Making the List, and Checking it Eight Times Over. On Donor Listings

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I spent some time a few weeks ago with a group of arts management grad students from Dublin to chat about fundraising and career trajectories. It reminded me of my own grad school experience: a group of brilliant and attentive young women and Me, the solo man scraping along. During the Q&A someone asked: “American donors give because they like having their name in bronze and looking good for their friends. How does this translate to the Irish who don’t think that way?”

I replied that I did not accept his premise. There are much better ways to fame and public acclaim than philanthropy and most donors are, in my experience, fairly humble souls who give for many different reasons, with recognition being a small part of the mix for the majority.

I read a provocative blog post (well, reasonably so for fundraising chatter) from The Donor Relations Guru that’s been on my mind for the better part of a month:

http://donorguru.blogspot.com/2014/03/why-honor-rolls-of-donors-are-most.html

Let me say first that I am fan of The Guru. A tidy and well-run donor relations program is almost always a sign of an effective and successful fundraising organization. Our professionals who support front line development are often the unsung heroes of raising money.

I encourage you to read the post but the central premise is that producing donor lists is a waste of time and resources and that organizations are better served communicating mission, cultivation relationships, and providing honest stewardship.

Our friend makes two main arguments against donor listings:

  1. Donor lists are time consuming and difficult to produce.
  2. Donors don’t really care about this sort of recognition.

I take strong exception to both of these statements.

Donor lists ARE time consuming, without question. Like the Guru, I’ve seen (and spent) amazing quantities of time and energy devoted to producing donor listings. You can only bring doom on yourself when the lists get screwed up. Names will be left out, misspelled, the Mrs. is now an ex-Mrs. and so forth. No one is going to call you to say, “Great job on the that donor listing in the program.”

But if we cannot produce an accurate donor listing at various giving levels, I doubt we can do the other vital tasks of a robust annual fund program such as customization, personalization, segmentation and so forth.

When I am with a client the first thing I usually ask for is a detailed report of giving by division (board, $1,000+ and so on) at every level along with a list of unrenewed supporters for the fiscal year. It is a test of fundraising readiness. Organizations that can easily provide accurate, timely reports are the ones that hit fundraising goals.

I have neither the attention span nor the discipline to be good at producing such reports and so as a CDO hired someone with a ferocious attention to detail as my Number Two. We call that management.

I argue that we will have to produce accurate donor listings for internal purposes regardless of going public with the results (and the time and energy invested). There should be sensible limits to this however – I think that annual updates are timely enough. I know many organizations making monthly updates to public listings are that’s probably more trouble than it is worth.

Now what?

Our friend the Guru’s second (and better argued) rationale for eliminating donor listings is that donors don’t care about them. Why does she think that? Because a survey said so?

One of the worst things that we can do as fundraisers is to try and understand the full internal motivation of our donors.

We cannot. Most of us cannot adequately understand our own motivations, let along others.

I joke around with clients that none of us are paid well enough to worry about the deep and primal motivations of our donors. Some give generously and anonymously. Others want every favor and benefit, or to propel themselves ahead in High Society. Some take advantage of us. That’s the cost of doing business.

Most want a little bit of both, the happy feeling of having done Good and a bit of recognition from the Universe for that act. Donor listings are an important part of that recognition.

Will donors admit that they care about public recognition? A great many of them do, regardless of what they tell us in surveys. Would they admit to that fact?

Probably not. If we asked them directly they would say, “No – I don’t give to have my name public.”

All of us are complex, with contradictory motives that a simple survey question cannot measure. In the same way that approval ratings for Congress is at an all time low but we tend to vote to reelect our Guy term after term.

Maddening. Human.

And a few words about public recognition. There is nothing wrong with it. One of best campaigns I was ever a part of was an Engraved Brick program at the Palladium. We sold hundreds of them at $250 and up (when many colleagues told us that was too expensive). We invited all the donors out one sunny day to have a look at the completed bricks. I will never forget some of the stories – families celebrating a passed Grandparent, children honoring parents, parents listing their kids. It was philanthropy in action.

The best fundraising programs offer the full gamut of public recognition, private stewardship and ongoing cultivation as the Guru so beautifully states, “Donors want handwritten notes from students. They want to meet those that benefit from their philanthropy.”

Eliminate donor listings at your peril.

About jeremymhatch

If I could, I'd write about nothing but tacos. Alas, I am fundraising and leadership consultant in the arts, focusing on contributed revenue growth for organizations. Send me a compliment or complaint. And the location for the good tacos in your town.
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