From the Myth Smash­ers: Fundrais­ers raise funds not friends’ – smash­ing that myth

Mak­ing friends out of donors is a cru­cial aspect of fundrais­ing, says 2020 Myth Smash­ers win­ner Lau­ren McDermott.

Written by
Lauren McDermott
May 21, 2020

How lucky are we as fundraisers? Every single day we get to witness real acts of kindness from the most incredible people.

We call these people our donors. They’re called donors because they donate. And for me, this is where the problem starts. Because we immediately define people by their transactional relationship with us.

Yet we fundraisers can’t get enough of donors. We buy them, count them, swap them and lose them. In fact, we lose about 75 per cent of them.

And it’s a real shame because they help us in so many ways. They ensure we reach KPIs, improve our ROI and reduce our attrition. Isn’t it ironic that all of the metrics we focus on contain I’s? Too often our focus is on our own needs and short-term goals.

We are not bad people. After all, the work we do to raise funds is for a good cause. Yet we are starting to see that this number-driven approach to fundraising is simply not sustainable. But, like a lot of bad habits, it’s going to be very hard to kick, especially when we have become hooked on the immediate results.

Is that a leak or is our bucket overflowing?

I understand the need to keep topping up the good ol’ leaky bucket. I work at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research (the Perkins) in Western Australia, and I recently received one of our returned acquisition mail packs (pictured right). The recipient explained she couldn’t give a gift this time around and listed the 24 other medical research charities she was already giving to (along with aid charities on the back).

For the first time, I had to question my own moral calculations because I’ve long justified lists and swaps as ethically right on the basis that we have to spend money wisely and get the best return. But does the sum of our good work equal more than the potential harm we are doing?

The leaky bucket is one of my favourite fundraising metaphors because non-fundraisers in our organisations get it (and boards understand it!). It perfectly shows the role of a fundraising team. It highlights the need for constant topping up through acquisition and why good processes are integral to patch up the leaks. Over the years, the leaky bucket has evolved and we now see major donors and people leaving gifts in wills gently scooped from the surface.

But we continue to talk about the leaky bucket as if it simply cannot burst or overflow. But could it be that whilst we were busy topping up the bucket, we missed that overflowing trickle turning into a stream? Are the harrowing retention rates that we are experiencing today a result of an industry flood?

We are finding that no excessive amount of patching and topping up can prevent the flow of donors out of our organisation as quick as they enter. Even the best minds in our business can’t overcome this issue and we are at a loss to what the core of the problem is – economy, generational changes or poor practices.

But the answer could be in the following two questions:

1.     How much do you spend acquiring a donor?

2.     How much do you spend on-boarding, retaining and increasing the value and commitment of a donor?

I don’t know the answer to number two as it’s hard to quantify but I know it’s nowhere near enough. The biggest objection to this myth is that we simply can’t afford the time to speak to every donor who gives but can we truly afford not to?

Making friends as a fundraiser.

The people who give to your organisation are kind and trusting. They care about the same thing that you do. That’s a great foundation for friendship. But when we see everybody as a potential source of money, we forget what it might mean to have them as a real friend.

Real friends come to your events and sometimes they volunteer, they forgive and understand, they share with you their opinions and wisdom, and they introduce you to other great people who might want to be your friend too. Real friends never let anybody talk bad about you behind your back.

And yes, friends donate cash but cash is one of many gifts a friend can give.

For the rest of this article, I’m going to stop using the word donor. They are so much more than that. The people who give to our organisations are wives, widows, sons, doctors, retirees. They have lives, passions and stories, all of which drive their head and their heart. And it’s the heart that drives them to us.

Science has proven that when a person donates to a charity, the brain responds more like a hug than a purchase. When someone reaches out for a hug, how you respond is very telling and shows how you feel about that person in an instant.

So whilst friendship is about a lot more than saying thank you for a gift, it is always a great place to start.

The tea theory.

It might be because I’m English but I believe the nicest thing you can do for somebody you care about it make them a proper cup of tea. No polystyrene cups, no urn and using the good tea bags (sorry to offend the national Australian favourite but I’m a Yorkshire tea drinker myself).

Here at the Perkins, whether a person donates AU$5 or AU$500, we like to thank them personally and include an invite with select receipts to a ‘tour and tea’ that we hold every quarter.

The building is modern and impressive, the scientists are intellectual and respected, and the people who come along are humble and curious, so we have to try hard to make our guests feel at home.

When guests arrive to share a morning tea before their tour, we serve tea the proper way using a teapot and not an urn. We welcome them, make eye contact and use their name to ask them how they like their tea/coffee, and bring it over to their seat. We do tea this way because it’s nice to be able to do something for the people who do so much for us.

People have commented that they ‘feel like royalty’ and share the most incredible stories, and sometimes we share ours too. The connections made over a cuppa can’t be rivalled.

This small act of service when making tea is nothing new or tricky, it costs us less than AU$100 to host these amazing people. It’s truly sincere so we don’t have targets or metrics on events like this. But I can tell you that if we did, the highest return to our organisations would be the value that events like this give to staff – a sharp reminder of why we do what we do.

Yet I think one of the biggest challenges we face as fundraisers is creating really sincere and meaningful ‘tea moments’ with people across channels as we scale up.

The friendship revolution.

The word authentic is a buzz word right now and every time I hear it, a little bit of its true magic dies. It’s used to describe policies, scripts and donor-centric approaches and just like an eraser, the more we use it – the less there is left.

When you say what you mean and mean what you say, from the inside-out, to me this is authenticity. Authentically loving your ‘donors’ from your very core is all it takes to begin the friendship revolution. (Yes I used the word donor, it’s a hard habit to break, isn’t it?)

Because we are not going to change the demands of our Boards and budgets overnight. What if we were to change our perspective on ‘donors’? Instead of seeing them as a group to be managed, we see them as kind and generous human beings with so much to offer who have honoured us with their trust to use their money for the cause we are so passionately invested in too. We can then feel true gratitude to have them and the ball will start rolling in a new direction. But it all starts with you.

I’m still on my own journey with this concept and along with a wonderful team of fundraisers at the Perkins, we have explored some of the things that do and don’t work for us when making friends:

  • Did work – Making them smile. By saying what we mean, meaning what we say. They are human beings and when they give it comes from the heart, we need to talk from the same place. For me, this sometimes involves physically standing up and doing a silly dance at my desk because I keep defaulting to formal work language.
  • Didn’t work – Matrixes and scripts. We are working on using milestone moments to make timely calls when meaningful things happen for them and for us. Of course we have guides for newbies but we find that sincerity leads to a real conversation and it’s much nicer for everybody.
  • Did work – Remembering what they have said and done. And that’s not always cash. We capture information with meaningful intent and store it in places we can find and use it. Having a lot of friends makes our CRM even more important. 
  • Didn’t work – Making ourselves difficult to talk to. Vanity emails or reception phone numbers had to go. We want to talk to these people – like really talk – so we have our photograph and brief intro to how we can help on our website, email signatures and even our business cards.
  • Did work – Dedicating time to friends.
    We dedicate an entire resource to serving our supporters before everything. If she is in a meeting and she gets a call, she will leave to talk to her many friends. Her name is Chloe and she is incredible at everything she does but best at making people smile. 
  • Didn’t work – Fancy job titles. We also had to rethink our fancy titles so that people had a better idea of what each of us do and how we can help them. The word retention sounds impressive but it is not good on a business card that our supporters will receive.
  • Did work – valuing what they have to say. We want more friends like them so it makes sense that we ask their opinion on things.
  • Did and didn’t work – Automation. We had to learn that automation doesn’t do the hard work but it can help pick up some of the easy work, so that we have more time to spend with our friends.

There is one golden rule: we never talk bad about our friends behind their back. Even the grumpy ones.

Fundraisers raise funds not friends – smashing the myth once and for all.

To truly smash this myth once and for all, I realise the one thing a fundraiser like you needs to know is exactly how friendship will benefit your bottom line. But, for me, that’s not the point.

Because in all honesty, I don’t know that we will ever truly be able to quantify the impact of a cup of tea on lifetime value. And sure, we could split test but I don’t want a B group who don’t get a cup of tea at all!

What I know for sure is that attitudes towards charity and giving are fragile, and that isn’t going to change any time soon. We need to stop waiting for things to ‘get better’ because we have work to do and friends to make.

Our job as fundraisers is to represent our incredible industry, advocate for our deserving cause but above all, it’s to do right by the incredible people who honour us with their trust, kindness and a little bit of their hearts – our friends.

About the author: Lauren McDermott

Lauren is a paper hating, time-saving fundraiser with a passion for making donors feel like the rock stars they are.

Lauren’s passion for NFPs began when she volunteered overseas whilst still at university. After seeing poverty firsthand, she decided her life would be more fulfilling if she worked for causes rather than shareholders. 

Lauren’s fundraising career began shortly after she arrived in Australia when she began working at large healthcare company. Lauren now manages the donor development team at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, a small passionate team focusing on the entire donor experience - CRM/data, cash/RG appeals, stewardship and gifts in wills.

She believes that sincerity is at the heart of everything. When Perkins donors were recently asked if they would recommend the charity to a friend, the overall score was 8.9/10 and this is echoed by increasing income year on year.

Lauren completed studies in Business and Marketing at Liverpool John Moores University in 2013 graduating with a first class degree (BaHons), before leaving the UK shortly after to explore Australia for a year. She is yet to go home.

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