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In January my colleague Kieran Raval reported on a study from NextAfter on what they are calling “the Crisis of the midlevel donor.” The group decided to make donations of between $1,000 and $5,000 to 37 organizations, then track what sort of communication they received in the 90 days following the donation. Would the nonprofits call up right away? What sort of mail and email would they receive? Would they be asked for another gift?

Most nonprofits have a system of some sort for thanking donors and transitioning them into house file mailings and other regular communication schedules (or at least, they should!). And the protocol tends to vary depending on the size of the gift. On the front end, a donor giving a first gift of $100 might get a courtesy call from a major gifts officer, while a first gift of $25,000 might earn a thank-you call from the board chair and an eager Executive Director demanding to know when he can show up in your living room.

But there’s a difference between having these protocols in place in theory, and actually executing them successfully. And this is what NextAfter set out to test. The full study has finally been released, and you can download the whole e-book here, which includes numerous other studies. But a few shocking takeaways tell most of the story:

  • Only 3 out of 37 nonprofits (8%!) called to thank the new donor.
  • A handful sent no communication whatsoever: no call, no thank you note, no emails, no mailings.
  • Most communications weren’t personalized, instead using generic terms like “Dear Friend”. About one out of three groups never personalized at all, and as a group, the rest personalized mailings or emails less than half the time.

And remember, these are all in response to someone giving an initial gift of $1,000 or more. With stats like these, I’d rather give $1,000 to the next homeless person I meet. He or she will definitely at least remember me, when this evidence suggests that with nonprofits I’ll get little except a tax receipt and a clogged inbox of generic emails.

NextAfter’s conclusion from their data is that there is a “dead zone” of midlevel donors in most organizations. In other words, low-level donors get mailings and emails appropriate for their gift size, and major donors at $10,000 and above get lavished with attention from development staff and executives. But at the crucial level of $1,000 to $5,000, you might be taken off the mailing list because you are perceived as too high level for direct mail, but then also miss out on personal cultivation because you are not seen as valuable enough to warrant attention from high-level staff.

There is no doubt some truth to this theory. But I wonder if the real story is that the situation is even worse: that nonprofits on the whole do a poor job of on-boarding new donors at any level, and that even well thought-out cultivation and communication strategies for different buckets of donors tend to fail at the point of execution due to overworked staff, poor communications infrastructure, and/or leadership wanting to chase the next big gift from a handful of top donors.

There’s only one way to know, of course, and that is to test the theory. So if you’ve got an extra few hundred thousand dollars lying around, please contact me at mgerken@americanphilanthropic.com, and together we’ll see if we can replicate the results with larger gifts of $10,000 to $25,000.


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