Can you change the way long-time supporters see your organization?

Hi Tom,

In your research, have you found an effective way to move a donor beyond a first impression of a nonprofit?

So many people think of The Nature Conservancy as protecting (buying) land for nature.  We’ve evolved to also work in the marine waters, conduct massive restoration projects and engage on climate change policy in a non-confrontational and effective way. I’m continuously surprised that folks that have been with us a long time, don’t know that we do more than buy land.

Do you know of other organizations that have gotten a chance to make a 2nd impression effectively and shift the public’s/donors’ impression of them?

Not that our first impression wasn’t good, it was very good, but we have added to our repertoire of saving nature.

Would really welcome your thoughts.

That was the email from Catherine, a 18-year-plus veteran fundraiser at my state’s own (admirable) Nature Conservancy.

It got me thinking. And then it got Lisa Sargent thinking.

And Lisa’s thinking was VERY different than mine. Which matters, because she is one of the sharpest minds I ever encountered in donor communications, author of amazing results for those charities lucky enough to work with her.

See our differing thoughts below.


My reply…

Fascinating, Catherine. Thank you for asking my thoughts. It’s an honor … and I think you’ll be glad to hear what I have to share.

Here’s the problem you say TNC needs to solve:

“Do you know of other organizations that have gotten a chance to make a 2nd impression effectively and shift the public’s/donors’ impression of them? Not that our first impression wasn’t good, it was very good, but we have added to our repertoire of saving nature.”

I would tell a client paying me a million bucks that this is actually a false problem that merits no further consideration nor any of your time.

My personal day of freedom (well, night) happened outside a cathedral (well, bar) in Amsterdam (and all that entails).

Standing next to me was a Brit, Richard Radcliffe. He’s one of the world’s foremost researchers into donor motivation. By 2019, he’d interviewed more than 25,000 donors about their reasons for giving.

His precise words to me that night (since I always have a small notebook and pen handy): “Donors are staggeringly ignorant of the causes they support.”

He didn’t mean that was a bad thing, I hasten to add.

He meant, lucky us: explaining stuff to people is by and large a waste of time, because they give for personal reasons.

In other words, you’re thinking, “They don’t know our full mission … and that’s holding back our fundraising/campaigns/volunteering/whatever.”

I would say that’s not even close to true.

You can fix your entire problem with a fresh tagline. You already have NATURE in the org.’s name.

Just add a tagline that clarifies your fuller scope:

The Nature Conservancy
Saving habitat from extinction … now in the ocean as well as on the land.

You’re done. Repeat a million times.

Love your work, by the way. Just watching our proud resident pheasant and the land’s vast turkey flock peck our small lawn for dinner. Most of the acreage remains wild-enough habitat.

~ tom


Lisa Sargent’s counterpoint to my opinion…

Catherine’s thinking is indeed interesting to me, Tom.

Why? Because I agree they could do more with their follow-on interactions. A LOT more, in fact.

I’ve seen NatCon’s newsletters and magazines. They are solid. But there’s loads of potential, via newsletters and appeals, imho, to broaden and deepen donor knowledge and engagement in their work.

We’ve got a laser focus on that underway at Merchants Quay Ireland [MQI] these past coupla years. Based on early donor feedback and the questions staff get at tours and on open days, it’s working a treat: many of them, and many of them that are the exact folks we want to understand, are getting it. This following a year that saw the retirement of their 27-year, universally adored, CEO.

It’s Enlightenment, not Education. And from what we’re seeing, it’s at least a little bit possible. Time will tell how much.


In some ways I agree with you and Richard. All of us need to be knocked over the head with things about seven to ten times before it cracks through our thick, and often opinionated, noggins. So a tagline’s not a bad thought.

BUT, to be honest, branding just doesn’t move me. We all know the Jeff Brooks info around it.

The fact that the donors in Radcliffe’s survey are largely ignorant of what their charities do really says to me that charities are still probably not doing the job they could be doing at getting a better message out to their donors.

The point of communicating is to be understood by your audience. And in my mind, Catherine’s right to be percolating on that: a focus on the whole 1st-year NatCon donor journey could go a long way towards achieving her goal, from the welcome pack to the newsletters, to a donor survey á la Moceanic, appeals, and thank-yous.

Which brings us back to…

OH. Yes. Donor driven newsletters. Emotional appeals that ALSO enlighten here and there. Better storytelling. That makes them feel like insiders. Content that keeps ’em coming back. Online, offline, and all points in between.

And so our quest to elevate quality, post-acquisition donor comms to their true exalted stature continues…

Tom: I was just thinking… if you want to see MQI’s other recent newsletters, and the special series of CEO’s reports we’re including in the newsletters this year as part of that focus on broadening and deepening donor breadth of knowledge around the work… this is the link:

[Note from me: MQI is an incredible success story, from a donor communications and fundraising standpoint. Under the leadership of Denisa Casement, with appeals, newsletters and more by Lisa Sargent and Sandie Collette, annual giving for this addicted-and-homeless charity rose between 2008 and 2016 from €250,000 to €3 million annually. Here’s an authorized case study on SOFII, for your edification and maybe a dram of envy.]

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