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Are You Too Predictable?

May 28, 2018

Yes-n-maybeEarlier this month, I got the kind of call that so many donors get from the organizations they support.

"Derrick, great to hear your voice. It's been a while. I'd like to sit down and share an update on our work, get your thoughts on our progress, and see if you’d be interested in talking about ongoing support."

This from an organization that calls me once a year. Like clockwork. The first week of May — just in time for the organization's fiscal-year-end close.

I know what you're thinking. Shame on them for calling just once a year. But actually, the decision to call annually was at my request. Before I made the request, they would send someone to visit with me over coffee two or three times a year, and we would always have the same conversation:

  • How is my family
  • How is work, and have I traveled to any new destinations lately
  • Quick update on his or her family
  • Quick update on what's new at the organization
  • Update on my last gift and how my dollars were used
  • Earnest request for a gift renewal

Not that there's anything wrong with that kind of exchange or the topics we covered. It's just that it's the same each and every time. As in: predictable. 

It's not really a surprise, because the organization itself is stable, efficient, and reliable. I expect a certain level of impact no matter what I do or how much I give. If I give X, I'll get Y 99 percent of the time.

Which is wonderful for donors who are looking to back sure things — and donors who want their donations to result in predictable programmatic impact. I honor and wholeheartedly support that position. I want that, too.

But the problem with being a predictable organization is that you may wind up being taken for granted. And let's face it, not all donors are looking for predictable. Some donors are attracted to new, different, and out-of-the-box. It's the way they're wired.

Meeting with me on a regular basis to give me the same pro-forma updates conditions me, the donor, to become less interested in what you're doing over time. In fact, the last time I met with the nice development professional from the organization mentioned above, I told her, "You don’t have to meet with me if you have other donors that require your attention." I should have told her that, in the future, an update via email would be just fine.

The danger in all this is that, in being predictable, you eventually lose your relevance for supporters. Nonprofit organizations that stand out for their supporters tend to be very good at helping their supporters understand how their work benefits the populations they serve as well as how that work fits into the larger societal picture.

Confused? Let's compare the conversation I described above to a recent communication I received from another organization. It was an email, and it got my attention:

"Derrick, hoping all is well with you. If you have some spare time and would be interested, I'd like to give an update on changes at the federal level that will impact our work and the precautions we are taking to address those changes. Please know we're doing everything possible to make sure we continue to be there for the people who depend and rely on us — and to partner with other organizations that find themselves in the same situation. Because you've been a loyal supporter in the past, I'd be happy to give you an update on those efforts. Just let me know, and I’ll connect with your assistant to find a time that's convenient."

You know what? I jumped at it. Not because I'm an especially curious person, but because it opened up the possibility of a whole new conversation about other ways I might be able to help the organization, including connecting them with my contacts and networks. When we sat down, our meeting covered the following:

  • How I'm doing and how my family is doing
  • New developments related to my work
  • What's happening at the federal level related to the organization’s work
  • Various strategies under consideration by the organization to address those policy changes
  • The media narrative and how it applies (or doesn't) to the organization's work
  • My interest in keeping in touch or receiving regular updates on the policy changes in question

I now receive biweekly emails from the organization that include a link to an article from a news source related to the organization's issue and what the article means (or doesn't) in terms of the organization's ability to carry out its work. I look forward to those emails, as well as to my meetings with and other communications from the organization.

What does all this have to do with you? Well, like me, you may be a donor who tends to overthink his relationship with the causes you are passionate about. Or you may be a donor who desires predictability. But the reality is, donors tend to support organizations that deliver impact on a consistent, reliable basis and that can help them understand and keep abreast of all the crazy things happening in the world today. Absent the latter, predictability is, well, predictable.

Headshot_derrick_feldmann_2015Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change and the founder and lead researcher for the Millennial Impact Project.

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