Is It Donor Fatigue or Something Else?
I have never liked the phrase “donor fatigue,” because I am not sure it accurately captures one of the roots of the problem. Perhaps we should consider something new, like Organization Induced Disinterest, (OID). Donor fatigue seems to imply that the issue lies only with the donor. Instead, if nonprofits, who seem to discuss donor fatigue at length, would be honest with themselves they would recognize that the issue might not be with the donors but with their own organizations.
Let me start by stating that my perspectives are rooted in working with and for nonprofits for several decades. I supported them as a volunteer and donor, led them while serving countless organizations as a board member both locally, regionally, and statewide, and was even employed by one. Now, I have the unique perspective of consulting with them, so yes, I have seen and heard a great deal.
Donor fatigue is one of the more frequent topics to be discussed around the tables at which I have served. Typically, it’s used to describe how donors are “tired” of giving for a number of reasons. Some say it is the result of too many asks, driven by too many causes, or not producing the desired outcomes. Certainly, it may be a combination of one or all of these. Others contend that we are not managing the donor life cycle efficiently or effectively. In the development sector they may say that the donor relationships are not being stewarded successfully. Whatever the reason, it is generally considered a fundraiser’s major hurdle.
Did you catch those angles? Donor life cycle. Donor relationships. Donor asks. It is all donor focused. Of course, you might say, we are talking about donor fatigue so why not? I would like you to take a moment to consider the “why.” What motivates the donors and motivates them to donate? Have we forgotten why donors give in the first place? It is because they believe in your mission and what you do, and they have confidence in the organization’s ability to bring about the outcomes they desire.
So, what if this “donor fatigue” really is “organizational induced disinterest?” What does that look like? In both cases, donors may reduce gifts or simply stop giving. I have been known to do that on occasion simply to see how the organization responds. Some never notice. Do you think I am likely to give again? So, whose fault is that? The lack of a response indicates to me that they might not care or be efficient enough to track a lost gift.
In nonprofit circles there is always talk of how prospects for giving must have LAI (Linkage, Ability and Interest.) Some have even said the “I” in LAI should represent Inclination. Either way, they are certainly vital points to consider. In the end, these traits are also donor-focused, but we cannot forget the organization’s role in maintaining the linkage and the donor interest. Otherwise, we may be fostering an environment that is ripe for OID. I find that the way to do that is to make certain your donors are part of your TEAM acronym.
Today, transparency should go without saying. You need to be as transparent as possible to your donors and appreciate how your actions as a board and an executive are influencing your donors and supporters. It is not just about financials; it goes much deeper. Donors are savvy and there is more information available today than ever. In some communities the “rumor mill” churns out misinformation. Be certain it is positive and if not, get your response message together.
E=Efficiency & Effectiveness
If we are giving money to an organization, we expect it to be well used and for the organization to steward those dollars efficiently and effectively. Any hints to the contrary may be enough to trigger a case of OID. Revolving doors for staff, or board members, or constant “emergency appeals” may be red flags to today’s donors and raise doubt. Even something as simple as a donor acknowledgment process speaks volumes about your organization.
Since donors need to have a linkage with the organization, it is imperative that the organization seems approachable and open to donor feedback. How else are they expected to learn more about you and your mission? Good development staff help to bridge that gap, but smaller nonprofits do not have that luxury. In those cases, the board needs to help network and foster those relationships in a positive and natural way. Consistency in staff and board serves to build long-lasting relationships.
M=Marketing & Communication
Stimulating donor interest and increasing their linkage is rooted in good marketing and communications (which makes you more approachable.) There is nothing at the root cause of OID more than not hearing from you consistently, not understanding your decisions or your mission, or not responding promptly to a donor inquiry. Marketing and communications are driven by your organization and not your donors. Give them an inspiring and engaging experience and they will stay connected.
Yes, donors will tend to stray, decrease gifts, and perhaps never give again. Sure, we can blame donor fatigue and chalk it up to another decline in donor retention. However, before it’s too late, I’d like to challenge you to evaluate whether it might be a case of “organization induced disinterest” either informally or officially through a consultant.
David J. Fry is President/CEO of Effective Advancement Strategies in Greensburg and consults with businesses and nonprofits throughout Indiana. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org