Dear Nonprofiteer, How dare they tell me what to give?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

Maybe I’m just being pissy.  It’s possible.  But….

I’m on the board of two smallish non-profit arts organizations, and a regular financial supporter of several others. I’ve noticed a trend in fundraising appeals- in letters that go out to previous funders, the dollar amount they contributed in previous years is named, with a request for a specific increase in the current campaign.  (“Thank you for your generous contribution of $100 in 2011. Would you consider a gift of $125 in 2012?”)

Why should this bother me?  But it does.  It really irritates me, especially from the organizations that I contribute to generously.  And this year, when, as a board member, I was given the fundraising “ask” letters that were going out under my name to my personal contacts, I felt especially irritated to see the request for a specific additional amount.  I would certainly never have written my friends directly with this request.  Now that the dust has settled and our annual appeal has ended, I intend to speak to our director of development about it.But, in the meantime, could you illuminate me as to when this practice started?  Why it started?  And whether I should offer, in a kind way, feedback to the other organizations that are asking for a specific dollar amount increase to my giving?Does this bother anyone else? Or am I just being pissy?


Possibly Pissy, But Really Very Generous At Heart

Dear Generous,

The practice likewise raises the hair on the back of the Nonprofiteer’s neck.  There’s something creepy about the notion that an organization is 1) keeping track of what you’ve given, in violation of some notion of privacy and 2) asking for more, as if in reproach, instead of trusting you to give more if you’re able.  But of course they’re keeping track of what you’re giving—how inept would you think them if they weren’t?—and of course they’re always working to raise more—ditto.  So the first thing to recognize is that it’s not the practice so much as the expression that annoys you.

The practice is at least 40 years old, and was pioneered by the universities, probably because it’s natural for those institutions to think of givers in terms of the passage of time: the class of 1960 can reasonably be expected to have more resources than the class of 2010.  It arose, the Nonprofiteer suspects, in response to the habitual nature of many people’s giving: if they gave $100 last year, they go on giving $100 into eternity.  This seems like a great thing and, in fact, is the reason individual giving is such an important source of funds to organizations: while foundations often won’t continue their support unless you do something new and different for every grant, most individuals will just keep on giving unless you affirmatively offend them.

But what you’re saying is that the request for elevated support is just such an affirmative offense.

The problem is that the cost of everything continues to go up, and unless the monetary inflow goes up at the same time the agencies you support will find themselves seriously behind the 8-ball.   Perhaps the agencies requesting your increased support would do better if they reminded you of that—”We haven’t been able to give our actors a raise for five years while their rents and grocery bills just keep on rising”—rather than beginning with a flat-out demand that you do more.

The Nonprofiteer prefers to err on the side of thinking that’s what they meant, anyway, and that the only thing they can be reproached with is their effort to raise money based on need instead of on opportunity.    Most prospective donors, whether offended by an appeal or not, give money to agencies because of what they’re going to do and not because of how much they need.  That, most probably, is the source of your feeling offended by the approach: that what you want to hear is how great they are and how much they can do with your help, not how needy they are and that they’re so desperate for your support as to reach their hands directly into your pocket.

The question of what gets said to people who are getting fundraising letters over your signature—or at least under your aegis—is a separate one.  You are utterly within your rights as a Board member to say “I’m happy to solicit my friends but I won’t send out a letter telling them how much to give,” so that the staff can prepare your letters without the offending terminology.  Those letters are from you, and therefore should represent your own approach to the people you’re soliciting, whether that’s “This group is in desperate need” or “This is the only group I’m supporting this year because of the fabulous new program they’ve launched.”

In other words, it’s one thing to shake off what you consider a slight directed at you, and another to permit the agency to direct that slight at your friends.   In that spirit, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to notify the agencies whose appeals have troubled you that you wouldn’t ask your friends for money with that inflection and that they might consider not asking their friends for money that way, either.

But consider this.  The Nonprofiteer remembers being unable to ask how much something cost in Paris because the straightforward “Combien?” seemed so abrupt and rude but she lacked the syntax skills to soften it, not to mention the language facility to know what phraseology would constitute appropriate softening.  People who ask for money and people who get asked are speaking different languages.  Those doing the asking never mean to be rude—they just lack the skills to determine what constitutes being polite.  Perhaps if you consider the transaction from that perspective you’ll be less annoyed.

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9 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, How dare they tell me what to give?”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Interesting question and answer. Here at the receiving end of those letters, I don’t take offense at “x +25% please?” diction, but I can see how another donor might. It sounds mindlessly greedy–it’s not open to the possibility that whatever reason “x -25%” might be the more correct gift.

    At the writing end, maybe askers could consider stating a reason for upping their request, not just a higher number plucked wishfully from the air. Something specific about the larger number of people they could help with more cash would be ideal but higher costs are okay too, even if they’ll sound like the dreaded administrative overhead.

  2. Andrew Olsen Says:

    This is a really interesting thread. I agree with what Anita said about positioning the ask.

    It seems to me (full disclosure, work for a fundraising agency and have written many appeal letters in the past) there are likely two things that can be done that would keep *most* donors from feeling this way.

    First, as Anita suggested, show your donors concrete reasons for asking them to upgrade. And “we need” isn’t a good enough reason. Provide donors with an inspirational opportunity to do significantly more good in the world by increasing their commitment to your organization or cause. Make it about the impact they can have for the people you serve rather than the financial needs your organization has.

    And second, in between solicitations, you better make darn sure you have a strong stewardship process. From the initial thank you letter through ongoing communications (newsletters, e-news, personal calls, etc.), make a point to share stories of impact and positive change brought about ONLY because of the contributions your donors make.

    If you get both of these right, chances are your donors won’t have an issue if you ask them to increase their giving.

    But if they do complain and ask you to make a change, don’t just do what they ask and call it done. Use that opportunity to engage in dialogue with your donor. To build a deeper relationship through conversation, and make sure she feels like she’s been heard and that you’re going to do something about it.

  3. Vicki Says:

    I can go you one further on the “affront” front. Last year, I used the services of a not-for-profit which claims to provide free services. I had intended a donation at the end of the year because I like the organization’s purpose. Early December, I receive an invoice for their services. Seriously, at the top of the letter was the word “Invoice.” It was for about 3 times what I had intended to give, and was an odd number as if it really were an invoice. The only mention of it being a solicitation for a donation were in really tiny print at the bottom. It made me wonder how many others had paid the “invoice” thinking they had misunderstood the nature of the service transaction. Although my intention was to donate, I never did because this solicitation stuck so deeply in my craw. I know one of their boardmembers well and have contemplated asking her What the ____?

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      You should absolutely ask her What the ____! That’s a really sneaky and creepy transaction, and I’m sure you’re not the only person to see through it and vow never to give one dime of charitable support to the agency. It sounds like the kind of money-right-now-the-hell-with-the-future thinking we more often associate with corporations–so I guess that means nonprofits have learned to act like businesses after all!

  4. Nancy Worssam Says:

    Good responses all to the question of escalating giving requests. Let’s hope non-profits read the post and the replies and act accordingly.

  5. AJ Says:

    How dare they collect data on their donors to enhance their fundraising capabilities and send a carefully worded, polite email with a soft request for a modest increase in contribution! How thoughtless! What an affront!

    Here’s the thing, all sarcasm aside: I admire any non-profit that is shaking up their fundraising process to see where they can find good results. They didn’t send a list of demands. They didn’t insinuate that last year’s gift was inadequate. They’re not being ‘creepy’ by keeping careful records and recall of donor gift amounts. Unless it’s specifically noted that you don’t want follow-up contact and would like to remain anonymous, what is a savvy non-profit is going to do with donor information if not use it to solicit future support? They’re building and engaging their donor base. Where one person interprets this to mean: ‘they’re saying my gift last year wasn’t enough!’, I see a well-planned fundraising ask from an organization that has spent considerable time (and, thus, money) tracking donor information to further engage their contributor base, making a very request that I can feel free to disregard. I honestly don’t get the pearl-clutching about increasing dollar-specific fundraising asks- the only reason I can see an organization stopping this practice is if they received widespread negative feedback. This method has helped many of our clients fundraise more effectively and the majority of donors aren’t quite so sensitive (or, yes, pissy) that they’d feel slighted or offended by being asked to give a bit more this year than last. When I got an email ask for a quarterly gift slightly bigger (about 25%, like the organization mentioned in this post) than my donations last year, I was happy to give it and glad that they’d asked. It reminded me I could afford to incrementally bump up my gift, something I wouldn’t have thought to do with a non-specific ask.

    I agree that with an increasing ask, it’s important to include information on why the money is needed and how it will be utilized- but this is a very basic component of any fundraising ask. If you’re put off, some gentle feedback is appropriate. I’m also of the opinion that this strategy is inappropriate to use for large donors (over, say $500), who would require more personalized communication. I couldn’t agree more with the Nonprofiteer that it’s not a content issue, it’s the tone. I don’t think it’s a lack of ‘skills’ though- what constitutes polite to one person might be the epitome of rudeness to another and that some donors can become offended if the tone of a fundraising ask isn’t quite deferential enough for them (which would be my interpretation of what happened here). I’m on the Board of an area non-profit and if I was uncomfortable with the way a fundraising ask to my contact list was phrased, I’d ask for a meeting with the director and inquire about the reasoning was behind it, to see if I could get on board. The likelihood that the fundraising staff at an organization knows better than a board member what gets real fundraising results is very high, so I’d really try to understand the rationale behind the wording that was rubbing me the wrong way. If I really couldn’t see why the director wanted to do the ask in that way, I might ask her to remove my contacts from the list for that letter. I think it’s important to keep in mind that, though you may be on the Board, it’s likely you don’t know as much about the organization’s individual donor fundraising process as the staff does.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      I agree that asking for increased gifts is appropriate, and that it’s worth the risk of offending some people to remind others that they might want to rethink their gifts in light of changed circumstances, increased costs, expanded programs, or whatever. But I can’t agree that the agency’s expertise should over-ride a Board member’s own sense of what constitutes politeness in asking his/her friends. Certainly a dialogue about the reason for the approach would be good, but the only way to get Board members to continue to ask for donations (one of their primary responsibilities) is to make asking palatable by respecting the Board members’ sensitivities. If a Board member raises substantially less with his/her letter than her fellows who use the recommended language, that can be pointed out gently before the next Board-generated appeal goes out.

      • AJ Says:

        Yes, I definitely see your point- it is uncomfortable, as a Board member, to have to fundraise from your own contact list. I think, like you said, the dialogue is really important to make sure that the Board member is comfortable with how the organization is positing the ask and the director is comfortable that the Board member is doing the ask in a way that’s in keeping with the organization’s branding, language and direction. I’ve been lucky enough to feel really comfortable with the ways the ED develops fundraising asks for us, but I would probably be singing a different tune if she was asking me to ask for money in a way I felt was inappropriate.

  6. Tim Says:

    Well, it’s not simply a legacy of university “years out” tiers. This is a generic, impersonal attempt to avoid “The Cardinal Sin Of Development.” That’s failing to ask … for … as much … as the prospect was willing/about to give!

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