Two weeks ago, I shared my experience making an “in memory” donation. The contribution I made to Massachusetts General Hospital was in memory of my mom, Suzanne Shefska, who had recently passed away there.
In that post, I proposed a few ways to properly steward in memory donors. We discussed how that type of donor should be treated and engaged with, and how fundraising staff may want to follow-up in that particular situation.
Today’s anecdote can serve as a “part two” of sorts.
Sadly, in the four weeks since donating to Mass General, I have yet to receive a “thank you” letter or email (I don’t mean to discount the automated email with my tax receipt, but yeah, I’m not counting that).
It’s safe to say I’m a bit disappointed. However, working in this industry, I have a great deal of empathy for the development office. I keep telling myself, “It’s not that they don’t want to thank me, it’s that they probably don’t even know I donated.”
The unfortunate reality is that my experience with this organization has cast doubt on my willingness to contribute in the future. It’s a difficult exercise, but put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a moment. Do your best to be in mine.
My mom died very recently. I donated a considerable amount and even encouraged others, if they were willing, to donate to the hospital that had cared for her. I haven’t heard anything from the hospital. Seriously…nothing.
I don’t know a more plain way to say it, but it’s sad. The whole experience makes me sad. Are you still in my shoes? Do you feel sad? A bit lost, too?
My empathy for the development staff is rooted in my understanding that they are overworked, often underpaid and poorly equipped (don’t have the right tools) to do their job effectively. Most supporters don’t know or even care to realize that, but the bad taste that this kind of experience leaves in a donor’s mouth is incredibly difficult to wash away.
Because more often than not, EMOTION is the greatest driving force when making donations, and after making a contribution, a donor is in an incredibly malleable position. Their emotions can easily swing from happy to sad in a moments notice.
With that in mind, today’s post is about the emotions your donors experience — particularly when they aren’t acknowledged or engaged. Keep in mind that these are some of the reasons retention rates are low and attrition rates are high. Hopefully this post, from the donors perspective, will be a welcome reminder of how intimate, complex and emotional making a donation really is.
There are three stages of donor emotion after not being acknowledged:
- Denial – Maybe they just forgot, they have to acknowledge what I did soon.
- Anger – How could they not acknowledge me? I did something very meaningful to me for them and they’re just going to forget about me??
- Regret – I shouldn’t have donated to them anyway. Next time I’ll try another organization and see if they treat me better.
Truth be told, every one (okay, nearly every one) of your donors really likes you (yes, you). Your donors, especially those newly engaged with your organization (donors who had never made a contribution prior to this year) align with your mission and vision. That’s likely why they recently donated.
In that same vein, your donors are more than willing to give you the benefit of the doubt in a myriad of situations. Whether it be acknowledging a donation, or spending money on a specific program, your donor base (although it might not always seem like it) supports you.
This couldn’t be more true in my circumstance. Four weeks since making a $1,000 donation to Mass General (keep in mind, I’m 22, so $1,000 for me is a good bit of money), I remain hopeful that they’ll call me or send a letter. I’m in full-on denial mode.
I’ve caught myself frequently thinking, “They have a lot of donors. They’ll get to you soon, just be patient.”
My support for the organization is deep-rooted. If they picked up the phone and got in touch, I’d still be pleased to talk with them. Sure, I’m a bit shocked that four weeks have passed, but I’m still clutching to the bit of hope that they will connect with me.
Unfortunately though, this sense of denial is beginning to wear off. In fleeting moments, I get angry, which makes sense considering that is step two on this donor journey.
“Do they even know how to do their job?” No, it’s not a particularly nice question that exemplifies the empathy I expressed earlier for gift officers, but remember, we’re talking about the emotional experience, and this very question ruminates in my mind from time to time now. When a donor isn’t acknowledged for making a contribution to your organization, their denial phase will only last for so long.
Soon after (within 3-4 weeks) denial transitions into anger and frustration. “I guess my donation didn’t mean enough for them,” or “What am I supposed to do now? Should I have even given them my money?” Those are serious and legitimate thoughts your donors have when they feel ignored. They’ve gotten no human response to a very personal thing they did for an organization to support their shared mission. They have no idea where that money went, if it was actually received by its intended department or program, or if it really does make a difference. How disappointing that must feel. (Hint: Those are thoughts that have passed through my mind in recent days.)
Anger stems from pain, whether it be pain from an unfulfilled need or some sort of harm caused by another. Not acknowledging a donor’s contribution to your organization will elicit strong emotions — the feeling of being hurt, which is a kind of pain — ultimately leading to anger.
Again, try to be in their shoes.
Donating time or money is an incredibly complex decision. The process (for most individuals) is, an emotional rollercoaster. Now, imagine you’ve gone through the experience of making a donation to an organization, and then received no acknowledgment. It sounds childish, but intrinsic motivation can only carry a donor so far. Donors want some sort of extrinsic reward as well.
When the cycle is broken and a donor doesn’t receive their acknowledgement, they’ll quickly pass through denial and become angry and frustrated with the organization. Not being able to quell their frustration, donors resign themselves to regret, the third stage in the donor journey.
When anger and irritation boil over, often a donor will feel regret. It’s only natural to feel this way after making a decision and not being pleased with the outcome.
In my personal experience, I have come to question whether contributing to MGH was even worth it. I wonder from time to time if my donation would have been better served elsewhere. When I decided to donate, there was no question in my mind that what I was making the right decision. Now, at this point, all I can do is wonder whether that was a mistake.
It may seem immature, or even thin-skinned to suggest this, but those are genuine sentiments I’ve had in this experience. Sentiments which, at the beginning of this journey (when I first decided to donate), I didn’t think I would even need to consider.
That’s worth keeping in mind.
Your constituents feel the need, the desire, to support you and the work your organization is doing. Because of that, you need to keep in mind the journey they are embarking on, whether it’s an in memory donation or not. Making any donation and not being acknowledged can leave a supporter feeling jaded. When a donor reaches this third stage of their journey, it shouldn’t come as much surprise that they’ll feel “worn out.” They’ve struggled with their own internal dialogue, going back and forth about whether their gift meant anything after all, because no one has reached out to tell them about it otherwise! After this experience they’ll be tired, saddened, and less likely to give.
Applying this at your shop
You may be thinking, “Did I just read a blog post on how to grieve? What does this have to do with fundraising?” Have no fear. Yes, denial, anger and regret are three of the five stages of grief, but they are also the most relatable emotions your donors will potentially experience if they feel ignored — they’re essentially grieving over a relationship they thought they were beginning with your organization.
With that in mind, here are the three key takeaways to bring back to your office:
- Make an effort to acknowledge your new donors in a personal way, not just with a tax receipt
- Empathize with the emotional experience your constituents go through when making a donation (“I just lost someone dear to me,” “I don’t have much money, but I’m giving because it makes me feel good/I need to,” or any other number of emotions and reasons)
- Find tools and resources that help you prioritize who to reach out to and when
I recognize that not every single donor can, or should, be reached out to in the same manner, but creating processes and empowering staff with the proper tools to acknowledge new donors can and will go a long way . Make your donors feel good. Impress upon them that what they’ve done matters. Then, they’ll keep coming back for more.