Dear Fundraising Expert:

Prompted by a direct mail solicitation, I recently heard from an irate donor who announced in no uncertain terms that he’s tired of hearing from us so often. The donor claims that we are a worthy organization. But the individual seems annoyed that we asked for money a dozen times over the course of a year. I checked our records and this person is right. The donor gave $500 in January of 2014 but then nothing for the rest of the year. He claims that he and his wife make decisions in January about where they are going to give to charity for the whole year and stick to that plan. If we leave this donor alone, our organization might lose out on other potential gifts, but if we keep asking for contributions, we may alienate the donor permanently. I do not see any good options and am unsure what to do.

Concerned Development Director
Baltimore, Maryland


Dear Concerned Development Director,

As former President Bill Clinton once said, “I feel your pain.” You are trying to follow the two of the most important rules of fundraising and they are coming into conflict. The first is: Make sure your donors are happy. The second is: Those organizations that ask for contributions are the ones that receive them.

It may seem counterintuitive, but we know that donors who are solicited to give more frequently are more generous than those who are solicited less frequently.  Why is that? One might think donors would appreciate being left alone. And one might also think that an organization’s masses of donors would rise up in revolt like your irate supporter – tired of being asked to give. But the truth is that few donors respond in that way, at least openly. Most sophisticated donors know that an organization’s needs may change over the course of the year and that unexpected opportunities and challenges can arise. Donors need to be educated about an organization’s needs. A contributor may assume that a nonprofit has all the resources it needs, unless he or she is told otherwise.

When it comes to the particular donor you described, I find it hard to believe that he and his wife make all of their donations for the year in January. What about major, unpredictable disasters? What about exciting challenge grants that arise? In my mind, taking this inflexible approach makes this individual an unsophisticated donor. That being said, your organization simply must abide by this supporter’s wishes if you want to retain that individual as a supporter. The donor has spoken. I think the donor may be wrong, but that is immaterial. If the donor is asking not to be solicited for the remainder of the year after making a gift, then you must abide by his desires.

Of course, most donors won’t take the time to contact you and it is difficult to know what happens to your emails, Facebook posts, and direct mailings. This disgruntled donor does raise a deeper question: Is there such thing as too much? What is the right number of solicitations for any given year? Six? 12? 18? It is difficult to say. The right number depends greatly upon the type of organization, the nature of the appeal, and how you are asking. Have you ever surveyed your donors about their giving priorities or approaches to philanthropy? In general, it is always a good idea to learn more about your donors. When it comes to solicitations, there is such a thing as diminishing returns. What I can tell you is this: Ask often for contributions, but not too often. Sound easy? Of course not. But nothing worthwhile is ever easy. And changing the world through philanthropic endeavors is certainly worthwhile.

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