Is “donor-centricity” really worth more debate?

Or is this fundraising’s equivalent of “Which works better? Round tires or square?”

Chapter 1 >

Let’s be clear.

Ian MacQuillin, chief brain at fundraising think-tank Rogare, is not challenging the efficacy of donor-centricity. That efficacy is reported by leading creative agencies around the world. Anecdotally. But in heaps.

As a dead-serious academic, Ian’s JUST for pity’s sake trying to define a squirmy term. To Ian, you see, it sounds like every “expert” who uses the term, the characterizer “donor-centricity,” actually means something different.

It’s the old “blind men and an elephant” parable.

Squirmy? Confusion? Too true enough!

Some donor-centrists bluntly mean, “Treat the donor as a hero … and take it seriously. You can’t go wrong.” (That’s my hand in the air.)

Some donor-centrists mean, “You have not yet purchased our special software. And you won’t be completely, deeply donor-centered until you do. This incredible new-age product will reveal problems on your website — that YOU HAVE NEVER SUSPECTED! Problems that seriously hurt your retention.” That is the commercial end of the donor-centricity spectrum TALKING, trying to fill in an industry blind-spot with a thoughtful technology solution.

And they’re not wrong.

Charities as a class of business don’t know jacksh*t about their “customers” (a.k.a., donors and suppoters and members). They continue instead to hope that ignoring donors (i.e., fundraising’s “customers”) will work.

It won’t. As any defunct marketer from the 1960s on will testify.

Ian’s dead right.

I researched this. Good definitions are vital to the success and growth of any profession.

Ask doctors. Ask lawyers.

Any serious attempt to turn what is today an ad hoc “professional” practice like “fundraising” into something at all resembling a discipline, with rules and predictable results … well, that will inevitably REST on commonly accepted definitions.

It’s a given.

What Ian asked….

Ian’s blog post was titled:

OPINION: Donorcentrism – all things to all fundraisers, part 1. “What is it?”

He started like this in part 1 (there already is a part 2):

“The first time a fundraiser told me his job was not ‘just’ to raise money, but to build relationships with donors, I honestly thought he was pulling my leg. I mean, he was a FUND-RAISER – how could he not see his job as being to raise funds?”

Down aways in the same post, Ian posed a thought experiment:

Would you (should you) stop using donorcentric methods if they were proven to raise less money than more transactional types of fundraising?

In answer….

Dear Ian, my friend and occasional bar buddy, the best-dressed man I know in fundraising…

Since you caught me before 5 PM, let me give you a sober answer to your hypothetical.

Here’s my reality: I am paid to get either good results or better results.

That’s how I make my living. Nothing more. Nothing less. That’s my electric fence.

Since I was NOT born attached to a guaranteed income (so few find that TRUMP card in their bassinet), eventually I learned a trade any disgruntled liberal arts university graduate could master: sales copywriting.

You can make seriously good money at copywriting. Maybe not “New York Times best-seller” money. But upper-upper money, anyway. And since you work in fundraising, you’re on the side of the angels, not of the snake-oil industry (that industry used to be big, by the way). You’re kind of “doing good.” You sleep pretty well with fundraising on your résumé.

More about me

Copywriting involves words. Words have been my preoccupation since before I could actually speak (as I clearly recall; I can still smell the fresh wallpaper paste in our living room; my dad in his easy chair, my mom on its arm; and me in diapers trying to tell them something before I could talk).

Copywriting gives me a lifelong word-related project to pursue.

NOTE to Ian: That’s where enterprises like Rogare come into play for me, personally. Incredible research can UP my game. That new report re: EVENTS, published by Bloomerang, authored by Dr. Adrian Sargeant, HCSP, and Harriet Day, is the defining study. Stuff like that.

“And you are?”

Fundraising is a late thing for me.

I did straight-off-the-charts popular music before: commercial copy for every ear.

Fundraising copy is more like jazz: it’s intimate. Good donor-centricity is intimate. Not for Puritans. It’s for lovers.

But, Ian, I forgot to give you my plain, simple, for the jury ANSWER.

You asked: “If donor-centricity did NOT produce more revenue for a charity, would you still use it, because it’s the right thing to do?”

Here is my un-blushing ANSWER….

¶¶ If donor-centricity did NOT produce better results (hence ultimately pay my bills), I would drop it like a SCALDING ROCK. So would you, if you had my job. It would NOT be the “right” thing to do. Without good, even better, results, it would be SELF-EVIDENTLY the WRONG thing to do … if I’m trying to be of some real financial help to my clients (which I am). ¶¶

I know, Mr. MacQuillin (soon one day to be Dr. MacQuillin, Ph.D.), you play the guileless academic, to crank our engines.

But you, being British, especially should sense the truth behind this view of donor-centricism. (Or, as I like to think of it, “the donor-communications approach which best pays my bills, without interruption.”)

Didn’t you bloody people invent Darwin and survival of the fittest? Ummmm. You missed this mushroom cloud?

Donor-centricism thrives and grows because it is THE fittest approach for the nonprofit industry, all things considered.

Chapter 2

See, mate, here’s the g_d’s-honest truth: I’m paid to be some kind of expert.

That’s not because of what I know (academic-y folks)

It’s because of what I can (one only hopes, on a regular basis) DO. With my various and sundry magic wands.

If I can’t DO it (i.e., sustain or raise results), then I suck officially at my specific job.

And then I’m NOT an expert!

AND my income will dwindle and be utterly lost and I will end up living on the cheapest cat food I can purchase, if I can afford even that. Or so my lifelong fears counsel.

First-generation-going-to-university insecurity drives a lot of garden-variety ambition, IMHO.

Anyway: I USE donor-centricity because it works best.

You don’t use a hammer to tighten a screw.

You don’t use corporate communications to screw in donor communications. Yet many (most?) charities now DO depend on corporate communications to make their case … and do NOT push out effective donor communications.

BTW: the front lines are full of donor-centricity, everyone from the Inestimable Jeff Brooks and other ex-Domain Group alums, to researchers like Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang and colleagues like Amy Eisenstein, to early-years fundraising agencies like Harvey McKinnon and Stephen Thomas, to shooting stars like Bluefrog (London) and Pareto (Australia), to boutique agencies like Toronto’s Agents of Good, and secret societies like The Case Writers, to institutional leaders like Rory Green, Beth Ann Locke, Claire Axelrad, Simon Scriver, to in-demand fundraising copywriters like Sheena Greer, Tina Cincotti, Maggie Cohn, Leah Eustace, Lisa Sargent…

The tide rises, a…

… MOVEMENT of practitioners who see themselves as “artists” (per Seth Godin’s definition); spread across the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand; ever-testing and -inventing.

My basic snotty challenge to academia: try to keep up. And if you find you can’t, please keep good records. No one knew the true value of the Sex Pistols until 30 years later, right?

In a personal note, co-signed (I suspect) by all of us busy bees: If donor-centricity didn’t work, I’d learn what DID work. That’s what a prideful professional trades-person does.

I answer to happy clients. If I’m stupid and bad at the work, I’m out of business.

Eventually, anyway. (Charities can be a little slow figuring out metrics that matter. That the graphic designer for the charity’s annual report is related to the board chair is a metric that DOESN’T matter. That your acquisition direct mail is steadily hitting a 1.5% response rate is a metric that DOES matter.)

End of story.

Chapter 3

What clearly AREN’T working, in my view — in my honestly humble, relatively inexperienced view; speaking as a loyal student and admiring observer; mentored by hundreds — are the tired, mechanized methods of mass media fundraising in mature markets such as the US.

Acquisition DM becomes more expensive every year.

Worryingly, though, the overall number of donors in at least one mature market — here, in the US — is shrinking (Blackbaud, 2017) >>> even as the nation’s population grows and — more astonishingly for our industry — JUST as the baby boomers start caroming into their PRIME giving decades.

And while severe analytics as practiced by top professionals and agencies can improve overall accuracy for a charity with a large base, I wonder?

Will these same analytics scaled down produce revenue TWEAKS or landslides for the non-large? Are big-league, big-agency heavyweight analytics useful for “the rest of us”?

Given that we NOW have 1.8 million registered charities in the US, with maybe a third of them doing reasonably useful, worthy and good work … AND most of that third comprised of medium and small organizations; not mega.

Are we too much into the big business of charity … and not enough into successful missions, whether global charities or not?

Why, I wonder in my cups, do we care about the sophisticated polling techniques that perform tiny-percentage miracles for big-name, too-big-to-fail (quickly) charities possessing massive databases, IT staff, able to afford expensive (and extraordinarily clever) service agencies?

A 1% improvement thanks to sharper analytics means a lot if you’re huge … and next-to-nothing if you’re not. Prove to me your analytical eureka moment is scalable … down.

Chapter 4

Whereas, Ian, my charismatic friend, I’ve seen a simple switch in words and imagery in fundraising communications … to donor-centricity … produce gift increases for a children’s hospital of 1,000% immediately.

Over the years, reports of major, immediate improvements have become a commonplace in my in-box. I share the techniques during training. Fundraisers execute the techniques brilliantly … and see immediate bumps. Again: IMMEDIATE BUMPS.

Well-edited, donor-centric, print (not emailed) donor newsletters can TYPICALLY (ask any alums from the now-defunct Domain Group, the Seattle-centered creators of the winning print newsletter formula I teach) produce a return on investment of 5-to-1 (some do even better): for every ONE dollar spent on costs, FIVE dollars return in additional giving.

TODAY, donor-centricity does for fundraising what emaciated refugee babies once did, in Oxfam’s newspaper ads of the 1950s.

Those ads worked. (Forever thank you, Mark Phillips, for rescuing them from oblivion!)

Those ads built Oxfam’s capacity.

Those ads were un-dismissible, if you pretended to any heart or conscience at all. Everyone saw them: they ran in major dailies back when people drank down the city newspaper every day like vampires seeking fresh blood.

And all those early Oxfam ads asked was this: do a little bit. Don’t turn away.

People are saying about street fundraising in London that the vendors spoiled the business.

They flooded the streets with over-motivated, energetic sales people. In the process, they lowered the perceived value of charities to “get away from me!” … converting good missions and their worthy brands into a fear of nagging harassment.

Plus the vendors’ insistence on “we get paid first” (the first 11 months of donations go to the vendor) left all charities ripe for regular floggings in the popular press, who are paid to notice anomalies like that, and who described the whole street-fundraising business as despicable and unjustifiable.

I think that shift has already happened to mass-market DM.

Mass-market fundraising DM is on auto-pilot in the US, I surmise. (My mailbox seconds my view.)

People are a little less responsive every year.

Everything looks equally industrial and slick.

Fact: DM mailings are ever-more expensive; look at postage alone.

And the migration to digital methods of communications like smartphones; and the rise of online investigative journalism sources like Mother Jones; is for all intents and purposes complete.

The developed world has mostly arrived in the digital age. (YES! As with everything, there are stark lingering pockets of inequality in our lovely nation. Do something to help.)

Except the digital takeover is not exactly as supposed.

It’s not an either/or. And it’s not running smoothly.

Chapter 5

We have arrived.

We have a new ambidextrous fundraising generation, the Baby Boomers.

They are equally heavy consumers of print and digital. (My hand’s in the air again. Sorry: that’s why a lot of other kids didn’t like me.)

They are self-centered. Confident. And they’re NOT ready to die. For them, mass DM has just become one of many channels; and not really a favorite, unless it’s a catalog of cool stuff.

Super-expert, life force, industry-mover and -maker, Roger Craver, assures me that DM is still the single biggest supplier of first-time donors to U.S. charities and remains America’s best-in-class pipeline for renewing donors as well.

Yet behavior always changes, leaning toward convenience. Increasingly, the gifts suggested by a DM pack are completed online, for an instance. The envelope arrives. “Oh, yeah: them. I’ll go to their website and make a gift.”

We’re in a period of disruption, Ian. This is when the fun begins.

Let’s have some fun.

Read The Attention Merchants. Tim Wu. I just finished it and it filled in about two centuries of gaps in my understanding of how marketing got to where it is today.

This is a problem academics can conceivably fix. Fundraisers keep re-inventing the communications wheel; making it squarer and squarer, in some quarters; turning it super-slick in others.

Here’s where I’d start … but this is just me, grateful for every source and influence and mentor. Before we can understand anything in this profession, someone has to map the genome: who influenced whom.
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