Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Flawed Philosophy of Donor Impact?

A noble donor relations goal: showing donors how their gifts have made an impact. It only makes sense. Who wouldn’t want to know how their gift made a difference? And why wouldn’t we want to share that joyful experience with our donors?

With technological advances, we are able to relay more information to more people more quickly than ever before. Even for annual fund gifts or other unrestricted giving, we can show impact to nearly every donor, if not in a printed report then at least on line.

Showing impact is the highest form of transparency, and transparency is a good thing. The trust it builds strengthens our relationship with our donors, encouraging them to support our organizations further.

So we’re all agreed, showing impact is good.

Here’s my quibble with showing impact – other than the inevitable rise of words like “impactful,” which sounds like a tooth ailment or a GI obstruction. Impact shouldn’t the be-all and end-all of our communications. Despite its obvious benefits, like any popular trend, it can be used at the expense of other considerations. All things in moderation, right?

Here’s an example of what I’m pontificating about.

Our staff recently discussed ways to re-channel the time, energy and resources previously dedicated to our university-wide honor roll. (For context: I’ve made my peace with the honor roll concept, deciding that it’s not all good and not all bad. We will continue to list some, but not all, donors in a variety of places that make sense. But that’s another topic for another blog.)

At its core, the honor roll is supposed to be a thank you. Yes, it recognizes donors, but the reason for recognizing them is to thank them. As The Guru pointed out, honor rolls don’t thank people. They are a static list that doesn’t tell a story or warm the cockles of anyone’s heart.

Moreover, publishing these lists puts us at risk of pitfalls like errors of omission, spelling and joint credit. Undoubtedly, we’ve all heard about security breaches, so for our donors, online listings may be more than something they’re neutral or ambivalent about. It may be something they vehemently do NOT want.

Still, we noted, our donors have had an honor roll for years and years, so if we discontinue it, we want to do something meaningful to replace it. The standard go-to suggestion of an impact piece came up, and our marketing person’s eye began to twitch and jaw began to clinch. The cartoon bubble over her head read, “Good Lord, not one more impact piece to produce…for who knows how many donors and how many funds?!” She seemed to begin taking a mental inventory of testimonials and stories she could re-purpose, to meet the year-end deadline and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Her panic became contagious, and I started hyperventilating a bit, realizing it was the end of April. And then it occurred to me, what’s wrong with just saying thank you every once in a while? Instead of showing impact as the main function of our FY-end message, what if we said thank you as graciously and sincerely as we possibly could?

That notion drew her in from the ledge, and we began to come up with a plan – leveling donors, determining thresholds, choosing who gets a handwritten note, a standard printed piece or an email/video. We would still show impact, just in broad strokes rather than in specific detail. AND, we would do so with a heartfelt message of gratitude. Plenty of other pieces throughout the year show impact. This one is going to radiate gratitude.

The main message will reflect a three-word mantra a fundraising consultant recently shared: praise and thank. This behavioral directive can apply to raising children, being a good spouse or partner, managing employees or even training your dog. Praise for the action, and thank for the thoughtfulness.

The concepts of praise-and-thank and showing impact are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the most effective stewardship message of all would be a combination of praise, thanks AND impact. A strong story about the impact of a gift is 100 times stronger when you connect the dots with praise and thanks: here’s the good thing your gift made possible, AND you are such a wonderful person for enabling this good thing to happen, AND we are grateful to you because of it.

My key point is, if you show impact, don’t forget to show thanks and gratitude in equal measure. And it’s OK to sometimes just say “thank you.” Gratitude should be more than a tagline or afterthought at the end. We donor relations professionals are so adept at saying thank you that sometimes we put standard “thank you so much” language in a piece without stopping to really, truly dig down deep in ourselves and feel the emotion of gratitude. Maybe not Lou Gehrig “luckiest man on the face of this earth” emotional, but more than the Bartles and Jaymes, in  another possibly obscure pop culture baseball reference, “thank you for your support”.

G.K. Chesterson said, “Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” Perhaps our noble goal, then, is to let that wonder and happiness become evident in all our donor communications – with, and sometimes without, impact.

Thank you for reading this blog. You are to be commended for seeking to better yourself personally and professionally! Your gift of time and attention inspired and validated me, making me feel like Sally Field accepting her Oscar for Norma Rae

This blog post is a special guest blog by my friend and mentor Debbie Meyers at the University of Maryland.  I would love to hear your thoughts below!



  1. Your blog message was forwarded to me and I resonated with everything.

  2. Wow. I really want to hear your revised thoughts on donor honor rolls! That is a change that I would like to hear about. Perhaps more limited use of giving levels, such as in a monthly e-mail to leadership givers that only they see?

    Great comment on over use of impact jargon. Yet more jumping on the bandwagon!

  3. Great advice as always Lynne, thank you for sharing!

  4. Kudos to Debbie for a really insightful post... and thanks for the chuckle in the last few paragraphs. :)