Are com­mu­ni­ca­tion depart­ments the ene­my of fundraisers?

Written by
Richard Radcliffe
January 21, 2016

Call me stupid, dear friends, but I despair of some big charities. And I am about to call communication departments of some large charities stupid and I think for very good reasons. Please let me know if I am wrong. Tweet your views to your heart’s content: be angry, be happy, be questioning but please do not just sit there saying nothing.

Let me tell you some stories which are enough to make me angry, make me cry, or lead me to the verge of violence.

Story one (please comment or share at the end of this story)

There is this international development agency – I will not give the name of the charity because I love it even though I hate the communications department. I met almost 200 of their donors – some of the most logical, honest and intriguing people you could ever want to meet.

I sat down with them and after hearing many of their thoughts and insights I asked them how they wanted to be asked for a legacy. They were given every option you can imagine but they all wanted the newsletter. Why? Because they say they read it (I am not sure they read every word but they do love it) and it is more acceptable to have a legacy promotion that is not addressed to them personally so a newsletter is perfect. A direct mail shot was really not wanted at the moment. Some expressed real antagonism to many letters they have received.

We debated lots of story options and they clearly preferred:

1. A story, by the fundraiser, on how legacies have been used.

2. The tax advantages of leaving a legacy

So here I am face to face with the communications department telling them what their donors want: strong, tangible, logical and passionate stories.

First, a comment by the director of communications (if you are reading this article and recognise yourself please consider leaving the nonprofit sector as soon as possible – you are stupid and a waste of valuable money).

You cannot have stories about giving a legacy in the newsletter, it is not a subject for publishing.

I will not go into the arguments I gave for the article but he has 10 pages of evidence to prove donor attitudes and desires to know the difference legacies make.

He said: ‘You can have an advertisement but not stories.’

I reply: ‘Can there be an advertisement telling the stories?’

‘No. It is not right.’

Not a great conversation so far.

I go on: ‘They want captions in photos so they can understand the context of the story. Can there be a photo with a caption but no story?’



‘Captions ruin the design of the magazine.’

This is getting silly but I am on the verge of a mental breakdown.

‘OK, so if there can be an advertisement, can there be a simple response device so we can capture enquiry levels?’



You guessed it: ‘It makes the magazine unattractive.’

Please note change of language from newsletter to magazine.

Now readers: please let me know your thoughts.

Story two

Now, please tell me this: do communication departments understand that supporter communications are both a cultivation and stewardship opportunity aimed at those who love your charity?

Why do I ask?

Having met 83 donors and volunteers of a really big welfare charity I found their favourite communication is the quarterly newsletter. This printed document is loved by everyone aged over 65 – the prime legacy prospects to complete the donor pyramid and leave a legacy.

The communications department has decided to cancel the printed version and to do an e-newsletter. Older donors now no longer receive news in print.

They all tell similar stories.

We would love you to save money and send us an electronic newsletter.

I respond: ‘Do you read emails from charities?’

‘Well,’ they say, ‘not really, to be honest we will probably just delete it.’

My response: ‘But do you read the printed version?’

The universal response is yes they do.

‘Also,’ says one great donor, ‘I leave the printed version in the doctor’s surgery.’

Another says, ‘Do you? I leave mine in my church.’

‘That’s funny,’ says another donor, ‘I give it to my friends.’

I wonder how many donors they have each recruited over the years?

I wonder how many have left a legacy after reading about them in newsletters? It seems the newsletters triggered good thoughts about legacies.

Why do communications departments not understand the need for print for older generations? Is it that really stupid argument: we do not see their money now?

Story three – donor behaviour

I have just met 124 donors who love the printed newsletter so much they even remember the stories they have read. Wow! And they want more.

But when I ask supporters if they have been to the website of the charity only four per cent have – which, reviewing the last 2,000 donors I have met, is very typical.

So why don’t you visit the website of ‘their charity’ I ask?

‘Because we get everything we need from the newsletter’ is the typical response.

But when I ask if they would visit the website if they did not get a printed newsletter they all say no. Why? They cannot be bothered.

So, fellow fundraisers, we have big communication problems.

Communication departments do not understand the information needs of donors to complete the donor pyramid. But we also have a donor problem: they are not interested enough to want more information.

This summarises the ‘legacy problem’ beautifully:

We do educate donors to yearn to know more so they are not inquisitive just boringly placid and nicely trusting

We do not educate charity communicators to realise that if donors were given more information to spark a yearning to give, many more would give a legacy.

© 101fundraising 2014

About the author: Richard Radcliffe

Richard Radcliffe is founder of Radcliffe Consulting which specialises in developing legacy income for charities/NGOs worldwide. He has met probably every type of donor there is on the planet including many hundreds of high net worth individuals and wow is it a fun job! Richard has over 20 years’ experience in legacy fundraising and is keener than ever to challenge boundaries and to grow legacies globally.

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