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Season 1, Episode 26

In today’s podcast, Amy Eisenstein and Andrea Kihlstedt welcome capital campaign expert Jeff Hensley to talk about donor fatigue. They enjoy a revealing discussion about what donors are really tired of. And, it’s not giving away money! You’ll learn where to look and what to do when your donors start resenting being asked — or even worse — simply stop giving to your organization.

 

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This podcast is the first of a special Summer Series featuring our immensely-experienced Toolkit Advisors. Our live webinars will return in mid-August; learn more at ToolkitTalks.com.

Amy Eisenstein:
Hi, there I’m Amy Eisenstein. I’m co-founder of the Capital Campaign Toolkit along with my partner, Andrea Kihlstedt, and we are super excited to be here today with one of our Toolkit advisors, Jeff Hensley. I will let them introduce themselves in just a minute, but I just wanted to say hello here from sunny New Jersey. And we’ve got an excellent, exciting topic for you today. Andrea, why don’t you introduce yourself? And then we’ll introduce Jeff and get started.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Hi everybody. I’m so happy to be here with Amy and Jeff today, and I’m happy to be here with you, our wonderful listener. So thanks for joining us. I am delighted to introduce Jeff Hensley, who is based in North Carolina. He’s going to tell you about himself in a minute, but what I will tell you about Jeff is that he is the most calm and thoughtful and specific guy. It’s just calming to talk to Jeff. So Jeff, I’m delighted to have you with us today. You’re going to calm us down and help us be thoughtful about a very interesting topic, which is the topic of donor fatigue. It’s really a great topic. We have people ask us questions and worry about that all the time.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Jeff, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself, and then we can jump right into that subject?

Jeff Hensley:
Thank you. And you’re very kind, Andrea, for your introduction of me. I’m a fundraising consultant based in North Carolina. I’ve been doing this work for around 25 years. Work primarily with faith-based organizations. That’s my background of how I came into fundraising. Love helping organizations advance their mission through raising resources to support it. Love working with my Capital Campaign Toolkit clients, a variety of organizations all over the country doing amazing things, and it’s such a privilege to walk along beside them in that journey. So I’m happy to be here.

Donor Fatigue

Amy Eisenstein:
Terrific. All right. Today’s topic, we’re going to kick off with the topic of donor fatigue because Jeff, as we were discussing, a lot of organizations are really worried about donor fatigue and that their donors are just going to be tired of giving. So what are your thoughts on the subject?

Jeff Hensley:
Well, I hear it a lot and I think I’m hearing it a lot right now because so many people gave, particularly during the pandemic. It was just amazing to see the response of generous people to this crisis. And we’re seeing data that’s coming back about giving from last year that says more people gave than ever before and they gave more than ever before. And I think a lot of organizations that we’re working with are worried about how can we continue to ask them for resources? Are we going to be asking too much? How do we integrate an annual appeal ask into a capital campaign if we’re asking them for additional resources? And they’re worried about their donors really getting tired of giving to their organizations or the myriad of other organizations that are asking them.

Jeff Hensley:
I’ve kind of pushed back a little bit on that worry for some of our clients and said, “Look, is that a real thing? Have you talked to your donors, firstly, about it? I mean, why don’t you pull some of your best donors and ask them, ‘Are we asking you too much? Are we bothering you? Do you feel fatigued?'”

Jeff Hensley:
Secondly, I’ve really in my experience never met a donor who says, “I’m just tired of giving.” I find most of them are eager to give, derive deep joy in giving and are looking for opportunities to give. They might be tired of other things like the way in which they’re asked, how they’re asked, how they’re cared for as donors, but I’ve never really met a donor who said, “I’m just tired of giving. I’m going to stop doing that from now on.”

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah, I think that’s such a good point. Donors should get joy from giving. I think most donors do. Giving is joyful. Knowing that you’ve done something good. So if you find that your donors are giving out of guilt or because you’re twisting their arms or any of those negative connotations that we associate with giving, then you’re not asking well or correctly or engaging your donors as well. And so they may be tired of feeling guilted into something. But if you’re inspiring your donors, if you’re motivating your donors, then they’re not going to be tired.

Amy Eisenstein:
Andrea, what do you think?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Well, I mean, I think that donors do get tired of giving when they are not appropriately thanked, when they don’t know how their money is been used and what difference their money makes. When the only time people in organizations go to them is to ask them for money, when they hear nothing in between. I think that if your donors are exhibiting the signs of fatigue, donor fatigue, there is something for you to learn about yourself, not about your donors, but about yourself and about your program, how it works and whether donors really feel cared for.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
I mean, there are several organizations I’ve given to over the years and gradually I’ve gotten tired of giving to them because I always felt like I was taken advantage of. No one came and asked me about my gifts. They just expected me to give. When I gave, it took weeks to get any kind of thank you, and then it was a total form thank you. It’s as though all they cared about was my money and they didn’t care anything about me. Well, I do get tired of that. I guess sometimes I said there is no such thing as donor fatigue. I think that’s not accurate. There is a thing of donor fatigue and it comes from bad fundraising.

Jeff Hensley:
Right.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. I think we want to be careful about who we’re asking and how we’re listening to them. So making sure that the one loud person on your board who’s screaming about donor fatigue isn’t the only person we’re listening to. That you’re going to a variety of donors and say… Instead of asking, “Are you tired of hearing from us,” because we don’t want to stop communicating with them, maybe turn the question around, “How would you like to hear from us? What’s the most appropriate way? How should we be asking you?” So that it feels joyful and it feels meaningful.

Amy Eisenstein:
Jeff, how are you advising your Toolkit clients and other clients when these types of issues come up?

Jeff Hensley:
Well, similar along the lines you’ve suggested, I first have said, who’s saying that you have donors that are fatigued? Is it a board member that’s saying this? Is it you’re executive director? Et cetera. And then probe that, what does that mean? And then look at your own systems of donor care and say, is it really, like you say Andrea, a statement more about us than about the donor. So I’ve been challenging them to do that.

Is Your Donor a Partner with You?

Jeff Hensley:
Secondly, I want them to talk to some of their donors and ask them if you truly are treating them as a partner in advancing the mission of your organization. Then as partners, you should be able to have very frank conversations about how you are treating them as a co-collaborator in this activity. And so sitting down with some of your best and most faithful donors and say, “How are we caring for you? Are you getting what you want to get out of the relationship that you have with our organization?” Maybe one way to do that is an informal survey. I think the summers are actually great times to do surveys because you might have the bandwidth now to construct it and people might actually have the time to respond to them.

Amy Eisenstein:
And so why not do a donor survey this summer and ask some of those questions? “Are we communicating with you in the appropriate way? So the right cadence, giving you the right kind of information?” And getting that kind of feedback is going to be really helpful to gauging whether you believe you really are asking too often of your donors and whether there is real fatigue there.

Jeff Hensley:
I do agree with Andrea. I do think some donors get tired of giving to that one organization if they don’t feel cared for. And what do they do? I think they find other organizations to give to. It doesn’t stop their giving. It just redirects their giving elsewhere.

Board Members can be Fatigued

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah, I think that’s right. One thing that also I’ve learned over the years, that if you have a board member or someone else who raises the topic of donor fatigue, it’s because that person feels fatigued. And you need to start by finding out how they feel and why they feel that way and what’s going on for them. Don’t immediately get them to go and talk to others because what they’re going to say when they talk to others is, “Oh, I feel so tired of giving to this organization.” When someone says something, by and large, it’s because it reflects what’s going on with them, even though they don’t frame it that way. So when it comes to donor fatigue and a board member or someone else’s talking about that, that’s your starting point to see if you can solve that problem, that personal problem first.

Jeff Hensley:
Yeah. It’s very interesting you say that because in one of the organizations that I’ve worked with that raised this issue, it was a board member. It was actually two board members that raised this issue of donor fatigue. And what we did was we looked back at the history of giving and we found out that the board members are giving over 70% of the annual revenue to the organization. So what they were saying about fatigue was not really, “I don’t want to give to this organization anymore. I think I give too often or too much to this organization.” What they were really communicating was, “We believe that others need to carry the bucket more in terms of supporting this organization beyond our board.” So I challenged the development director to really take that feedback and direct into constructive steps to expand their donor base beyond their board. And when she started to work in that framework, this chatter of donor fatigue tended to dissipate.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah, I think that’s really interesting because you have two choices in that particular situation. One choice is to say, “Well, of our 100% giving, 70 or 80% is coming from the board. We need to shrink that amount and increase the amount from outside.” That’s one possibility. One way to think about it. Or you can say, “70 or 80% of our annual giving is coming from the board. Why don’t we see if we can match that amount from the outside community so we expand the whole pot?” And that I think would excite board members. The question is not whether you shrink the amount the board members give and the content of the whole pie. The question is whether you can grow the whole pie by using board giving to challenge other donors.

Negotiating with Donors

Andrea Kihlstedt:
One of my Toolkit clients, one of our clients, an interesting thing happened recently where the largest gift to their campaign was going to be a $3 million gift from a significant local foundation where they had strong contact. They went to them, they asked them for the money. The foundation came back to them and said, “We are really happy to support you and happy to support your campaign at this top level, but we are tired of being the only big game in town. We really want to encourage you. We want to use you to help get other people giving more, both to your organization and in this community. So we want to set our $3 million up as a challenge, and we want half of that money to come from new donors.” Now, that was pretty daunting. A million and a half dollars to a campaign to come from new donors? That sounds a little unlikely and we pushed back against it. We said, “We understand what you want, but it’s really difficult to get new gifts to a campaign. This doesn’t happen often.”

Andrea Kihlstedt:
So we pushed back on it. We came up with another match idea, which they bought and liked. And now fast-forward to what is approaching the end of this campaign, they will have more than matched the initial request in new gifts.

Amy Eisenstein:
Andrea, I think there are so many morals to that story, but the one that I want to just make that everybody paid attention to is that you can have discussions with your donors, even with foundations. Oftentimes foundations will come with parameters or rules, and somebody was just talking to me about one that seemed initially unreasonable or unachievable like the one you just suggested. And I said, it’s important to go back and have a conversation with them. Not just pretend that that’s the law. Will they always do what you’re looking to? But there’s often wiggle room, there’s negotiating power. They want to be successful. They want you to be successful. So don’t be afraid to go back and talk to your donors, and any donor, whether it’s an individual or a couple or a foundation or company. So that’s a great, great story.

Capital Gifts AND Annual Gifts

Amy Eisenstein:
I’m curious while we’re on the topic of donor fatigue, often the issue of asking donors for an annual gift and a capital gift comes up. Jeff, why don’t you start us off on that slight tangent, but I think related to the topic of donor fatigue? How do you talk to your clients about asking for an annual and a capital gift when they’re in a capital campaign?

Jeff Hensley:
Right. They have a couple choices to make early on in the campaign. Do they want to have a two-asked approach to a campaign where they continue to do annual gift appeals as they’re doing a capital campaign appeal? So there are two distinct asks. They might be related to mission in both cases, but they’re distinct in the way they’re asking and in the amounts that they ask for.

Jeff Hensley:
The other approach is a comprehensive campaign approach where the annual gift is wrapped up into the campaign, and you make one ask of your donors over a pledge period, maybe three years or whatever the period of the campaign is. And you really seek to have them see that the annual gift is as crucial as the campaign gift to advancing the mission of the organization. I come out of the academic world of fundraising, where comprehensive campaigns are really the way most schools now operate. And I’ve really enjoyed working on them because I see that coming out of a comprehensive campaign, the annual giving then increases after the campaign is over. People are used to giving in a larger amount, they’re excited about supporting the mission. Maybe they see it tangibly implemented by seeing buildings go up as they’re giving to this campaign. And so they’re more excited to continue to give to the annual fund after the campaign is over because they’ve been part of a comprehensive campaign, but that doesn’t mean that that model works for every organization. Some really need to keep their annual fund appeal separate from their capital campaign appeal.

Jeff Hensley:
And with those organizations, usually I try to help them rebrand their annual fund. I’ve never been a big fan of that word annual fund. I mean, I guess just because the earth has gone around the sun one more time. What I like to do is say, how can we brand the annual fund in a way that really does speak to your mission and get people excited about the impact that they have? But I think there are broadly two approaches, and depending on your organization and the particulars of your campaign, it will depend on which approach you take.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Jeff, just so that people understand, it’s actually a fairly complicated topic. But one thing I want people to know about the difference between a combined campaign and a comprehensive campaign is that if you’re going to do a comprehensive campaign and put both annual fund and your capital campaign together, you need to increase the goal, the campaign goal accordingly so that your campaign goal, you are counting three or five years of your annual fundraising.

Jeff Hensley:
Exactly.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
That’s the key difference really. In a combined campaign, you can be talking to the same donor at the same time about their annual fund gift and their capital gift, but they won’t both count towards the campaign goal. If you really slice it and dice it, that’s the core distinction between them and everyone should really be clear about that before they make a simple decision about a complex issue.

Jeff Hensley:
And talk with their CFO and make sure that he or she is clear about it as well.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Right. Yes, exactly. Exactly.

Communicate Clearly with your Donor

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah, I think that that’s such a good point. I mean, whichever road you choose, whichever direction you decide to go in, in terms of how you’re counting for and asking for gifts, it’s critical that your donor understands that you are still raising for both the annual fund and the capital campaign, and that you hope that they will make gifts to both, whether they’re combined or separate, but that your communication is really clear that you need to continue with your annual fund and help it grow even while you’re raising capital dollars.

Amy Eisenstein:
And I think to go back quickly to the issue of donor fatigue, in either scenario, you can approach your donor once, whether you’re asking for two separate gifts or a combined gift. But really they can either happen together or separately, but I think one of the important things is to be very clear with your donors. So if you’re sending an annual appeal separately from your campaign request, you may say, “Beyond the lookout, we are doing a capital campaign. And later this year, we will be talking about that.” And vice versa so that you’re clear, you’re communicating, and that donors know either that there’ll be asked once for a larger gift or that you’re going to be coming back to them.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Actually what I like about combined campaigns as opposed to comprehensive campaigns, is that I think they’re generally clearer. It is clear how the two fit together. And to be able to say to a donor, “We want you to continue on with your annual support of this organization through thick and thin. If you could only make one gift, that’s what you should make it to. And we want you to give a special one-time gift.” That’s a very clear frame. Sometimes I think that these comprehensive campaigns, which Jeff you’re of course right, universities and education institutions often do those. Sometimes I think the purpose of them is to muddy the waters so that after the campaign, people will continue to give at the higher level. And it works, but to me, it makes for a lack of clarity and it’s harder for people to understand. So I generally push particularly smaller organizations without big alumni bases, without reunions, class reunions, which factor into this.

Jeff Hensley:
Exactly.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
I generally encourage organizations not to do comprehensive campaigns.

Jeff Hensley:
Yeah. I agree with that wholeheartedly, particularly for the small nonprofit, a combined campaign where the annual and the capital ask are distinct. But maybe as you say, Amy, presented at the same time to the donor is a really effective way to do it. And that’s not to say that annual giving won’t increase after the campaign in that model either. I’ve seen it happen quite effectively before as well. So again, I think that’s one of the values of having a consultant from the Toolkit to work with you, to kind of help you discern what model is best for your campaign and your organization.

Amy Eisenstein:
Excellent. Anything we’ve missed Andrea, or should we go to final words of wisdom?

Final Words of Wisdom

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Let’s go to final words of wisdom. I think this has been a really clarifying discussion, both about donor fatigue and about this question of comprehensive versus combined campaign. So thank you, Jeff. What are your final words of wisdom for us today, Jeff?

Jeff Hensley:
I really loved Amy’s theme of talk to your donor, get to know their inclinations around how they would like to be communicated with and give, even if that donor is a foundation. It doesn’t matter if they’re an institution or an individual or a family. Keeping those lines of communication open is key and treating them as partners in achieving your mission more than simply funders of that mission is incredibly important to retaining them as donors and avoiding any possible fatigue they might experience.

Amy Eisenstein:
Excellent. Jeff, thank you so much for joining us today. Your words of wisdom ring true. And thank you for bringing all of your experience to our Toolkit clients. We are super lucky to have you as an advisor here at the Toolkit.

Amy Eisenstein:
All right. That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us, everyone. Andrea, thank you. Jeff, thank you.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Jeff.

Amy Eisenstein:
Bye for now.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
We’ll see you soon.

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