What is donor fatigue?
Over the years I have heard donors, fundraisers, C-level executives, and boards discuss donor fatigue and the impact it has on fundraising.
For a moment I would like you to consider this question: Is donor fatigue real or an excuse for poor fundraising performance? The answer is not as cut and dry as you may think. I believe non-profits often use donor fatigue as an excuse to justify not meeting their financial objectives. Donors use it as an excuse to disconnect from a cause that no longer values their support.
For the purposes of this article, let's define donor fatigue as real or perceived hesitance in donors to give or renew their support.
I am a relationship-focused data-driven fundraiser, who believes in the power and value of long-term relationships. One of the benefits of data is it helps non-profits to identify things they are doing well and areas in need of additional attention.
One of the data based measures I use frequently is retention rates. A non-profits retention rate or the number of donors that renew year-to-year. It is a good indicator of your long-term fundraising success. The higher your retention rate, the more likely you are to see continual growth in your fundraising efforts. The lower your retention rate is, the harder you will work to keep your status quo, and the less likely you are to see repeatable fundraising growth. Check out articles I wrote about finding new donors and about the value of knowing a non-profits retention rate in previous blog articles.
I believe donor fatigue is often an excuse and a symptom of fundamental problems in the way non-profits interact with donors and how they view and approach fundraising.
Here are some of the underlining problems, which are often misrepresented as donor fatigue. (In no particular order).
Not properly cultivating donors:
It drives me crazy when I hear non-profit leaders say " the number one reason people don't give a gift is that they haven't been asked." I won't argue that "asking" is an important part of fundraising. At the same time, I think it is important not to put the emphasis on the "ask." Securing a gift is a process. And, only 3-5% of that process is asking for the gift.
When non-profits and fundraisers start to believe that the way to secure more money is by asking more, the focus changes from building, cultivating, and developing relationships to tracking the number of solicitations to donors every month. By focusing on the "ask" rather than the relationship, the donors can easily be seen as a number. When this happens interactions are seen as transactions and donors are seen as ATM machines. A great way to stop donor fatigue is by focusing on the relationship, not the ask.
Assuming why people support your non-profit:
Several years ago I worked with a non-profit who had a major donor who would give annually like clock-work. It was the largest gift for the organization. They got so accustomed to the donor giving, that they started to take the donor's support for granted. They stopped cultivating and developing the relationship. As a result, the donor no longer felt his gift was needed or appreciated, and he stopped giving to the cause.
Please don't ever assume donor's will renew their support. If the only time donors hear from you is when you are looking for money, it is time to re-evaluate your fundraising strategy.
Another trap to avoid is relying too heavily on a few donors for support. It is too easy to take these gifts for granted. I have seen non-profits where a substantial portion of their revenue comes from a handful of donors. The problem with this scenario is it usually doesn't end well. When these donors decide to no longer renew their support the non-profit is left with a large funding deficit. To make matters worse, because they weren't prepared they often don't have any prospects to fill the gap.
Another way to cause donor fatigue is not investing enough resources into your fundraising program. A concerning trend I have noticed during COVID-19 is non-profits cutting their fundraising staff. This means increasing the responsibilities and expectations of the remaining staff. The staff is often forced to prioritize their time and efforts to the essential job requirements. This means cutting the number of time fundraisers spend cultivating and developing relationships. And there is a direct correlation between the amount of time fundraisers spend cultivating donors, donor retention, and long-term fundraising growth.
Additional items which may cause donor fatigue include:
- Setting unrealistic expectations
- Providing unclear Direction. (To your fundraising staff and your donors)
- Goals set on non-profit needs, not on donor potential
- Not being completely transparent in where funds go
- Not being clear in your needs and wants (goals vs budget)
- Misrepresenting urgency
In conclusion, I hope you will take the time to ask yourself this question: Is donor fatigue real or an excuse for poor fundraising performance? The answer is not as cut and dry as you may think. I believe non-profits often use donor fatigue as an excuse to justify not meeting their financial objectives. Donors use it as an excuse to disconnect from a cause that no longer values their support.