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9 Scary Donor Relations Practices That Give Us Nightmares


7 Scare Donor Relations Practices That Give Us Nightmares Lead Image

After a collective 75 years in the industry, we've seen some things. And while there are many not-so-great donor relations practices out there, here are a few things that keep us up at night:


  1. Not understanding your donors. One of the scariest things we've witnessed is an organization's lack of understanding of who their donors are and why they give. At the DRG Group, we take time to get to know our donors. We know what they like and what they don't like. We know why they give and continue to give. And do you know how we learn all this valuable information? We ask the donors. We don't guess what they want and need from our organization—we ask them. We do this with events, meetings, focus groups, phone interviews, and surveys. We ask and re-ask them until we clearly understand who they are and why they give. Every organization has to take the time to learn what makes its donors unique. Every new event, communication, or project is an opportunity to attach a survey or request for feedback. Gathering knowledge about your donors is ongoing because—just like us—our donors are constantly growing and changing.

  2. Outdated guidelines, policies, and procedures. Often when we speak to industry professionals, we ask them when was the last time they reviewed the naming guidelines, gift agreement, or gift acceptance policy for their organization. We cringe when we hear their answers. The reality is that most often, policies are drafted and disseminated and then land on a shelf. They're not revisited again until new leadership asks for it, there's a donor issue, or the organization is planning for the next campaign. We encourage you to make this an annual practice. Take a few hours once a year to see what's still relevant. Does anything need to change? Is it time to raise the gift naming levels? Do the guidelines protect the donor and the organization? Are there new members of the team that need to see the guidelines? Have any laws changed and do we need to note that in our policies? It's much easier to do this in real-time than to wait until you have a crisis on your hands.

  3. Doing things the way you’ve always done them—because that’s how you’ve always done them. Yikes! While this can work in specific scenarios, it’s detrimental for others. Let’s use the method of delivery for reports as an example. Is printing and mailing reports the ONLY method at your organization? If so, that’s a little 2000-late, don’t you think? It’s time to offer digital delivery to your donors. Many of them will likely appreciate receiving less mail and digital delivery offers more tracking and metrics for you. Keep print as an option for those donors who request it.

  4. Not doing ANYTHING because you don’t know where to start or don’t think you have the staff resources for it. Let’s use scholarship reporting as an example. You’re not doing it because you’ve never done it, not to mention you’re a small shop. You don’t have to start at the mountain top with heartfelt impact statements from all scholarship recipients. Work with campus partners to identify a scholarship recipient or two with a great story to tell. Share that story with ALL your scholarship donors! Hearing from a student—any student!—helps illustrate the impact donors are making through their fund.

  5. Not being flexible and adaptable. If we've learned anything in the past couple of years, it's that we need to be flexible and adaptable in our work and offer our donors the same flexibility through choice, options, and "choose your own adventure" style engagement. We continually scare away our donors by only offering one-track options, traditional approaches, or rigid opportunities —no choice, variety, or hybrid options. We must constantly consider our donors' unique needs and plan to offer a more extensive array of communications, events, or touch points to meet their needs. This doesn't mean MORE work—just SMARTER and more EFFICIENT work!

  6. Not tracking how gifts are spent. One thing that ultimately scares off our donors is not actively tracking how philanthropic gifts are administered or spent after they have come in the door. When we lose sight of these gifts and move on to the next big ask, we miss when funds are underspent, misspent, or heaven forbid, NOT SPENT. It is vital that all fundraising shops have built in compliance and stewardship programs that actively track and monitor donor funds—otherwise, we are undermining our ability to ask those donors for another gift in the future!

  7. Going silent. There's nothing spookier than an organization that goes deathly quiet with their donors when big news is happening. Leadership transitions, the launch of a major initiative, hot-button headlines, even changes to the tax code—there are many things (positive and negative) that affect our donors' relationship with the organization. Too often, the more complex or controversial an issue, the more hesitant our communications become. Donors want—and deserve—information, and it's up to us to deliver the message clearly and in a way that recognizes their unique relationship to our mission. Instead of wringing our hands about what to say (if anything) in the moment, we can proactively develop a communications plan for donors when there is big news to share. No matter the size of our organization, working collaboratively to determine who receives what information when -- and from which messenger -- is a necessary exercise in planning that stops the narrative from being managed by those outside the organization. Whether it's a moment of crisis or celebration, keeping donors in the know reassures them that we care and they matter (and those are goosebumps worth giving!).

  8. Recognizing donors based on amount and not behavior. We focus so much on the amount that donor's give and treat them accordingly. They don’t have a chance to give more because we value them based on an amount not a behavior. This madness has to stop! Every donor deserves an amazing donor experience, regardless of the amount of their gift. It's important to make every generous soul feel special for their giving. Basing their treatment on the amount of their gift and sending them communications that everyone else gets is not the way. Instead, we must segment our donors by WHERE and HOW they give. Behavior based donor relations is not just the future, it is the NOW. Organizations that make this shift now will be the most successful in the years to come.

  9. Not incorporating DEI values into the everyday work we do with donors. The shift starts with all of us. From our hiring practices, communications, events, and giving societies to donor/beneficiary interactions, over-restricting funds, and managing donor expectations—we must incorporate inclusivity in all that we do.

Don't get stuck in a nightmare—fix these donor relations no-nos before it's too late! And if you don't know where to start we're here to help!


What horrifying donor relations practices keep you up at night? We'd love to hear them in the comments below!


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