The One Mistake Nonprofits are Guilty of Making With Donor Engagement

By: Billy Sharma, nonprofit direct marketing consultant, and author.

YES! Most nonprofits are guilty of a very serious blunder. They only engage with donors when they need money.

Imagine if the only time you spoke to your neighbor was when you needed to borrow sugar or a lawn mower. How often would they continue to talk to you or consider you a friend with this kind of behavior?

Here is a helpful tip from another industry, The Car industry: New car buyers are usually sent a follow-up mailing soon after they buy a car in the form of a survey to determine customer satisfaction or concerns.

This extra effort goes a long way to retaining donors.

Surveys are a Great Vehicle for Donor Engagements

Surveys are considered as an excellent involvement device. Often, they are referred to in fundraising as ‘hot potatoes’, because once you ask others for feedback, it subtly says to them that their opinion and voice matter.

Now consider this. Many non-profit organizations constantly send their donors direct mail solicitations, newsletters and emails filled with the charity’s accomplishments and inside stories and appeals for donations.

Why not use all these powerful mediums by including a survey to hear from your donors from time to time?

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has been doing this for years with great results.

They have used a survey to bring in new members and to drive home the fact that these parks can be enjoyed by everyone.

It has worked every time with a spike in membership. Today it stands at about 450,000 members.

Then, there is the message itself.

Here’s an example. When you go to your church you often hear the pastor address his congregation and give the dreaded annual “money talk.” Not once, but several times, he bemoans the fact that 75% of them don’t give.

That is indeed a troubling and important statistic, and the pastor is right to be concerned.

Letting donors or congregants know that the vast majority of their fellow members don’t donate creates little incentive for non-contributors to begin donating. In fact, it could even backfire.

People are more likely to engage in a behavior when they think other people are doing the same thing.

Like selecting a restaurant that is full of customers rather than one that looks empty.

Or better still, have you ever been confronted by a neighborhood Girl Guide trying to sell you cookies?

They use the same tactic as good salespeople.

For example, the girl guide will start by saying, “Will you please buy our cookies, your neighbor just bought 4 boxes for just $5.”

If you hesitate she will quickly say, “Well if you don’t want the mint cookies, how about the regular chocolate or the vanilla ones?  They’re just $2 a box.”

And before you know it, the Girl Guide has made a sale.

What she has done are two things. First, she made a reference to the neighbour having bought cookies and then used a classic example of an automatic response to a compromise. Our obligation to reciprocate to a concession is part of a compliance technique called the ‘rejection-then-retreat technique’, where an item is presented at a higher price and if rejected another similar item is then presented at a lower price.

Labour negotiators often use the tactic for bargaining. They start with extreme demands that they know they can’t win but from which they can retreat. They appear to be reasonable by making concessions. This usually inspires the opposite side to reach a settlement.

This persuasive technique works every time, so the pastor would have been better off by focusing on a positive metric, such as the large absolute number of members who do contribute.

And that’s what the National Parks Conservation Association does each time.

From the very first line in their letter the copy is intended to convey a sense of urgency and inclusion to new members.

The Johnson Box has this bold headline at the top:

You may never have another chance like this one.
If you too want America’s National Park system to be there for your children and grandchildren,
please complete and return the enclosed National Survey to the National Parks Conservation Association.

While specific details in the NPCA letter are changed from time to time the message is one of getting people to engage in a behavior when they think other people are doing the same thing. And the letter generally concludes with a call to action, asking the reader, “Please join the National Parks Conservation Association today, like so many other caring Americans.”

Another great touch in the NPCA survey is that it is mailed in a #10 envelope, which is specially designed to also serve as a reply envelope with the message: “This special envelope will help protect and conserve our natural resources by making one envelope do the work of two.”

It is important to stay in touch with your donors and more important to make sure that their concerns and voices are heard from time-to-time.

Surveys allow your donors to not only to tell you what is important to them but also it gives them the chance to air their opinions and give advice.

You could even include a survey along with the tax receipt, when acknowledging their donations. Or when you send out an invitation to an event or even when Emailing them your Annual Report or communicating with them the next time.

The best part of a survey is that you will learn something more about them and build an important bond too.

Finally, here are some tips about crafting your survey for donor engagement:

donor engagement
  1. Ask fewer questions, generally from about seven to eleven.
  2. Odd number of questions seem to work better than even numbers.
  3. Include a “Thank You” in advance as a message in the actual questionnaire.
  4. Tell them their opinions and advice are important.
  5. Make the questions simple, multiple choice with a “Yes” or “No” works best.
  6. Make sure you include ample space for their comment or suggestions.
  7. If affordable, include a freemium or a small gift to sweeten the pot.

From time to time, the NPCA has done this in the form of a fanny pack or other economical give-away items.

As the saying goes: We should all learn from our mistakes and one of the best ways to do this, is by using a survey.

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