I went on a rant on Charity Channel this morning. I tried to refrain, really I did – and I lasted almost a whole day. But eventually the devil on my shoulder made me cave. (For those who may have caught that rant, feel free to jump in here and tell me if I’m wrong. I may be opinionated, but I am also quite willing to learn – and to even change that opinion!)
The question being posed had to do with acquisition rates and return on investment. Seems innocuous enough, no? Unfortunately, what these folks were acquiring were people. Donors, to be specific.
The question was about a dip in acquisition rates for new donors from direct mail fundraising.
Can you just see me, staring at the monitor like a recently reformed smoker facing down a fresh, unopened pack – knowing my keyboard would not relinquish its hold until I had smoked every last one – um, I mean, responded to that post? Resistance was clearly futile. (BTW – GREAT comic to illustrate that very point, at my new favorite comic stop – XKCD.com. Speaking of addicted, I cannot wait for their feeds to hit my mailbox!)
So, here is what my fingers made me say in response to the question of “donor acquisition rates” and Direct Mail fundraising:
I hate direct mail. First, I hate getting it. I hate dumping it unopened, together with the rest of the junk mail, into the recycling bin on my way from the mailbox to the house.
I hate feeling guilty that I have no idea – nor do I care – who sent me the accumulated 27 sets of very lovely miniature Tibetan prayer flags, that are laying alongside the mile-high pile of mailing labels so numerous that no mere human could send that much mail in a lifetime.
This is charity junk mail. I don’t know who these people are, yet there they are – all these requests for money from complete strangers who found me on some list somewhere – heading straight to the recycling without being opened, along with the Penny Saver and the ValPak and the quote I never requested for cheaper insurance on my house and/or car.
I hate words like “donor acquisition.” Clearly, to the folks sending me this garbage (sorry – if it goes straight into the trash, it’s trash), I am a number, a statistic, the not-so-acquired side of their diminishing ROI.
And we wonder why our organizations are not sustainable? We wonder why we battle to sustain the incredible work we are all doing?
We are chasing money in any way we can find it, rather than engaging our communities (wherever they are – worldwide or a single block) in real relationships, involving them deeply in our missions with their hearts and their souls and their passion – and only THEN perhaps their dollars. And we wonder why the world sees our organizations as always having our hands out!
Have our organizations ever spent as much time trying to engage the people who come through our doors as we spend trying to “acquire new donors”? Have we spent time to ask those who already know us – ask for their wisdom, their advice about the work we are doing? How often do we ask the people who are already our clients, our patrons, our program participants – if they would like to help make our mission stronger?
And how often do we instead simply try to engage their wallets?
I am a season ticket holder at my local professional theater – have been forever. In all that time, they have never asked me for my thoughts, my expertise, my time, my help. They have never once, in all those years, showed me how I can get involved in making theater in my community stronger. They just send me renewals.
Both my dog and my cat came from my community’s Humane Society. My dog and I also did our training there. That was 10 years ago. Since then, I have never once been asked for anything but my money. How’s the dog? How’s the cat? What could we be doing differently, better? And why haven’t you been back in 10 years? And would you like to help us muck out the stalls one day?
Do they know if I would or would not? Have they asked me for anything but my cash?
Eldercare facilities, where many of our parents are now living. The community clinics and hospitals where we take our kids when they have skateboarded their way to a broken limb. We all encounter community benefit organizations in our lives all the time. When was the last time any of them engaged us beyond the service they provide and the donation envelope we then get in the mail?
I am seen as a consumer. I am seen as a potential source of money. And if this were the business world, I would feel perfectly ok about that.
But it’s not. This is the sector that is supposed to be changing the world.
And we cannot accomplish that if we do not see that every single person in our communities is an asset – not for their dollars, but for their ability to further our missions in every way possible!
I am often told, “But engaging the community like that would take time. We can’t afford to do that!” Translated: We can’t afford to do what works. So instead we will do something far less effective – with the added bonus that most people hate it!
When we cold-solicit for money, we are no different than ValPak. When we engage people in their hearts and their souls and yes, with their hands – their physical help, even when they are at long distances – we have a donor for life because we have a friend for life.
This is not airy-fairy rambling. There are HIGHLY practical ways to engage real friends (not the euphemism of “friend = donor,” but friends – you know, like we all have in real life? People who care and will help in every single way…). Those real friends will provide everything a friend would provide – volunteering and advocating and yes, giving dollars.
There are practical tools in our library at Help 4 NonProfits. Practical tools in the workbooks – not theory books but WORKbooks – I have written on the subject. Practical tools in every blog post I have done about this subject, right here.
To me, the bottom line is simple:
The way we raise money in this sector is not working.
If it WAS working – building honestly sustainable organizations – none of the readers of Charity Channel’s “Development Office” listserv (where this rant was originally posted) would have been reading this. They would instead have all the resources they needed, and would have no need for that listserv, nor the myriad workshops we all attend over and over, looking for the one kernel of truth that will finally, please dear God, make our money worries go away.
It’s not working.
And a big part of why it’s not working is that we have made it all about the money. I know we say it’s not, that it’s all about the mission. But when you are talking about acquisition rates and ROI on an anonymous mailing that is no different than ValPak, then I’m sorry – it’s about the money. And that’s why we all look for the next cool thing to make money – the next hot trend, the next guaranteed home run.
A system that separates truly engaged friends from a cause they would love to help is set up to fail.
In our real lives, those of us with a gaggle of friends we can count on are whole; those of us who are constantly chasing dollars are not. And in our organizations, it is no different. (And no, I’m not talking about “Making friends first, so we can ask them for money later.” That’s not friendship – that’s the plot line for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.)
So take your direct mail and toss it where it belongs, and start figuring out how to engage the people who already care about you and depend on you. They are right there, waiting for you to pick up the phone and involve them, engage them more deeply. It is a squandered resource, and one that will, if treated well, help you “acquire” all the new friends you could want. Those friends will help in every way imaginable.
And oh yes, by the way, they will also give you money.