In Make It About Me and More…About Me, Tom and I emphasize the importance of ‘donor identity’ in answering fundraising’s most critically important question: “Why does this donor give?”

First, let me begin with the following important side note…

As intuitively appealing as it might seem, we can’t get the answer to ‘why’ by simply asking the donor “Why?”.

Doing so is akin to being able to properly determine if someone is an introvert or extrovert by asking the question directly. Indirect inquiry and analysis is required,  but more on that tomorrow.

For purposes of today’s post, I want to focus on the need to get at ‘why’ (vs. the method).

The importance of figuring out ‘donor identity’ and answering the ‘why’ question was dramatically reinforced yesterday by the findings reported in our post on Chuck Longfield’s study, Vital Signs: organizations ignore the importance of retaining donors at their peril.

Despite rising competition, declining numbers of active donors, and falling retention rates most fundraisers continue whistling past the graveyard of the future — blithely ignoring or sidestepping any serious efforts to address these issues head on.

I really don’t know whether it’s because they can’t abide treating different people differently … whether they don’t want to spend the time and money to gather this essential — and individual — information … whether they’ve just given up or don’t know how.

What I do know is that there’s an enormous gulf — a huge mindset gap — between what needs to be done and the seeming complacency to settle for the same old stuff.

Here is but one example reflected in a statement from a large fundraising agency in the US:

“…As all of us working in nonprofits know, loyalty is challenging to quantify and understand. Plenty of well-intended fundraisers, agencies, and solution providers have tried to quantify the motivators and drivers for charitable giving — and all have failed…

“Why do I say they failed? Well, we wouldn’t still be using RFM (recency, frequency, monetary) predictive models…if anyone had been successful in finding a more effective way to target donors in an ROI-positive way.”

Aside from being categorically false or untrue, the underlying sentiment reflects a distrubing dogma that the way we’ve always done it is the optimum way. Same old, same old for us fundraisers despite what happens in other fields — e.g. medicine, commercial marketing — that routinely revise their ‘best practices’ based on research and empirical insights.

In More…About Me I noted Katrina VanHuss’ marvelous Why I Care About Your Cause, But Don’t Donate  article explaining why disease charities are missing the boat because of their failure around donor identity and determining if the person has the disease (e.g. MS or breast cancer), is a caregiver or has an indirect connection.

This is just one example of how to measure identity and, as promised, it doesn’t come from asking the ‘why’ question directly. The disease nonprofits are not alone. Failures abound across the nonprofit sector.

Begin at the Beginning

Those who want to do something about retention, building lifetime value and loyalty need to begin at the beginning of the relationship between the donor and her first gift to the organization.

Sure, a prompt and heartfelt ‘thank you’ is a great start. (See Agitator posts on saying “thank you” here, here, here, here, and here on the importance we assign to ‘thank yous’.)

But, “Thank You” is not enough. Or, more accurately, not as good as it can be if there isn’t versioning that plays to known — at the individual supporter level — identity.

And once known, the customizing to reinforce and play back that identity should involve a lot more than starting a single sentence with “As someone who has [insert disease X], you know….” and calling it a day.

Absent this personal information — collected for every donor, whether you have 1,000 or 1,000,000 — about her motivation and preferences, we often begin dumping appeal after appeal, email after email on her. And often we even ‘exchange’ her name with dozens of other organizations that, in turn, rain down a hail of competing information before we’ve even had a chance to ‘bond’ with her.

Excuses and Poor Alternatives

The perennial excuses for not measuring, managing and tailoring not just message but entire journeys around motivation and need is that ‘it’s too expensive’ … ‘we don’t have time’ … ‘we can’t get this kind of information for the whole file’.

These same excuse-makers seem to have no difficulty blasting out appeal after appeal, email after email with no insight as to ‘why’ the donor gives or what her needs and preferences are.

And to be clear, some generic understanding of this (e.g. to feel appreciated, to believe their money isn’t wasted, to reinforce their values) is simply not enough.

As one alternative approach, some organizations with healthy budgets seem willing to spend tens of thousands of donor $ or € on expensive ‘personas’ or ‘donor profiling’ demographics.

Frankly, this is a huge waste — a well-intended effort with no science or rigor and lots of guesswork. (As Grandma Craver warned, “The path to hell was paved with good intentions.)  Once placed in a particular bucket the organization then falsely assumes that everyone in that bucket is motivated by the same thing. Ergo, give ‘em all the same appeal, the same message, the same donor journey.

The problem with using behavior/transactional/donation or demographic data in whole or part is that it tells us nothing about the ‘why’ of donors’ support or their organization-specific interests and needs (identity).

And make no mistake, the difference between these demographic groups is dwarfed by the differences within these groups. If you think Millenials are a marketing segment, or Boomers for that matter, you may as well target by Scorpios and Capricorns while you’re at it.

A second alternative — the effort to organize/segment/cluster by donor attitudes rather than demographics — is also almost always misplaced and unhelpful. Although donors can be asked to rank or choose seemingly on-point statements about an organization’s mission (e.g. attitudes about the environment if an enviro charity) these segments tend to look more similar than different.

The result of these two ‘attempts’ to identify donors and answer the ‘why’ question is that the fundraiser is left with still having to make massive assumptions about motivation/intent and preference in trying to ‘translate’ and apply these generalized attitudes and vague personas. More like an exercise in making a horoscope than drawing up an effective fundraising and retention plan.

In short, organizations that understand the importance of knowing a donor’s identity and ‘why’ that individual gave will succeed only if they roll up their sleeves, open their ears and listen to each donor.

Meet the donor’s needs and she will meet yours.


P.S. Tomorrow, as promised, I’ll cover, in more detail, the mistakes so many nonprofits, with the best of intentions, make in their desire to create personal clusters and segments and translate them into meaningfully different ‘donor-centric’ journeys.