Does your organisation represent more than just clutter in the eyes of your donors?

My partner has a hoarding habit. A year ago, our apartment was stuffed to the ceiling with all sorts of clutter that we didn’t need and never used. Living in the world’s second most expensive city, we came to realise just how silly this was- and started taking action. Together, we had a truly epic clearout, donating, selling or dumping more than half of the items we own. And we feel all the better for it.

Over the years we have also amassed quite a large number of charity direct debits between the two of us. Signing up and donating to multiple good causes has been a source of pleasure and pride for both of us. But recently, my partner surprised me by saying that he had stopped his regular giving commitments to all of the organisations he supported, with just one exception. That single charity was going to get more.

Thinking about all this as a fundraiser, I was struck by some uncomfortable parallels between mass fundraising and mass consumption. Any environmentalist will tell you that humanity’s current level of material consumption is unsustainable. There are signs that in many parts of the world, we have reached ‘Peak stuff’; could we also have reached ‘Peak Donor’?

Less is more

Evidence tells us that donors are not fully satisfied with the relationship they are getting for the standard €12-a-month. Many organisations have been attempting to move away from the high-volume, ‘low-quality’, donor recruitment pattern in order to reduce attrition- with varying degrees of success. Statistics reveal that many of the reasons why donors leave relate to what happens when your organisation’s perceived value to donors is diminished. Beyond the data, which unfortunately is still somewhat limited in scope, we have the anecdotal evidence- more of which I will offer here.

Understanding the Minimalism movement – where people (often millennials like myself) are rejecting high-paced, indebted, high-consumption lifestyles – could lead to some interesting and useful conclusions for fundraisers. Japan’s Marie Kondo is one of the figureheads of the Minimalism trend. Her very simple methodology of reducing clutter in our homes, stated in her bestselling books and the video below, has millions of dedicated followers.

Now, it’s easy to mock; perhaps because we like to cling to the idea that giving is a rational decision rather than an emotional one (spoiler: it’s not). My partner felt that he was attached to every single one of his possessions, but by following Kendo’s technique he was in fact able to be selective and let go of things. But I was really not expecting to see that he would also apply this method to his charitable giving. In his words: ‘I stopped giving to Charity X because I didn’t feel a spark’. It wasn’t down to the cost; it was that he believed his donation just didn’t matter to them (a statement which feels like a dagger through the heart to any fundraiser). This is an organisation he had been donating to for many years. Even more striking is that he had at one time volunteered regularly at their office. He admits that he respects the work they do and understands their importance. The choice was motivated by a wish to consolidate and focus his giving in a way which he believes will maximise the impact, and that meant cancelling those other direct debits for good.

Is it right that we blame the donor? As Ken Burnett’s recent blog points out, the terminology we use when talking about donor attrition is unworthy and implies that the organisation is not the one at fault. We’ve got it the wrong way round: donor loyalty is just as much about organisations being loyal to their donors. If we aren’t able to provide real value for our donors, how can we expect their continuing loyalty?

True value

The major reasons donors are telling us why they cancel their support aren’t connected to some lifestyle trend, of course. We hear that donors feel they can no longer afford to give, or that other organisations are simply more deserving. In saturated fundraising markets, many of our donors have ended up supporting multiple organisations at the same time. Knowing that disposable incomes rise and fall; how sure are you that the perceived value of your organisation to your donors beats that of, for example, the child sponsorship commitment they have set up? It takes a lot for a donor to break that personal bond, so your organisation had better be providing a very compelling alternative if it wants to make the cut long-term. Interestingly, the style of the donor communication from the organisation which my partner felt most loyalty to is understated, perhaps even ad-hoc and unprofessional- but this only makes the cause appear to be more authentic in a way that the other organisations’ much slicker communication perhaps fails to achieve.

Simplification feels good. Getting rid of things might seem harsh, but the motivation behind it is that everything that remains increases in meaning and value. Let’s not forget that giving is also supposed to feel good. But so much fundraising seems to have been built on the unquestioned assumption that encouraging donors to give even more, even longer, to even more organisations, multiplies that feeling. Those seem to be some shaky foundations.

Seth Piper (@SethPiper) has worked in the nonprofit sector since 2004, spending the last four years establishing and managing the fundraising department at Greenpeace Norway. He recently joined the consultancy b.bold where he works together with Beate Sørum advising organisations on strategic approaches to fundraising.