in the past. On a larger scale, it can also refer to a slowness to act on the part of the international community or any other donor base in response to a humanitarian crisis or call-to-action.

I think Donor Fatigue is not the ambiguous term for donors being “over asked” or “fatigued” as we have come to use it (especially when we are trying to explain our fundraising shortfalls to our board members).  Instead I think it is the effect of impersonal fundraising.  When you are sending out cut and paste communications your donor can feel that blanketed approach. Here are some ways to keep your donors from going tone deaf to your mission.

Focus Energy on Retention

Over the last 20 years the donor turnover rate has been increasing steadily.  If we continue at the current rate donor retention will soon be under 20%.  No business could sustain a model with that percentage of repeat customers.  In turn, if you focused on increasing your donor retention by 10% you would see a 200% increase in the value of your database.  Capturing a first time gift is EXPENSIVE.  Retaining the donors you have already reached is the cost effective approach.  How do you do that?  First you have to truly believe deep down that donors not dollars are the reason change happens, then respect that.  Build your systems around relationships, not dollars. That means you should have a cultivation strategy that you follow for each donor.  When you get a first time donation take the time to introduce yourself, know why they gave and how they are affiliated with your cause.  Get to know them and document everything you can.  Do you know most organizations are only using about 10% of the capacity of their donor management software?  By creating a clear cultivation strategy you will be intelligently engaging your donors and moving them deeper into your mission creating invested ambassadors.

Talk To Them Not At Them

Charities talk a good game when it comes to “personalized” communication.  But in reality, research shows they are not doing as well as they think.  There is a tendency to segregate out your donor list by major gifts vs. small gifts.  This is a costly mistake.  By lavishing response on only your major donors you create a self-fulfilling prophecy of “small gifts stay small”.  Assume every gift comes from a sacrificial and emotional place for the donor and honor that in how you thank them.  Communicating successfully with your donors is not as complicated as we often make it.  Donors report that they want to hear from you on these three occasions:

  1. A prompt and PERSONALIZED thank you within in 24-48 hours
  2. A confirmation that their funds were used as intended
  3. A report of outcomes and measurable that show their gift had impact before they are solicited again.

When you simplify your communication to be donor centered you can segregate your outreach by where your donors are in your cultivation strategy.  Are they ready to be asked again?  Do you think you could ask them for a gift to support a program directly related to why they gave in the first place?  This type of personalization will yield better financial outcomes for you, but it will also communicate to your donor you are invested in them as well.

What is NEW

I think we sometimes get so focused on the formula of asking, that we really forget how a donor wants to feel when they give.  We start breaking down dollar amounts and equating them to an action.  These can be helpful to a donor, but really I think (as a donor myself) I want to feel connected genuinely to what is happening.  I have seen this done well in many ways.  Maybe it is using your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts to focus on program successes and stories.  Giving your donors bite sized updates on the things you are doing that matter will feel fresh and new.  Utilize the majority of your communication space to relate the transformative work you are doing.  Refrain from your major publications (newsletter, annual report etc.) being heavily solicitous.  When you ask a donor it should be personal, because their giving is personal.  If your online donation provider allows customization on your donor receipt, have a highlight, or success there and update them quarterly. These little updates are non-intrusive and keep your organizations work feeling fresh and new.

By incorporating these best practices you are keeping your donor connected to the heart of your work and making sure their experience is personal and missional.  That is the best way to beat “donor fatigue”