#donorlove has its limits


There. I said it.

You are probably not happy I said it – and I know my besties in the fundraising world won’t be – but I had to.

You know how much I believe in #donorlove. I think it’s such an important lens for us to look through when it comes to our fundraising practices. Putting the donor at the centre of what we do is critical in our work.

But #donorlove is not the be-all and end-all of successful or right fundraising.

Let me backtrack.

You probably know that Rory Green – a.k.a. Fundraiser Grrl – is one of my best friends. So you can imagine that when I get a fundraising appeal in the mail for one of my clients that I’m really excited about that Rory is the one I want to tell first.

So I did just that the other day. I took a photo of three envelopes for a client’s campaign (one control, two test packages) and sent it over to Rory for us to gush over together. The first thing Rory said was –

“It doesn’t say the word ‘you‘ on any of those envelopes.”

If you’ve learned anything about #donorlove, it’s the power of the word “YOU”. And Rory is right in that the word “you” is an incredibly important thing to look out for in fundraising. Traditionally organizations have spent far too much time in their fundraising talking about what “they” – the organization – do, rather than about what “you” – the donor – do. If we want to inspire – and even more importantly, retain – donors, we must celebrate them. We must make the donor the hero.

I am not questioning the importance of this type of #donorlove principle. Or any #donorlove principle.

What I’m questioning is the interpretation and application of these principles.

We need to acknowledge that there’s more in successful fundraising than #donorlove.

Let’s think about the donor journey. Why does the donor give to our organization in the first place?

Because they’re asked, yes.

But donors give because they believe in the need our organization meets, and that our organization needs their financial support to meet that need.

The vast majority of donors out there do not give because they need more love in their life. 

Now don’t get me wrong – some donors actually do give to create a relationship and a connection between them and an organization. We often see this among our older donors, and this is an important donor need to acknowledge and to meet. #Donorlove is especially needed here.

#Donorlove is also needed to retain donors. There are a lot of great charities competing for donors, and if your gift to one of them goes unacknowledged for an unforgivably long time, I don’t blame you for saying, “No more, charity! No more gifts for you! I’m giving all my money to the charity that treats me right!”

But speaking of a lot of charities competing, let’s talk about acquisition.

And let me start by saying the dirtiest word there is in #donorlove:


That’s right. I’m talking about something included in a mail pack beyond a letter and maybe an insert. Maybe it’s a bookmark, maybe it’s holiday cards, maybe it’s a luggage tag.

If you believe in nothing but #donorlove, you’re not having this. Because you believe that donors just want to know they matter.

But if we go back to why donors give, then we’re talking about the fact that donors give because we need their support to do what we do. And so donors want us to do what it takes to get the funding that helps us do what we do.

And unfortunately – in this saturated marketplace, with this competition – we sometimes require premiums to get the package opened and the responses we need to bring in the new donors that we need.

No – I agree that it’s not ideal. And I really agree that it can create a transactional relationship that we need to work extra hard to change once the donor first gives to us.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. We work hard to make the premium at least mission-based, and we can make strategic decisions about what the premium is and test which ones lead to a longer-term relationship between the new donor and the charity. We also work to choose a premium that’s less costly so that we’re not bringing donors in on some kind of ridiculous trinket, but this is our reality.

Does it align with the sometimes rigid principles of #donorlove?! NO.

But does it align with the principle of getting as much funding as we can to meet the need that our donors care about?! YES.

So what’s my moral here? Walk the tightrope of #donorlove, my fundraiser friends. Don’t let your principles cripple you, but never let the donor out of your sight.


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Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in fundraising for over nine years. Click here to learn more about Maeve.

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18 thoughts on “#donorlove has its limits

  1. Hi Maeve,
    I think this is a really important conversation to have. #donorlove is one piece of the overall formula and we need to be able to adapt and transfer the principles so that they best suit our donors.

    • The truth is, Tom, that charities have a very small chance of driving new donors to give to their organizations without premiums. A large calculator is pretty wild, and there are premium choices that just don’t make sense, but I’ve learned a lot about choosing premiums that:

      (a) have something to do with the organization (i.e. mission-based)
      (b) are inexpensive so as not to take away from the generous funding
      received through an acquisition mailing
      (c) based on testing, lead to a more likely chance of a long-term
      relationship between the donor and organization

      Not including a premium because it’s not requested by the prospective donor — I hear you. There are a lot of donors out there who are offended by the inclusion of a premium.

      But there are a lot of other prospective donors who are more motivated to open the mail when there’s something to drive them to do so, a.k.a. a premium. And that’s where the magic can happen — when they open the envelope and read the letter and learn more and start to really care about being a part of an organization.

      It’s just the beginning of the relationship. And maybe it doesn’t go anywhere, but there’s a chance it will, and then the #donorlove can really come into play.

      Thanks for reading & commenting! –Maeve

      • Respectfully disagree, Maeve, as a philanthropy professional, a decades long volunteer and a donor is well.

        Sending “stuff” to a potential donor from a list which was purchased will not be successful over the long term. Sending stuff to a donor given an existing relationship is even worse.

        We live in a world where people want less stuff. They also don’t want charities spending money on things which are not supporting their mission. Investing in fund development which supports an organization mission seems to be even more concerning to donors these days.

        On a personal level, someone who sends us “stuff” is automatically in the “we won’t support you category”.

        • Tom — Thanks for continuing the conversation. I wrote this post knowing very well that there would be disagreement. In fact, a lot of what you, other readers, and my fundraiser friends have said has caused me to pause and consider further. What I’m saying isn’t prescriptive, but simply an alternate view that has created a dialogue that strengthens us all, I think.

          With all that said, I’d love to see any supporting data you have on premiums not leading to successful relationships between donors and organizations in the long-term. I want to soak up more of this information.

          Thanks, Tom!

          • Alas I do not have any quantitative data to support my comments (which perhaps means that they are “undefendable”). Simply shared my personal and professional experience. T

  2. Maeve, I’m not upset with you at all! First of all, we should all welcome diverse perspectives. But more importantly, I think you’re right. Kudos to you for putting this out there and evolving the conversation.

    The reason the #DonorLove push has been so strong lately, I believe, is because we needed a rebound from where things have been headed. We needed a different narrative and playbook, because the numbers are getting worse. Donors have changed, technology has changed and the whole landscape has changed. Our profession needed a new focus to combat what has been becoming an age of donor churn.

    BUT, if we rebound completely the other way, and don’t do things that have proven to be successful because we interpret that every single interaction has to create feelings of love within every single donor (which I don’t think is realistic or necessary, and as you said, may not work in certain contexts), then we will be lost again. What we’re looking for is balance.

    So we should temper #DonorLove with being practical. I think of #DonorLove as a principle and framework under which to operate, and which I embrace, and I still think the average fundraising department needs way more of it. It’s a lens to wear so we don’t make decisions that are malicious, manipulative or immoral. There’s still a lot of playground left to play in though, like premiums or whatever strategy will lead to additional funds, as long as they are done respectfully and you can prove they work – and by working, that means more donors giving more in the long-run. That is the great equalizer – ultimately, if donors don’t like it, it won’t work. So don’t shy away from things that do work because of a narrow belief system. Just make sure your donor is in your mind and heart when making decisions.

    NOTE: I have a huge bias against nonsensical or disconnected premiums that simply exploit reciprocity without a long-term view of that relationship. Maybe that’s just me.

    • PREACH, Rickesh! You have more eloquently – and more #donorlovingly – said exactly what I’m getting at. It’s a balance.

      And I hear you re: disconnecting premiums. Using them as a means to create a short-term, transactional relationship is not at all worthwhile.

      I’ve seen some test results on the likelihood of differently premiums leading to a long-term relationship with a charity, and that’s the kind of thing that matters for me. It’s not that #donorlove isn’t part of the formula, it’s just not all it is.

      Thanks for reading, commenting & being the #donorloving fundraiser you are.

      XO –M

  3. Man, such great perspective. I work for a corporate foundation and, while not directly correlated, we’re having some interesting conversations about the connections between incentive and employee participation in charitable endeavours, including giving. Sometimes, people just need a little help to get through the door. When they open it, they’re sure glad they did. The key to the door could very well be a pen or luggage tag. Or, the 2016 calendar I just opened in my mail today. That was a bit of a miss.

    I’ve sent your blog to a few members of my team. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this. I can see how the notion of premiums and not relying solely on #donorlove could be a polarizing (yet, interesting) discussion topic.

    Also, has no idea there was a term to “stuff you get from a charity” – premium. Consider me educated. All the learnings!

  4. Maeve – Great post, I really commend you sharing your thoughts and well outlined perspective on this topic. I totally agree with you, and with so many of my colleagues wearing #donorlove on their sleeve 24/7, it has been hard to have a real conversation about it – so thank you. I also like Rickesh’s comments and would not want to rebound back to the types of charitable ask of the 80’s and 90’s.

    I believe every organization must audit how they acquire and retain donors, and if the data shows changes are needed because of funding shortages, then it is their job to figure out what works. If that means premiums, because testing shows they’re working, then go for it.

    I feel (one person’s perspective only) #Donorlove and the promotion of it has been predominantly pushed by consultants, and has become the new nonprofit jargon term of the last 2 years. It really is very synonymous to donor-centered, which has been the most over used and ironically misunderstood term in our sector for the last 10 years. I’m not saying (before stones are thrown my way) that donor-centered principals are not sound, they are, but every nonprofit needs to figure out those elements that work for their organization, and not just rely on cookie cutter check list.

    Anyway, great post again. Thank you for writing it.


  5. Great post, Maeve.
    #donorlove is a critical issue and the hints you shared finds me totally agree with you.
    Premium is something not that necessary, sometimes. I have always been quite doubtful about the need to reward donors using “objects”. I think that donors make their gifts because they wish to positively impact on certain situations and the best way for a nonprofit to thanks them could be a big “thank you”, of course, and something connected with the experience with the cause they have supported. I mean in the sense they should live the cause from the inside: this is the most effective way, from my perspective, to show them how they can really impact on the cause itself and, what is most important, to share the emotional side of being altruistic.
    #donorlove is among the most awkward themes to work on. Hope to read you again on this soon!

    • That’s a great post of Sheena’s, Tom! Thanks for sharing! She’s a friend, and wrote that to support the conference I co-founded with Rory Green: The #DonorLove Rendezvous.

      I hope you know that #donorlove is in my bones. There’s not a part of me that thinks there’s anything wrong with it. The point of this post was to acknowledge that #donorlove isn’t the be-all end-all way to approach fundraising; that it has its limits, and that we can’t ignore the donors who don’t respond to it.

      Thanks again for engaging in this conversation!

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