When Stewardship Becomes Collections

Posted on September 11, 2012

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Jeff ShuckI recently had an interesting – and thought-provoking, and ultimately disappointing – set of interactions with a large nonprofit. The name of the specific institution is not important for the story, but suffice it to say that it has played an important role in my life and I’ve always felt proud to support it.

Several years ago, after a lot of conversation and reflection, my wife and I decided to commit to what was, at least for us, a fairly major gift to the group. The gift would require a bit of sacrifice and planning, and reflected our commitment to the organization for the long-term. Note that when I call the gift “major,” I use “major” in the sense that I think it should be, but is seldom, used in the nonprofit space – that is, the gift was major to us as the donors. Alas, it soon became apparent that the gift wasn’t really all that important to the institution.

We made the pledge online. A few days later, we got a call from the group. “Oh,” I thought to myself, “that’s nice – they must be calling to thank us.” I was pretty surprised when the voice on the phone said, “I need to get you to sign your gift commitment paper.” A ha. (Message: We’re a big institution. We don’t trust you.)

The thank-you call never came, although we did get a form letter a month or two later. I noticed that our credit card, however, was charged right away. (Message: Your money means a lot. Your support is secondary.)

About six months later, we got the requisite annual report in the mail. Wow, was it big and thick and glossy! I read the letter from the President, thumbed through the first few pages, and then looked for our name. And looked. And looked. There we were, way in the back of the book. At least I think it was there – the type was pretty small. (Message: You were right! That gift didn’t matter much to us at all.)

The last straw came when I got a solicitation email several weeks ago. The solicitation email didn’t ask us to renew to meet a mission goal, or offer examples of what they did with the first gift, or enumerate their need, or outline aspirations for the year ahead. The solicitation email said, “Our fiscal year is about to end.” (Message: You’re right, your donations are just revenue to us.)  I was pretty floored. I can’t remember seeing a donor communication that was less donor-centric.

So we made a difficult decision and decided not to renew our pledge. Not because we needed more recognition or thanks — that’s not why we donated in the first place. But because, it is clear to us that, at least in our community, there are a large number of smaller organizations who need and will appreciate our donation a lot more than this one does. I wrote to the institution to explain our decision, and invited them to contact us, but predictably we never heard from anyone. (Message: You made the right decision.)

What’s the lesson? Maybe the lesson is that my wife and I are selfish and need a lot of care and feeding. Could be. But I’d venture to guess that your nonprofit’s donor base is full of people just like us. We don’t want to be at the center of your world — but we do want to know that you’re trying to change the world, and that our part plays a role.

In terms of specific advice, you probably already know this, but I’ll say it anyway: Thank your donors; speak to them in their language instead of yours; communicate in segments so that messages are as tailored as possible; and most of all, talk about impact instead of need. It really does matter, and I’m writing that not as a fundraiser, but more importantly, as a donor.

“Jeff’s POV” blog posts are featured monthly. For the past nine years, CEO Jeff Shuck has led our team in producing more than 200 fundraising events involving hundreds of thousands of participants, and collectively raising more than $700 million for charity. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffshuck, or read his blog: Your Part Matters.

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