Donorcentricity: it’s only a fad if you aren’t doing it

I had the pleasure of doing a debate at last week’s DMA Nonprofit Federation Leadership Conference with Lynne Wester, the Donor Relations Guru, about donorcentricity.  She was pro (and was a pro, surprising no one); I was con.

Several people asked me afterwards what I actually believe.  For the most part, I’m very much pro-donor-centrism.  I took the con side because I believe what John Stuart Mill said:

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And also because sometimes an admirable goal of improving the nonprofit sector’s sometimes abysmal treatment of donors loses sight of the goals of fundraising.

So this week, I’d like to poke, prod, and challenge the wisdom for and against a donor focus, starting with what it is and why it’s important.

The answer is not to make our donors feel better.

The answer is to cure cancer.  Or end drunk driving.  Or prevent mistreatment of animals. Feed the hungry.  Protect the abused.  Light the fire of education.  All this and more.

To do these things, we need money.  To get money, we need donors.  To get and keep donors, we need our donors to give happily.  Thus, making our donors happy is a good goal.  It’s just not the end goal.

But at the same time, we ignore it at our peril.  In the room, I talked about the amazingly low retention rates we have, especially for first-time givers, as a reason to churn-and-burn.  My actual conclusion could not be farther from the truth – retention is something on which can we continually work and improve.

We face numerous challenges right now to the very model of nonprofits historically.  Donors are looking to fund an impact and a cause, not necessarily an organization.  Why should they pay what they perceive to be (but aren’t) high overhead rates when they can do a microloan with Kiva, or directly fund a school through DonorsChoose or find a particular person in need through GoFundMe ?

In addition, aggregator sites are more than happy to give nonprofits the money as long as they own the constituent.  Facebook, usually a reliable example of most examples of walled gardens and rented land, is one of these where information does not get to the nonprofit for meaningful communication.

All of these satisfy donors’ needs to make a difference and feel an impact, while not engaging with an organization.

There are three ways I can see to adapt to this new world:

1. Fail.  Remember, in the words of Adam Savage:

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This may not sound particularly palatable, but it’s better than being the best buggy-whip salesperson or whale-oil-light manufacturer or print journalist left on earth.

2. Compete on the value of our models for effectiveness. Small scale efforts like GoFundMe can fund one person, but they can’t fund a systemic scale against hunger.  Individual donors tend to pick projects based on the basis of attractiveness and skinniness and whiteness (unfortunately), so nonprofits fill a role in helping everyone.  Small efforts can’t effectively change laws or study methods for change.  And they while they fix things well, they can’t prevent them from breaking.

Unfortunately, these are usually tough sells.  For years, we have talked about the systemic problems through the story of the one.  It’s the one that touches the heart and we know that emotion is far better than education in low-dollar appeals (and since you attract people as low-dollar donors, that hurts acquisition as well).  If someone can see a person’s plight and fix it, rather than the underlying problem, easy trumps thorough.

3. Compete based on how well we can treat donors. That’s donorcentricity.  That’s where we can have a meaningful advantage.  One-off sites like Facebook can’t build a relationship around an issue like we can.  And while Kiva is fabulous in terms of creating an addiction around helping, other sites lack in this regard.

So rather than die off, donorcentricity is going to be (in my mind) how we justify our very existence: we are the best at creating meaningful connections between donors and the world they wish to create.

So this is not a fad.  It is not everything, but neither is it nothing.  But in my mind, it also doesn’t mean what some people think it means.

Along those lines, I’ll be talking about communication quantity tomorrow.

Donorcentricity: it’s only a fad if you aren’t doing it

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