If you’re a fundraiser, you’re probably familiar with donor fatigue. Here’s what lies at the heart of that fatigue and how you can address it as a fundraiser.
I started my career in major gifts fundraising for a Catholic apostolate in Denver, Colorado. Since 1993, Denver has seen an explosion of Catholic ministries—The Fellowship of Catholic University Students, The Augustine Institute, Camp Wojtyla, and Christ in the City to name a few. Finding donors is already tough enough, but with so many other great nonprofits in Denver, I was fishing from a small pool. And, of course, the cause itself narrowed the scope of donors. I had to find donors who wanted to give to a national, Catholic, and evangelistic nonprofit. Given the specifics of our mission and my proximity to other great organizations, I was constantly hearing about the fatigue that my donors and others were experiencing.
They were tired of being “hit up for money”—and rightly so. On several occasions I have walked into a meeting with a donor and pass another gift officer exiting his fundraising visit. As I started to become known in the Denver community as the “fundraiser,” it was comical to watch people run from me at public gatherings!
I knew then that I needed to start addressing this with our current donors, checking in with them, and getting a read on them. I wanted to discover the symptoms, if you will, of donor fatigue—and even more so, how to address it. On a practical level, there was too much to lose if these people quit giving to my organization. Up to that point, everything I learned and witnessed firsthand about philanthropy was that it should be a pleasant experience—giving money away at least should be fun! But beyond that, addressing these issues became something of a personal mission to help the overall donor community.
So one day I was visiting with a highly sought-out philanthropist. I asked him about the epidemic of “Denver Catholic Donor Fatigue.” What he said struck me. “Donor fatigue here in Denver is real. Donors are tired of being asked for money. But I have yet to meet someone who is tired of being asked how or why they like to give.”
This donor touched on something essential and shared by other donors. It felt to them like fundraisers do not know basic information about their donors, including why they like supporting their mission.
Early in my career, I was told to ask for money early and often. I was told to ask for monthly gifts, then to come back the year after and ask for an increase. Then sometime in the middle of the year, I was supposed to reach out and ask for a special project, remembering the adage, “donors love supporting projects.” But do they?
Until that meeting with the Denver philanthropist, I never considered asking supporters simple questions, like: Why do you support our organization? What other organizations do you support? When do you make giving decisions? What was your largest gift and why?
Some donors may prefer not to answer any of these questions because they are deeply personal about their giving. That’s fair, but when they open up, you’ll hear some amazing responses. I’ve had the pleasure of wonderful conversations that included answers such as, “I support because my kids left the faith”; “My kids were deeply impacted by your work”; “I met your founder and was moved by his kindness”; “I was a recipient of your work”; “I support because I’ve always wanted to make a difference in this regard.”
Many times, donors have actually thanked me because I asked about how they like to give. There was something of an assurance that I was a professional and that I was getting to know them—not coming on strong with a big request.
So here’s my claim: it may just be us fundraisers who are responsible for this donor fatigue phenomenon, and not necessarily what I’ve heard many donors say: “There are too many good organizations out there asking for money.”
Maybe it’s not that. It might be that in this profession, we have a tendency to see our supporters as Daddy Warbucks, as opposed to another human being. We see them as a means to an end to accomplish our goals. I’ve seen it expressed in two ways. We encounter someone who possesses the capital our organization needs, and we either fear asking these individuals for money or we react to that fear by asking for significant amounts early on without getting to know the person.
But we need to remember that they’re not Mr. Moneybags. They are human beings just like us with their own preferences, likes and dislikes, stories and backgrounds, interests and goals. And it’s up to us to get to know them, to really know them—not just how they can help our organization—while remembering that they are not an object for our use but another person sharing in the life and vision of our organization.
Fundraising is the most humane professional sector because it is seeking to build up, protect, and save someone or something. Remember that in your work, and your donors—whether they are suffering fatigue, on the brink, or not even close to it—will appreciate your generosity in taking the time to get to them. And your generosity, I bet, will be met with generosity.
If you want to learn more about major gifts fundraising and how best to engage your donors, you can join Ben Domingue along with Andy Day from FOCUS for an "In the Trenches" Master Class on major gifts. Learn more and register here, or email Ben with any questions!