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Communicating with Donors: Interview with Fundraiser Harvey McKinnon

Harvey McKinnon, author of The 11 Questions Every Donor Asks and the Answers All Donors Crave, recently spoke with his publisher about donor relations. GuideStar has published an excerpt from the book, and we're pleased to share Mr. McKinnon's additional thoughts with you.

One of the questions you cite in your book is "How will I be treated?" In your experience, are donors treated well today?

I'll let you judge for yourself. In a recent "mystery shopper test" we sent gifts to 28 hospitals on the same day. One organization sent back a warm thank you immediately. But the average response for the others was four weeks. And one hospital didn't respond with a thank you and receipt for 90-something days.

Ouch! Ninety days?

A long time, for sure. A client of ours has a great policy. As soon as they receive a gift of a thousand or more, they immediately call the donor. The person making the call has the highest-ranking title in the office that day. A few months ago, they received $10,000 in the mail. But there were no senior staff around—none. So the gift processor picked up the phone herself. She thanked the donor and learned that he'd sent $10,000 to five organizations, and her group was the first to thank him. To recognize their efficiency and how they treated him, he gave an additional stock gift of $122,000. I'm pretty sure the other four organizations don't know what they lost.

You talk a lot about storytelling in your book. You're convinced it's critical in fundraising, aren't you?

Yes. And for the simple reason that stories make needs come alive. You might call them the connective tissue. Right this minute in Niger there are a thousand starving children, you tell me. But that's a number, an abstraction to me. Tell me the story of Samira—so hungry she digs through the garbage for a fruit pit with pulp on it—and I begin to understand the desperation. I get emotionally connected. I start to visualize the suffering child and want to help.

Generally speaking, what about the solicitor matters most to the would-be donor?

Trust is absolutely essential. Without it, a gift is unlikely. Trust in and of itself may not be enough, but it's the critical component.

And what's not so important?

How smart you are. I know some brilliant people who aren't good person-to-person fundraisers. They don't connect well with people. They're not great at reading social cues and can't engage in the kind of conversation that motivates donors to part with their money. And then there are other fundraisers of average intelligence, who because of their charm, passion, and integrity raise a fortune.

Urgency is a word you hear a lot in fundraising, that donors need to feel their gift is needed NOW. That's easy to communicate when there's a disaster or when, for example, you're a health agency fighting a deadly disease. But that doesn't describe the mission of many organizations. What are they to do?

The first thing I'd say is tell a compelling story. If you speak of a child in need, a river that'll only be saved if action is taken now, the donor is more likely to understand the urgency. Another approach is to use deadlines or milestones. For instance, you can send a child such as Claire to a summer camp if you respond by May 31. Helpful, too, are specific dollar targets. If you can say that a $5,000 scholarship will help a student enroll in college and achieve their dreams, that adds urgency.

By economy of scale, a national organization, whether it's engaged in health or social welfare or youth development, is able to spend less per dollar on fundraising than a grassroots group or a start-up agency with perfectly noble goals. Is it really fair, then, for a potential donor to put a lot of emphasis on overhead?

I can understand why rating agencies, and even some donors, want a simple tool to evaluate organizations. It's partly because they have so many choices. But I'm convinced that looking only at overhead and ratios is a horrible metric on which to base your giving. What you want to look for is impact. Keep in mind that it's all too easy for organizations to allocate funds in a slightly dishonest way. Meaning money that should really be allocated to fundraising or overhead is conveniently counted in the "education category." This means that nonprofits that are more transparent and honest will be penalized. That’s wrong. I give to a number of organizations that spend practically all their money on overhead because I know they're going to grow, and I like what they're doing.

Fundraising through social media—right now is it real or much ado about not much?

For emergency campaigns it can be lucrative. Social media can also work reasonably well with peer-to-peer fundraising. The problem here, though, is that people aren't giving to the cause, which they frequently don't care about, they're giving to their friend. And they're difficult to convert to long-term donors. If you think the attrition rate for direct mail is bad, take a close look at donors who come in through social media. It's appalling.

Anything we can do about it?

Yes. Don't rely solely on the Internet to renew online donors. From our experience, and it's extensive, you have to try to convert these individuals using a combination of channels, including the mail and telephone.

Pick the most important of the 11 questions in your book and tell me why.

First a caveat. The most important question varies from donor to donor. There's virtually nothing that applies to 100 percent of any population. But if you forced me to choose one question that's most important to the majority of donors it would be: Will my gift make a difference? All else equal, if you can answer that question honestly, and compellingly, your chances of getting a gift soar.

And I assume since you discussed it last, the question "How will you measure results?" isn't as pressing for donors?

It's extremely important for a certain percentage of people—usually high-dollar donors. But many others simply trust that a well-known organization will use their money responsibly. But make no mistake about it. Organizations that fail to report back on their successes—essentially how a donor's gift was used—ultimately raise less money and lose more donors.

© 2013, Emerson & Church, Publishers

Communicating-with-Donors-Interview_Harvey-McKinnonHarvey McKinnon is one of North America’s leading fundraising experts and president of the Vancouver/Toronto-based fundraising consultancy Harvey McKinnon Associates. In addition to The 11 Questions Every Donor Asks and the Answers All Donors Crave, his works include Hidden Gold (Taylor); the audio CD How Today's Rich Give (Jossey-Bass); Tiny Essentials of Monthly Committed Giving (White Lion Press); and (as co-author) the international bestseller The Power of Giving (Tarcher/Penguin), which was selected as an Amazon Best Book for 2005.

Topics: Communications