Tearing down the profanely sacred

Perhaps as a direct marketing fundraiser, you’ve had the joy of trying to convince the person in charge of events to allow you to talk to “their donors.”  If your experience was like mine, the negotiations involved blackout dates where you couldn’t communicate with those donors and them having access to “your donors” and a limit on how many times you could communicate with these donors and more.

That’s if you are negotiating with an open-minded events person.  The closed-minded ones just say no.  This is despite evidence that you can get significant gains in both event and direct marketing revenues from adding direct marketing to the marketing mix as long as those communications are customized to the experience.

Then, COVID-19.  Organizations, faced with no revenues from event donors, wisely decided to open the doors to direct marketing for these donors.

Turns out, some of them were donors to the event, not the organization.  And some of them were donors to the organization, not the event.

The people in this latter group should always have been asked for more in different ways.  They wanted to help but were prevented from doing so because of internal rules.  Those rules that assumed the event person knew best didn’t benefit the organization; it lost out on revenue.  They didn’t benefit the donor; the donor wasn’t able experience the joy of giving in the ways they found beneficial.  It probably didn’t even benefit the event donor gatekeeper.

And yet it was a capital-r Rule.  These donors are in this channel.  They are sacred.  Until a pandemic happens and they aren’t.

Are there other donors that we are profanely holding sacred without a pandemic to expose the flaws in our thinking?  There are a few, I’d argue:

Some major gift officers’ aversion to direct marketing.  The first thing that many major gift officers will instinctively do when they see their donor portfolio is to shut down direct marketing efforts to those donors.  After all, you want the donor to take your call and don’t want them mistaking you for a telemarketer.

Imagine if you tried this in any other walk of life.  Imagine going to Jeff Bezos and saying “this person has been buying a lot of stuff from us on Amazon.  Let’s make sure they never get another email from us, because I really think that I can sell them the Patek Philippe Nautilus gold watch for $164,000 (plus $4.49 shipping, which doesn’t seem like enough for something that should come with its own armed guard).”

He would laugh at you until he got stomach cramps.  Or he would have an underling, possibly with a mechanical arm, throw you in a vat of piranhas while he stroked a cat.  All depends on the mood.

It’s silly to take someone who has been donating routinely by one means and cut them off from that means in the hope they might give more.  You should only change this if the donor asks you to (in which case, you should do so immediately, while smiling) or if you have a relationship with the donor to the point that there’s an alternate communication strategy in place.

Avoiding list co-operatives.  Yes, you should put rules in place to protect your unique donors — the people who give only to you who you have attracted because of their unique tie to you.

If experience is any guide, that’s one percent of your file, plus or minus one percent.  The other 98-100% are donors to multiple organizations.  Charitable people do charitable things.

Things, plural.

There’s a reason that most of the outside lists and people that you pursue to be donors to your organization aren’t from a cohort of magazine subscribers or motorcycle enthusiasts or even a political party.  They are from other nonprofits: charitable people do charitable things.

We need to accept that our donors will be promiscuously charitable.  Within that, going into list co-ops is a way of taking other organizations’ best donors and build models that allow you to get the best of the best.  If you are doing a good job of focusing on your donors, you will be able to steal them away.  If you are doing a bad job, you were going to lose those donors anyway.  You didn’t deserve them.

The way to differentiate ourselves is to build closer ties to our donors, not to try to build walls around them.  As French playwright Andre Gide said, “It is not enough to be loved — I wish to be preferred.”

Direct marketers not playing well.  Yes, we need to also look in the mirror.  If we are tearing down things that don’t benefit the organization or the donor, that includes us.  That’s the divide — chasm, in some organizations — between digital and analog.  And it’s figuring out how to incorporate other asks, like planned giving, into your tidy direct marketing program, knowing that that additional planned giving value is an extra part of the value your acquisition has to your organization.

We’ve seen the false idol of the event/direct marketer fall.  Let’s take this opportunity to learn from this and tear down the rest.

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