When people decide to give, they decide which causes to support, which organizations they want to align with, and how they will choose to share their resources. And they also consider one other thing: over-solicitation.
No nonprofit wants to be guilty of over-stepping, but unstable economies and demographic shifts validly evoke concern about whether funds are available to support mission achievement.
Enter “donor burnout.”
The term “burnout” made its way into common vernacular in the 1970s. At the time it was used to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals experienced by those in “helping” professions - people like doctors and nurses who sacrifice themselves for others. Today Merriam-Webster defines burnout as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.”
That definition considered, there is considerable debate whether or not “donor burnout” actually exists. Consider the following argument posited by Jeff Brooks:
Conventional fundraising wisdom has it that donors’ gifts are a limited resource, like an old-growth forest: Ask too often without substantial ‘resting’ periods, and you can ‘overharvest’ — you’ve chopped down all the trees quicker than new ones can grow.
Sounds plausible, but it’s wrong.
If you want a more realistic approach, don’t think of fundraising as a kind of removing; instead, think of it as a kind of cultivating. When you motivate a donor to give, you haven’t taken a tree out of a forest that needs time to regrow. It’s more like you’ve pruned a rose bush, encouraging more and better growth.”
Bringing these ideas together, Brooks is encouraging a shift in perspective. Rather than imagining giving as a source of prolonged stress, he presents donating as a potential source of strength and motivation. So how, then, can nonprofits ensure that their donors remain in a state of prolonged satisfaction rather than prolonged frustration?
1. Think of your donors as investors and treat them accordingly
The field of investor relations examines relationships between companies and their various stakeholders. It considers financial reporting, marketing strategy, legal responsibilities, and sense-making of organization outcomes. So, if you were to put “investor relations” on a spectrum, at one end there would be a one-way communication of basic financial information and at the other, investor relations would be a key component of strategic management. It would be based on a communication platform that gains investor confidence and increases company value.
Where might your organization currently fit on that spectrum? How well are you relating to your “investors”?
As a group, investors expect to see that the funds they provide are being used wisely and transparently: they want to see how their money is contributing to the company’s overall bottom line. For nonprofits, your “bottom line” is the tangible achievement of objectives that align with your organization’s mission and advance your broader cause. So, whenever possible, clearly designate gifts of time or money toward a specific objective before appealing to your brand or mission. Doing so enables you to report measurable impact and provides a clear benchmark for when you may ask for funds again.
To elaborate further, just as a start-up enterprise would be wary to ask investors for a second round of funding before producing any concrete profits, so too should nonprofits be hesitant to ask more of their donors before demonstrating how the resources they have already shared have been activated. In this scenario, investors would not be interested in receiving tokens and gifts from a company who has yet to demonstrate their worth; nonprofit donors will likely feel similarly.
Key Point: Share measurable results with donors on how their last gift created an impact before asking for more help.
Key Question: “How fast can our nonprofit put donors’ resources to work so we can report a meaningful outcome back to them?”
2. Say Thank you
Research finds that combining clearly communicated and measurable results with prompt and meaningful acknowledgment for all gifts offered evokes a sense of “indefinite loyalty” among donors.
To maximize this effect, according to Penelope Burk based on a research conducted by Cygnus Applied Research in 2006, there are two key moments when a “thank you” will wield greater influence: (1) the initial rush when people decide to give (or to give again), and (2) the more intense emotion experienced when people learn that their gift accomplished something important to them.
Paul Zak has looked more deeply into the biological basis for generosity. He finds that oxytocin, a hormone linked to trust and empathy, is closely linked to giving behaviours. Here is how it works: in a somewhat cyclical effect, increased oxytocin levels trigger increased gifting, which, in turn, increases oxytocin levels. For nonprofits, this means that connecting with people while their oxytocin levels are high can help extend a sense of social connection to a cellular level.
Key Point: Strategize how you can thank people during times when they are biologically primed to receive your message
Key Question: “How can we best thank our donors for the impact they make?”
3. Make Giving Easy
Investment agencies do a brilliant job of getting money from people and there are some lessons for nonprofits here.
Think of it… investment firms make it as simple as possible for people to give them virtually any amount of cash in almost any way imaginable. They provide a broad array of investment choices that will appeal to wide segments with varied resource bases and interests. Investors accept funds by mail, email, wire-transfer, in-person, and sometimes through a third party. They ensure that investing is as seamless and automatic as possible. Their clients get to choose how they receive their statements, how they will interact with their investment advisors, the types of communications they may or may not want to receive, and when they will invest.
No successful investment firm would ever adopt a “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to building long-term relationships with its clients, nor should not-for-profits. By giving donors and potential donors an array of “investment” options, you can support them to create a “portfolio” that will best fit into their value system and their life.
Key Point: The simpler and more personalized you can make your donation process, the better. Offering choice, and then honoring the choices made, leads to prolonged loyalty, trust, and giving.
Key Questions: “Where is the friction in our donation process? How can we help people have a personalized experience?”
Preventing donor burnout and staying connected to your supporters does not have to be difficult; it does, however, need to be thoughtfully planned. Nonprofits can begin by recruiting resources for specific, measurable objectives asking for additional help only after results have been shared with donors. Next, organizations should decide how to maximize opportunities for connection and gratitude during the giving process. And lastly, both previous steps should be supported by a well-designed giving experience that offers both you and your supporters the options you need to keep your connection fresh over time.
When we show people that something is possible that they didn’t think was possible it does more than just change things. It changes the way people think about the possibility of things changing… And that is a huge contribution to their humanity.” - Dan Pallotta
About the author
Kerstin Heuer is a marketing specialist and founder of Non Profit Today. Since 2009 she has used the trifecta of branding, marketing, and design to help nonprofits communicate the heart of their organization, connect with their audiences, and achieve their missions. With over 25 years of industry experience and lessons learned from work on 500+ nonprofit projects, Kerstin is skilled in collaborating with NPOs to make sure they have a clear message and the traction they need to spread it. Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.