Too Much of a Good Thing: When Communications Go Awry

In recent days, I have been overwhelmed by “too much.” Just yesterday, I received three direct mail letters suggesting I vote for the same group of candidates. Favorite nonprofits are filling my inbox with emails almost daily. Friends are suggesting I “like” this nonprofit organization’s page or “follow” that nonprofit.

The problem with the ease of communicating these days is, well, we talk too much! And too often, we aren’t really communicating with people who really want to engage in that particular conversation at that particular time. We’re interrupting people who may or may not be all that interested in our messages—or even in our organizations—and then wondering why our response rates are so low.

Before you move into the busy last four months of the year—filled with holidays, Giving Tuesday and self-inflicted pressure on donors to donate for tax purposes—take time to consider your donor audience.

What can you do to ensure that they still are happily engaged with you come Jan. 1, not just recycling your communication as quickly as it comes because it’s just too much bother to get off the list?

To help you plan your “just right” strategy, here are a few things to remember.

Free Is Not Really Free

Yes, it’s almost no cost to send an email or post on Facebook, Twitter or the social media du jour. But if it doesn’t mean anything to your recipient, it becomes a nuisance. And too many “nuisances” can equate to benign neglect, at best (an unsubscribe, at worst).

Now is the time to figure out how to offer recipients the opportunity to select which communications they receive. Dr. Adrian Sargeant, the director of the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy at the University of Plymouth, recommended (based on research) that you allow your donors to sample your communications before offering them choices. But once they have sampled it, ask what they would and would not like to get.

If your choices are “all or nothing,” you’re risking losing people completely or becoming a victim of their passive aggressive behaviors of manually or automatically assigning your messages to the trash can.

Helpful Is Not Always Helpful

Every week or so, I get an email from my natural gas company telling me about my gas usage to date for the month. Honestly, what am I supposed to do in response? Turn off my furnace in the winter? Stop cooking in my oven? Sure, I could cut back, but my usage is already low. The result of these “helpful” emails is that I tend to ignore anything from the gas company—including important notices that I probably should read.

When you’re communicating so-called helpful information, make sure it really is helpful. Is it a tip that a reader actually can do something about? Is it something they want to do something about? Or is it just content for content’s sake, a desperate attempt to fill yet another message with words? Are your inserts in receipts beneficial information for the reader—things like opportunities to give a gift in memory of a loved one or request a brochure about estate planning—or are they just organizational white noise?

Sending donors too many messages that are pseudo-helpful can backfire, as recipients might assume communications are just more noise and ignore the ones they’d otherwise appreciate. Instead, focus on developing truly helpful messages that a donor will welcome.

Interesting Is Not Always That Interesting

One of the occupational hazards of any nonprofit employee is that we fall in love with what we do. (That’s probably a survival mechanism; it would be hard to work the long hours for often below-market wages if we weren’t passionate about the cause.) But that backfires when we forget that what’s interesting to us may not really be interesting to a donor.

Given low response and retention rates, it’s a good guess that a lot of people you are emailing and writing to are just not that interested. Maybe it’s like an iceberg; they are interested in the top 10 percent, but are just as happy not knowing anything about the lower 90 percent.

Our job is to figure out what the top 10 percent is, and then to find ways to help our colleagues understand that fundraising needs to focus on what the donor is passionate about, not what we want the donor to be passionate about. We will never be able to legislate passion or beat donors into being passionate with enough email and direct mail dumped on them.

This old dog knows that communicating with donors is important, but that we also have to find the right combination of helpful and interesting, and the right frequency to communicate, so we remain in their minds and hearts without becoming a nuisance. It’s a delicate balancing act, and one that can go seriously awry at year-end. Take time now to set the standards you’ll follow for the rest of the year.

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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