Say What? Listen to the Messages Your Donors Are Sending

Donors constantly talk to us. One important way they communicate is by what they support (or don’t respond to). They also talk to us through their letters, e-mails, phone calls and face-to-face comments. While there’s plenty of talking going on, it’s critical that we learn to listen and interpret their messages.

It’s everyone’s job
Often, the team that reads/listens and responds to donor communications is isolated from “real” fundraisers. Yet its job is critical to building donor relationships. Make sure this team sees the mailings or e-appeals before they go out, and take the time to explain the offer to everyone on that team. If you’re trying something new, tell them about it — and explain why.

Develop systems so every comment is captured in a meaningful format. You may not have time to read every comment yourself, but if the report shows a disturbing trend, you need to know about it so you can take any corrective action.

Offer alternatives
Donors often call to say one thing but really mean another. Worse, we interpret what they say to fit into our limited computer codes. “You mail to me too much” may mean a person wants to be removed from the mailing list, but more often it means, “You mail to me too much — so mail me less!”

Offer donors options. For example, “too much mail” should trigger an offer to reduce appeals to once a quarter, mail only the newsletter, mail only twice a year, etc. It should not automatically result in removing a person from the mailing list.

Another common donor comment is, “I can’t give as much as you ask for.” This is a great time to explore if the donor is on a fixed income. Perhaps he or she has become a candidate for planned giving. The large gift that triggered the higher gift array on the reply form may have been a memorial gift or a portion of an insurance payment. This is an opportunity to learn more about the donor and strengthen your relationship.

Ask them what they think
Surveys can tell you what your donors are thinking as well as deepen their involvement. If you have an older donor base, you’ll need to rely on paper surveys that donors complete and mail back to you. Online surveys are great for younger donor bases or when getting a large cross-section of your file’s opinion isn’t critical.

Whether you use surveys regularly or only on occasion, make sure you (and everyone above you) are willing to use the information to learn and even change. When the majority of donors who reply to a survey refute your deeply held belief, it doesn’t mean your donors are ignorant — it could mean you were making a wrong assumption.

A survey to recently lapsed donors, asking them why they stopped giving and why they first gave to you, is effective in reactivating donors as they consider why it was that they first “fell in love” with you. One of the possible answers for, “Why have you stopped giving?” should be, “I am on a fixed income.” This is another great way to identify planned-giving prospects.

Don’t abdicate your responsibility to strategize and make decisions to donors by relying totally on survey data. Use surveys to help you make better decisions while you get to know more about your donor base.

Be proactive
Some things just trigger donor questions. Answer those questions before they’re asked, and you’ll remove a rabbit trail that donors may run down rather than making their gifts to you.

For example, an organization located in the Midwest used a service bureau for donation processing. Because its return envelopes had an East Coast address on them, the back of the return envelope had a question (“Why is this going to a different address?”) and the answer printed on them. For donors who didn’t care, this was “white noise” — neither helpful nor a hindrance. But those that wondered had instant satisfaction by getting their question answered, almost before they asked it.

Review what donors are asking, and when you make a change, ask what questions that may trigger. Answering these questions up front can help your donors stay focused on your mission — what is really important — and not on operational details that can derail them.

Sadly, we’ve grown accustomed to bad service. Surprise your donors by listening, answering their questions and giving them service beyond even their highest expectations. You’ll help build lasting relationships with partners who are truly invested in your work.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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