Cultivating a long-lasting relationship with donors is often top of mind for nonprofit leaders and a popular topic in this and other publications. But when I read articles about how to attract and retain donors, I am often struck by how none of the tips apply to me: I feel like I’m the one who should be thanking the nonprofits I support. And I suspect there are more grateful donors out there like me.
Before I describe what motivates me to give, let me say a few words about what I don’t find appealing. I know how hard nonprofit leaders and board members already work, so I don’t need them to put in overtime and use their precious evenings calling to thank me. After I’ve made a donation, I don’t respond to repeated appeals for more. Packages of greeting cards, address labels, tote bags, calendars, and other merchandize don’t appeal to me. And please don’t sell or give my information to others. While occasional events highlighting a nonprofit’s work can be impactful, I don’t need to be wined and dined to support you. I believe in the impact, the people, and the work: nonprofits like yours doing the heavy lifting our communities need. My giving money is the easy part.
I am not one of those who is impressed by 10% or, heaven forbid, zero overhead. I know that much of the work of nonprofits is people-intensive, and that costs money. In most cases, nonprofit staff are not getting paid as much as they should. Having unrealistic expectations of low overhead is just asking nonprofits to participate in an accounting shell game.
So what does motivate me to give? I appreciate one short newsletter a year outlining annual accomplishments. Ask me to make one meaningful donation a year. A few photos and short stories about actual beneficiaries of the work of the nonprofit is a nice touch. A brief financial summary for the year is appropriate.
In my giving, I distinguish between community-based nonprofits and national nonprofits. With a few exceptions, I primarily support the former. Many people think we have too many nonprofits; I am not one of them. I see benefit in the collective, both volunteers and staff, pulling together for a common cause. Community-based nonprofits are an important conduit for getting all types of people, who may not otherwise have a channel to collaborate, working together to create a better world, however they define it. This is not to say that I don’t value excellent, efficient, high-impact nonprofits. I certainly do. I just know that even with the best leaders, running a nonprofit can be messy. I care most about the values and reputation the nonprofit has in the community for truly caring about people and the causes they serve.
I contribute to nonprofits in many ways, and I think other grateful donors do too.
First, I make direct donations mostly to community-based nonprofits who impress me as being authentic and providing practical help to those in need. My personal giving also includes a few national organizations that support civil justice, the environment, public media, and healthy food, all subjects I am passionate about. I tend to support all these organizations year after year, at the same or increasing levels of giving.
The second type of giving is a way for me to say “thank you” to my coworkers. Annually I make a contribution to the nonprofit of choice for each member of my senior executive team and my executive assistant. I derive satisfaction from giving to the nonprofit of choice for someone I care about. I’m innately curious to learn about new causes that others who I respect support. And even beyond the grateful donors I’m describing, most people give to causes because they’re asked by someone they care about and respect.
Another part of this sort of giving involves a fund we created at Nonprofits Insurance Alliance. It allows employees to donate through payroll deductions to reimburse our member-nonprofits for incidental risk management expenses. As CEO, I match what employees contribute. We know that no one else is going to get excited about covering the cost of basic life safety equipment, such as fire extinguishers and safety lighting for nonprofits. What better way for insurance people to put our money where our mouth is?
The third way I give is through my chosen career. I landed on this nonprofit insurance company founder and CEO career through a most circuitous route. From secretary to substitute teacher to professional handweaver and environmental educator, I struggled to find a place where I could give back. Without a college degree, that was difficult. Returning to finish my undergraduate and graduate degrees while in my mid-thirties, I stumbled upon what became my life’s work. Nonprofits were being cancelled and nonrenewed for liability insurance and I wrote my graduate thesis on what could be done to create a reliable source of insurance for nonprofits over the long term.
In examining the various types of companies I could create to fix the problem, it occurred to me that an insurance company that existed only to benefit nonprofits acted as a “reverse foundation.” Any efforts which succeeded in keeping the insurance costs low would benefit the nonprofits through lower premiums and, if results were even better than expected, we could simply give money back to nonprofits through a dividend program. Having the fruits of my labor result in money staying with nonprofits, and growing over time, fulfilled my desire to make a sustainable impact throughout my career. The organization I lead has returned $44 million in dividends to other nonprofits and is now putting to work $500 million in assets to protect nonprofits.
I may not be your typical donor, but I know there are more of me out there. If you want to get the attention of a grateful donor like me keep three points in mind:
- Be authentic. Once a year, tell me realistically what you are accomplishing. Don’t be afraid to tell me everything isn’t perfect and that your work is complicated. But be sure to share some successes.
- Don’t include free gifts with your appeals. Ask me if there is anything else I would like from you as appreciation. Be sure to have a box for “nothing” or “just keep doing what you do best.”
- Send me evidence of my donation promptly and ask me how often I would like to hear from you and how.
I encourage other grateful donors to join me in sharing their experience. I am so grateful to those of you doing great work for our communities through nonprofits. I only wish I could do more to show how much I appreciate those efforts.
Pamela E. Davis is the founder, president, and CEO of an affiliated group of charitable risk pools known as Nonprofits Insurance Alliance (NIA), the publisher of Blue Avocado. Pamela has grown NIA from a loan of $1 million from a group of foundations to over $140 million in premiums and $500 million in assets, serving nearly 20,000 nonprofits across the country. All NIA affiliates are 501(c)(3) nonprofits, just like the organizations that they insure. Pamela contributed a chapter on risk management and insurance in the newly-released 2nd edition of Nonprofit Management 101.