Back in May, donor Lisa Greer received a call from a fundraiser at a nonprofit that she had supported in the past. She was busy and didn’t call back.
The next day she got another call. And then another. And then another.
“He probably called six times within three or four days,” she said. Greer appreciated the organization’s work, but didn’t feel inclined to give at the time since it wasn’t on the front lines of COVID-19 response. “I do want to support his organization, but not right now,” she told me after receiving call No. 6. “In a perfect world, it’d be nice if he understood this and said, ‘No problem, can I call you in a month?’ But instead, he’s calling more and more.”
Experts have encouraged fundraisers to proceed with patience, respect and empathy during this unprecedented time. But Greer’s experience suggests that many either haven’t gotten the memo, or dire straits have overwhelmed their better judgment.
This manifests in many ways. Some fundraisers call repeatedly, perhaps thinking that eventually, they’ll catch busy donors at just the right moment. Others take a less aggressive approach, cognizant perhaps of the fact that their organization isn’t in the business of saving lives, but miss the mark nonetheless. Their strategies may differ, but the end result is often the same: Donors walk away annoyed, bewildered and reluctant to give once the crisis subsides.
Alienating a major donor is most fundraisers’ worst nightmare. As we explored recently, there’s no formula or consensus for how much is too much right now. On some level, fundraisers have to keep doing their jobs, and every donor’s reaction will be different. As fundraising consultant Marjorie Fine put it to me recently, “Our job is to ask, and that donor’s job is to say yes or no.”
That being said, Greer—whose forthcoming book is titled “Philanthropy Revolution: How to Inspire Donors, Build Relationships and Make a Difference”—did not hold back when it comes to what really bothers her.
Based on her experiences in recent months, I’ve sketched out six misguided fundraiser personas that donors do not want to interact with during a pandemic. Here they are, for better or worse.
As strange as it may sound, Greer told me that many of the fundraisers she talks with do not acknowledge the fact that the country is grappling with a health crisis and historic social unrest. They stick their heads in the sand and pretend like everything is normal. This suggests that fundraisers—and the organizations they represent—are removed from the real world. Not a good look.
In a similar vein, some fundraisers don’t ask her how she’s doing. They should. “The fundraiser has to understand that the person on the other end of the phone is going through hard times,” she said. “You have to be willing to be human and talk to a donor as a human, and have that conversation.”
This approach comes with its own set of risks, however. Some donors are handling the pandemic fine. Others, not so much, which can lead to some uncomfortable and unforeseen conversations. “Don’t ask a donor how they are if you’re not prepared or willing to deal with the answer,” Greer said.
The boor is like the ostrich, but with an extra dose of insensitivity. In addition to leaving current events unmentioned, they hit up donors to raise money for a cause that comes across as relatively unimportant or downright crass, given the state of the world. Making an urgent ask at this time can alienate donors in the long term.
“If you were talking about Middle East relations, and the organization has financial security, that issue is still going to be there in a few months,” Greer said. Most egregiously, she got a call pitching a financial opportunity promising strong returns thanks to the current—but unmentioned—economic climate. “It basically said, ‘Here’s how to make money now.’ It was as offensive and tone-deaf as you could get.”
“If a fundraiser tells me, ‘There’s nobody that does what we do, so we need your money,’ I’m always suspect,” Greer said, and even more so during a global pandemic. “If you’re a startup and you talk to VCs and tell them the same thing, that you don’t have any competition, they’ll laugh you out of the room.”
Fundraisers “circle” when they sense a donor is about to cut a check or is poised to write their will. COVID-19 has heightened fundraisers’ tendency to engage in this mildly menacing tactic. “Circling,” Greer said, “is a nasty word for ‘relationship,’ except a real relationship is a sincere check-in with a sense that the ask is just around the corner. Fundraisers don’t think we notice the difference, but we do.”
Some pitches made Greer wonder who, exactly, is running the fundraising operation at these organizations. In late March, she received an expensive-looking snail mail piece from an organization that she hadn’t given to for many years. That raised a red flag. As she noted on her blog, “the fact that that mailing was sent… tells me that those organizations just don’t have any interest in knowing the people they’re soliciting. Even if they don’t know me personally, it doesn’t take a genius to know that most people, during a pandemic, won’t take the time to even read a solicitation like that—much less donate to that cause.”
The Hail Mary Thrower
Also known as the Spaghetti Thrower, this development director overwhelms the donor with a random barrage of pitches with the hope that something lands.
Greer received a letter from a nonprofit whose envelope read, “Great news! Your giving history is enclosed!” Greer had made one donation to this organization. “It’s not really great news,” she said. “I didn’t ask for it. I gave to them once. Why would I want to see that?”
Reflecting on this strange mailing, Greer could only conclude that some development shops are “coming up with some bad ideas with their extra downtime.” She imagined staff sitting around in a room staring vaguely into some middle distance. Suddenly someone says, “Hey, let’s go dig up old mailing lists and send people their giving history—that will give us something to do.”
Unfortunately, Greer said, “there isn’t a smart person in the room who says, ‘Well, maybe the list is stale,’ or ‘How do you know these people even want their giving history?’”
Greer attributes these inappropriate asks to the fairly new idea—increasingly peddled by an army of paid fundraising consultants—that “in every communication, there has to be an ask. It’s as if there’s a playbook somewhere that says, ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get.’” As a donor, Greer doesn’t ascribe to this philosophy. Based on her experience, it’s hard to blame her.
Last week, I checked in with Greer for some additional commentary around this piece. I asked her about that tenacious fundraiser (aka “The Badgerer”) who called her six times within a week. She sighed. “I still haven’t called him back,” she said.