The Chronicle of Philanthropy last week published a fascinating interview with Lisa Greer. There’s much to like and a bit to object to. For one thing, it’s great to get a donor’s thoughts in print. Greer corroborates several principles that my colleagues and I share with clients frequently. She provides some candid feedback that should inform how fundraisers approach donors. She also has some ideas that the commentariat should respond to, in the interest of advancing a healthier philanthropy, just as Greer desires to do.
My favorite part of the interview is when Greer sharply criticizes messaging that proclaims an organization “out of money” or “about to turn off the lights.” This is a terrible strategy for countless reasons, and it’s wonderful to hear a major donor confirming that. Not only is Greer uninspired, she feels—rightly—that it’s manipulative. Any fundraiser tempted to this messaging should take heed of Greer’s thoughts here.
Greer also criticizes fundraisers presumptuously expecting donors to give to their organization at whatever level they support another organization. That’s a bad practice. Donors don’t support organizations just because they’re rich. They support organizations because they have interests, passions, causes they care about—and like the rest of us, they are more passionate about some things than others. Any given major donor may want to support one organization in the seven-figure range because that’s how much she cares about that issue. She might, at the same time, support any number of other organizations with four-, five-, or six-figure gifts. Why? Because she cares about them, but not in the same way as the former organization. Fundraisers need to pay attention to their donors’ interests and not presume that her generous support of one group means that she intends to support everyone at that level.
At the same time, for all these excellent insights, Greer isn’t fully tapped into the psyche and the work of a fundraiser. Net worth, giving capacity, and historical giving aren’t everything, to be sure—but they are certainly something. I agree that home value isn’t that important, and a prospect’s personal connections are more valuable. (Though, does Greer really want a searchable database that tracks what events she attends and who her friends are? That sounds intrusive.) Still, no fundraiser cares what events I attend, and the reason is simple: my giving capacity is too low. Fundraisers certainly care (or should care) what events their major donors go to and who they associate with—precisely so that they can identify the donor’s interests, concerns, passions, and calibrate an ask accordingly.
Greer also criticizes the industry’s lack of concern with millennials. As a millennial with a vested interest in the health of the nonprofit world, let me be the first to say: please ignore us. Fundraisers—at least, donor-facing fundraisers—ignore millennials because giving capacity matters. Fundraisers love and appreciate all of their donors, but ROI per hour matters. Perhaps it sounds coarse to put it that way, but it’s the difference between an existing nonprofit and a previously existing nonprofit.
A good fundraiser gives as much personal attention to every donor as possible. That means bigger donors get more attention, and smaller donors less attention. As a small donor, that doesn’t bother me. Frankly, I would be confused if a fundraiser spent too much time following up with me after a $100 gift: don’t you have something better to do? Someone bigger to thank? If not, I don’t think they’ll be around next year.
As a final point, Greer is introduced as a donor concerned about the future of philanthropy. The interviewer cites two main concerns: fewer donors giving less money and fundraisers ready to leave their jobs.
On the second point, development turnover has long been a problem. At least one of the factors related to this is a culture of giving that is overly concerned with impact versus overhead. A nonprofit’s fear—driven by donors—of having “too much overhead” creates a vicious cycle of not being able to pay enough to hire or retain top talent. The bad fundraisers Greer is dealing with? That’s not unrelated to those organizations’ inability to hire and pay better fundraisers. Greer explicitly says, moreover, that the next generation of donors are more interested in transparency, more concerned with how much money goes to administrative expenses. Let us hope that this does not result in the further tightening of the belts of nonprofits. If you want good fundraisers and an impactful nonprofit, then you need to be able—and willing, in the case of a donor—to pay for talent.
Finally, the issue of fewer households giving to nonprofits is a data point ripe for further investigation. Until the 2019 Giving USA report (which has many questions as to how reliable the data is), individual giving in America has been steadily increasing for years on end, even as fewer donors were giving money away.
How to describe this phenomenon of fewer donors giving more money? This requires a further article, but it is likely not unrelated to the growing wealth divide in America. As more money is pooled at the top—not without fluidity, mind you—philanthropy becomes an arena for millionaires and billionaires. The rest of us—they can take or leave our gifts. There are manifold economic and cultural causes behind this. For fundraisers, the best they can do is heed good advice and implement strategies to appeal to and engage as broad an audience as possible.
Although donor-facing fundraisers need to focus their time and energy on major donors, good direct-mail programs can engage a broader base of donors, inviting us into the life of the organization and keeping us informed, in a very cost-effective way. If you do this well, you can engage and retain your younger and more modest donors until they have major-donor potential.
While I think some of her concerns are somewhat overblown or miscalculated, overall, I am glad for Ms. Greer’s vocal engagement with the nonprofit industry, raising important questions and advancing a valuable conversation.
Follow Lisa Greer on Twitter at @Saving_Giving