Never Ask Again

If you ever donated to a nonprofit, the scene may be all too familiar: your one donation spawns a series of annoying repeat appeals…and makes you regret that moment of charity you succumbed to during the holiday season.

Email, mail, telephone, and a combination of all three, are among the few tactics the insatiable development staff use to get a reoccurring gift from you. It is as if the organization was the cookie monster and your dollars were the fresh baked cookies the organization could simply not get enough of (num, num, num)!

But check this out: the Chronicle of Philanthropy talks about a nonprofit that makes a single appeal…and promises to leave the donor alone after the first donation.

The featured organization is called Smile Train, a charity that provides surgery to correct cleft palate in children worldwide (Hall 2011).  The reporter asks the development director of Smile Train about the logic behind this unique, and counter-intuitive, campaign. The staffer replied that the campaign was more successful than the traditional repeat appeals described humorously above. Further, the single appeal of the organization creates a profound link between the donor, her gift, and the mission of Smile Train. The development staffer shares how your single donation is just as permanent as the smile they provide the child (Hall 2011).

So what do professional fundraisers have to say about this appeal technique? A glance of the comments below the article seem to provide mix reviews. Some say it is a misguided, and even myopic, approach to long-term fundraising. Others give praise for the fresh approach to what can become a monotonous transaction.

Here is my take: the appeal technique is great and one that is worthy of praise…but should not be emulated by all. Although emulation is not recommended, the concept behind the appeal should be promoted industry-wide.

As a graduate student, please forgive me as I turn  to theory to help make my argument…its a force of habitat.  James McGregor Burns, a leadership scholar, talks about the difference between transactional and transforming leadership. Think of transactional leadership as an exchange you have at the grocery store check out. You conduct a transaction- you trade cash for cans- with the clerk. Neither you nor the clerk were bound together to achieve a higher purpose (Burns 101). In contrast, transformational leadership “occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality…their purposes have become fused” (Burns 101).

The cookie monster apprpoach to fundraising is transactional; when nonprofits treat their past donors as cookie jars they return to only to feed. The act of a mindless repeat appeal can create donor burnout at best. At worst, the donor can share their frustration with their peers (vent their frustration through facebook)…and then the cookie monster loses access to other cookie jars.

In contrast, when nonprofits take a thoughtful approach like Smile Train, they do not treat their donors as cookie jars. They invite the donor to share the joys of the cookie with them!

To step away from the cookie metaphor…Smile Train’s policy and the logic behind the policy links the donor directly to the cause…and transforms the donor from a mere cash source to a participant in the Smile Train mission. Further, as Smile Train uses the funds to complete its mission it turns around and shares photos of children who benefit from the donation with the donor…thereby completing the transformational experience: the donor, the organization, and the child become fused by a single donation.

The transformative experience is paying off as the fundraising campaign is growing at Smile Train.

Although this appeal works for Smile Train, it may not work for all nonprofits. Some groups may have to use a “cookie monster” type approach (although the repeat appeal should be coupled with information, benefits, or other stuff instead of a pure “give me money appeal”. After all, just as the nonprofit needs funds to survive, the donor needs information to justify their investment in the organization).

There is no one size fits all policy in development…although best practices do ring true in the nonprofit sector. The best practice Smile Train is now observing is that it is effectively linking its constituents and potential donors to a cause. That is one lesson we can all learn.

Source Cited:

Wren, Thomas J. 1995. The Leadership Companion, Insights on Leadership Through the Ages. “Transactional and Transforming Leadership” James McGregor Burns (100-101). NY, New York.

Chronicle of Philanthropy.2011. “Charity Wins Donors With Promise Never to Ask for Another Gift.” Hall, Holly. 23 May 2011. Accessed on 01/11/2012.

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