The very phrase is enough to make any nonprofit director’s mind go … Ugh:
Donors are human beings. They tire. They lose heart. They have money struggles. They lose sight of the problem. They feel nagged and taken for granted. They start suspecting the people they support aren’t “helping themselves out”, or worse … behave as if they’re owed the support.
In fact, if you’re honest with yourself … even you, the nonprofit worker, succumb to fatigue.
If you were in business for yourself, you’d still have a dollar figure as an objective which, once achieved, would let you plunk yourself down on the sofa, hoist up your feet, and say … “Mission Accomplished!”
A human being can endure any hardship, or push through any gym workout, for only so long before their muscles … and their mind … rebel.
How big is that goal, really? Do I really want it that badly?
Donors are no different.
There comes a point when they start longing for the reason for the cause, the problem to be permanently solved.
Problem is … it isn’t, no matter how desperate they are to believe it.
You know it by the litany of pain and soul-ache in the beneficiaries who find their way to your door (and inbox).
Now you’ve got two struggles. The one that put you into this game in the first place …
… and the one to dissuade your hitherto-faithful soldiers from losing heart.
Fortunately … there are time-honored techniques for combating donor fatigue.
They aren’t foolproof. You will always suffer some donor attrition – for nonprofits, it averages 55%, as we shared in this article 2 years ago.
You will also have some faithful supporters who stick with you through thick and thin, and are more tireless than you.
But in the middle … is the majority whom you have to continually work to keep. And the tools and techniques we’re about to show you work very well for that purpose.
Here are 6 of the best:
(Side note: If, at any point, a question mark pops up in your mind, we are happy to help. Just book a call.
6 Ways to Combat Donor Fatigue (Table of Contents)
- Personal Stories
- Volunteer Opportunities
- Recurring Donation Options
- Donor Spotlights
- Community Building
1. Bold transparency with donors
Transparency is powerful –
Because we live in a world where trust is a scarce commodity, and getting scarcer.
Donors need to know where their hard-earned money goes. Being open about fund allocation builds trust, and assures supporters that their contributions are making a tangible difference.
When donors see the direct impact of their contributions, they’re less likely to experience fatigue. They can visualize the change, fostering a sense of involvement and satisfaction.
Being upfront with what you do, and how you do it, minimizes any potential misinformation or misconceptions about the organization’s activities and use of funds. (It doesn’t stop such errors, but donors are generally quite forgiving if they have learned that everything you say can be trusted.)
It’s called What-you-see-is-what-you-get.
Here are some simple ways to be transparent with donors:
- Detailed Reports. Periodically share financial statements or breakdowns of project expenditures. This can be done annually, bi-annually, or after the completion of a significant project.
- Open Forums. Host Q&A sessions or webinars where donors can ask questions about the organization’s operations, finances, and projects.
- Impact Stories. Regularly highlight stories or case studies showcasing how donations were used and the outcomes achieved.
- Prompt Communication. If there’s an unforeseen challenge or change in the project direction, inform donors promptly. It’s always better they hear it from you first.
However … (there’s always a however) …
It’s possible to overdo it.
There’s a fine line between being open … and overwhelming donors with too much information. Avoid sharing every minor detail that might not be of interest, or that could confuse donors without the necessary context.
Balance is key.
Nonprofits walk a tightrope of sharing enough to maintain trust without burdening donors with excessive details. Strive for clarity and relevance in communications.
Ensure that in the process of being transparent, the privacy of beneficiaries, staff, and other stakeholders is never compromised. Sharing stories or data should never violate anyone’s rights or dignity.
And when communicating about projects in diverse communities, it’s vital to approach everything with cultural sensitivity. What’s acceptable or praiseworthy in one culture can be viewed VERY differently in another.
Transparency isn’t merely about opening the books.
It’s about cultivating a relationship with donors based on trust and mutual respect. In an era where information is abundant …
… it’s the organizations who prioritize open, honest, and thoughtful communication who will keep donor fatigue at bay.
2. Tell Real, Personal Stories
Human beings are story-seeking machines.
In fact, there seems to be a classic storyline framework hard-coded into most human brains. It’s called The Hero’s Journey, and was first popularized by writer Joseph Campbell.
A Character … with a Problem … meets a Guide … who gives them a Plan … and Calls Them To Action … thereby circumventing Failure … and achieving Success.
Watch nearly any famous movie, or read any famous book, and you’ll see some variation of it.
Luke meets Yoda. Frodo meets Gandalf.
But even a snippet of a story … a story of human pain, and someone demonstrating courage in rising above it …
… is enough to capture donors’ attention and think … I want to hang around with these people. I want to keep this going.
A real human story tells the listener that they are not alone. There are other people out there suffering the same pain and trauma as they are.
The Resonance of Personal Stories in Combating Donor Fatigue
The narrative of a singular, tangible human experience – often known as a personal story – can be a profound tool for nonprofits.
We’re going to unpack three reasons why personal stories are so potent.
1. Emotional Connection
Humans are inherently moved by stories.
Personal narratives humanize statistics and create a relatable, emotional connection with donors.
Kimberley and Aaron Novod of New Orleans lost their premature infant son at 20 days old. They wanted no parents to ever suffer the same grief they did. So they turned their grief into something positive, and launched Saul’s Light to support the local neonatal intensive care unit.
A story like that, born out of deep emotional pain, is a compelling argument for potential donors.
2. Demonstrates Impact
Through an individual’s journey, donors can witness the tangible difference their contributions make, reinforcing the value of their support.
About Fresh got started when the only grocery store in Josh Trautwein’s neighborhood closed down for a year, to renovate. Many of the locals didn’t have the transportation means or schedule flexibility to drive to stores further afield. So Josh turned an old bus into a mobile grocery store, bringing healthy food to them.
What was a potentially huge disruption to the lives of his neighbors … his nonprofit prevented.
3. Motivates Action
Stories … particularly those of triumph or palpable change … can inspire others to get involved or continue their support.
Daniel Andrew is a Florida fishing guide, whose business used to be quite lucrative for him.
Then water quality (and the number of fish) in the estuaries he navigated … started declining, due to terrible water management practices. His business was taking a hit. And not just his.
So he started Captains for Clean Water, to lobby elected officials and advocate for sustainable water management and diversion of lake water south towards the Everglades. Any kind of political lobbying is slow and painstaking, but he’s making progress.
Are there any storytelling best practices?
Yes. Read on.
1. Story-driven Campaigns: Center fundraising or awareness campaigns around the journey of an individual or a community.
2. Regular Updates: As a follow-up, share progress stories of past beneficiaries, providing a continuum of care and impact.
3. Multimedia Formats: Use videos, podcasts, or written testimonials, tailoring the medium to the story’s essence and the audience’s preferences. Videos are particularly powerful if they display the nonprofit stakeholders in action or conversation. They’re the equivalent of Showing, rather than Telling.
4. Engage in Events: Invite beneficiaries to speak at fundraisers or webinars, letting them share their experiences firsthand.
When Might Personal Stories Not Be Ideal?
Occasionally … personal narratives are counterproductive. Two examples:
Sharing too many stories can desensitize donors. It’s essential to strike a balance to ensure each story retains its impact.
A steady drip of stories is better than a huge blast of them.
2. Sensitive Situations
If sharing a story might re-traumatize an individual, or if the narrative is too distressing for donors … opt for a more general approach.
And be ethnically sensitive. Ethnic conflict, even from afar, can run deep.
Example: An immigrant support service in Ottawa, Canada, was struggling to understand why so few recently-arrived Somali immigrants took up their services.
What they didn’t know was that their promotional material was being published by a Somali-Canadian whose name identified them to Somalis as belonging to a particular Somali tribe.
Problem: Most of the immigrants were from a conflicting tribe.
So strong were the immigrants’ memories, and so deep the distrust, that even though they were half a world away, they would never trust the service on offer as long as that individual’s name appeared on the literature.
Some Nonprofit-specific considerations:
1. Consent is Paramount
Always obtain informed and clear consent from individuals before sharing their stories.
They need to understand how and where their story will be used.
2. Preserve Dignity
Share stories that uplift and empower, rather than those that exploit an individual’s vulnerabilities.
Don’t be overly dramatic.
Just be real and honest. Authenticity resonates more deeply than a sensationalized version of reality.
One of the most successful copywriters of the last 20 years is a Scots-Englishman named Alan Forrest-Smith. The formatting of his autobiography The Accidental Copywriter is absolutely dreadful. Spelling mistakes on almost every page … and this from a professional copywriter!
His readers (and clients) don’t care.
Because he is ruthlessly honest about his lived experiences, what he thinks, and why. The terrible formatting and spelling? They just make him real and personable, someone you’d love to meet.
Tell your stories in a way that lets people get to know you too, and makes them want to know you more.
4. Cultural Respect
Be mindful of cultural nuances. Ensure that the portrayal respects the individual’s cultural context and doesn’t inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes.
To wrap up, personal stories can be a beacon of hope and a testament to change. They bridge the gap between donors and beneficiaries, transforming abstract figures into living narratives. Nonprofits, while harnessing this power, should tread with empathy and responsibility, ensuring every story uplifts and authentically represents the voices they serve.
5. Ask Hard Questions (or Questions No One Has Ever Thought to Ask)
The Hunger Games trilogy didn’t become a blockbuster film series because of the quality of the writing.
In fact, the writing quality and character development was mediocre.
But the story? And the questions it asked of the reader? Powerful.
They made the books very hard to put down, and the film series captivating. They tapped into a nerve that society was feeling at the time.
Why do an elite 1% few live in luxury while 99% eke out a hand-to-mouth existence?
Why are we obsessed with fine (and ridiculously uncomfortable) clothes, makeup, and keeping up with the Joneses?
Why can’t women be hunters? Why are some people less equal than others?
The questions don’t necessarily have to be hard. They just have to push back the boundaries of the Possible.
The Chelsea Hutchison Foundation, for example, is named after a young girl who died from a seizure in her sleep.
It was started by asking, Can dogs detect when an epileptic is about to have a seizure? And can they be trained to go get help beforehand?
Turns out, the answer to both questions was Yes.
When Brian Anderson became first-time father of a baby girl, he asked How come there are plenty of support groups for new moms, but hardly any for new dads? And none (that he could find) for dads with daughters?
Presto. Dad with Daughters was born.
Initially with just about 50 dads, it skyrocketed to 127,000 rapidly.
Kenton Lee’s experience working with Kenyan orphanages led him to ask Why do we force kids to get new shoes every time they grow a shoe size?
Why can’t shoes grow with feet? Children often go up a shoe size every year, but if you’re an orphan, you probably don’t have money lying around for new shoes.
Because International got started to develop a shoe with material flexible enough to grow 5 sizes before a child has to get a new pair of shoes.
By the way … if any of this is raising alarm bells in your head …
If you’re suddenly realizing you haven’t been engaging your donor base, and you’re not sure where to start …
We can help with some simple, nurturing emails that we’ve deployed successfully for our clients in the past.
If that could solve a problem for you … just ask us here. We’d be happy to put something like that to work for you!
3. Provide Volunteer Opportunities
Where possible, create non-monetary ways to support the cause.
Engaging supporters beyond monetary donations is a smart move for nonprofits, and what better way than through volunteer opportunities?
Why are volunteer opportunities powerful?
1. It’s Tangible Engagement
Volunteering allows donors to witness and contribute to the organization’s work firsthand, deepening their connection.
2. It Puts Their Skills To Use
Donors sometimes have more time to give than money. By volunteering, they can leverage their skills and expertise for the cause.
3. It Builds a Sense of Community
Volunteer events foster a sense of community among donors, beneficiaries, and the organization. And the bonds created can be long-lasting.
How and When to Offer Volunteer Opportunities
1. Diverse Roles
Provide a variety of roles to cater to different skill sets and interests, from on-ground work to virtual tasks.
2. Orientation Sessions
Ensure that volunteers understand their roles, the organization’s mission, and how their contributions fit into the larger picture.
3. Regular Engagement
Host monthly or quarterly volunteer events, allowing donors to schedule in advance and maintain consistent engagement.
4. Feedback Mechanism
Allow volunteers to share their experiences, suggestions, and areas of improvement.
Are There Times When Volunteer Opportunities Aren’t Suitable?
Yes. Certain scenarios call for caution, or even forgoing volunteer participation.
Tasks that deal with vulnerable populations, or require specialized skills might NOT be suitable for general volunteers.
And over-reliance of volunteers (in lieu of permanent, paid staff) can jeopardize project efficiency and success.
Volunteers, no matter the goodness of their hearts, are not always fully altruistic in their motives. Because they are unpaid, they may feel their time and effort is their own to control, and they do not have to take orders from anyone. For the nonprofit manager, who sees the big picture day-in and day-out … this can be problematic.
Volunteers may even be decidedly un-altruistic, and use the nonprofit to satisfy internal motivations and take liberties that they never could get away with in paid positions.
A Few Rules of Thumb in Providing Volunteer Opportunities:
1. Training is Essential: To make the most of volunteer time and to ensure everyone’s safety, proper training and guidelines are crucial.
2. Recognition Matters: Acknowledging volunteer efforts through certificates, appreciation events, or spotlight stories can boost morale and encourage long-term commitment.
3. Clear Communication: Clearly define roles, expectations, and time commitments to ensure volunteers know what’s anticipated and can effectively contribute.
4. Cultural and Ethical Sensitivity: If volunteers are working in diverse or unfamiliar communities, brief them on cultural norms and ethical considerations.
4. Provide means for automated, recurring support
Encouraging regular contributions (rather than one-off donations) can be a game-changer for nonprofits.
Why are recurring donation options powerful?
1. Funding is More Predictable
A steady stream of donor income allows organizations to plan more effectively and assures sustainability.
2. It’s Easier for Donors
Automatic monthly or yearly donations mean faithful supporters don’t have to remember when to donate. The process becomes seamless and forgettable, and significantly reduces donor attrition.
3. It Deepens Donors’ Commitment
Recurring donations typically strengthen a donor’s long-term faith in the cause.
And you have a ready means of identifying who your most faithful supporters are, and to whom you need to be communicating particularly well.
4. You Need to Ask Them Less
You don’t have to go cap-in-hand to as many people, or as often.
Is There A Best Time And Way to Promote Recurring Donations?
You can say: “Hey, instead of giving $120 at the end of the year, like you did last month, would you consider spreading that out, and giving $10 per month?”
Then you can promote the benefit that monthly donations have for the nonprofit, and the bigger difference that a $10 monthly gift has vs the $120 annual gift.
2. Tax Return Season
Not because the need is any different, but because this is a time when most people are thinking about their charitable donations. It’s an issue that’s in front of them, so it’s easier to get their attention.
3. Highlight the Benefits
Emphasize how regular contributions, even if smaller, can make a significant impact over time.
4. Flexible Options
Allow donors to choose the frequency, amount, and payment method for their donations. Also, ensure an easy process to modify or cancel their commitment.
5. Reminders and Updates
Send periodic reminders about upcoming deductions and provide annual summaries of their total contributions and impact.
Are There Instances When Recurring Donations Are Not Ideal?
1. Short-Term Projects
For campaigns with a defined end date or target, one-time donations might be more suitable.
2. Donor Preferences
Some donors might prefer making larger, less frequent contributions based on their financial planning.
A Few Rules of Thumb for Encouraging Donors to Automate Their Support:
1. Transparency: Ensure that the terms and conditions, including how to modify or cancel the recurring donation, are clear and easily accessible.
2. Regular Acknowledgment: Since the donations are automated, there’s a risk of donors feeling unrecognized. Regular thank-you notes and impact reports can counter this.
3. Continuous Engagement: Just because a donor has committed to a recurring donation doesn’t mean engagement should wane. Continue to update and involve them in the organization’s journey.
5. Donor spotlights
Recognizing the people who fuel your nonprofit is huge when it comes to combating donor fatigue.
Enter: Donor Spotlights. This approach involves highlighting specific donors, their stories, and their contributions.
This doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as mentioning someone’s name in passing in a newsletter. Or it can be a longer article or blog post.
Why are Donor Spotlights Powerful?
1. Recognition and Appreciation: By spotlighting donors, organizations show genuine gratitude, acknowledging the crucial role donors play.
2. Inspires Others: Seeing peers or community members recognized can inspire potential donors to get involved, hoping to make a similar impact.
3. Humanizes the Cause: Donor narratives can resonate with potential supporters, providing a more personal touch than mere statistics.
How and When to Spotlight Donors
1. Diverse Stories: Ensure a mix of donor backgrounds, amounts donated, and motivations, illustrating that every donor, regardless of contribution size, has a unique story worth telling.
2. Multimedia Platforms: Use newsletters, social media, videos, or events to showcase donor spotlights, depending on what best suits the narrative.
3. In Their Words: Whenever possible, let donors share their journey in their voice, be it through testimonials, interviews, or written narratives.
4. Regular Features: Consider making this a monthly or quarterly feature, maintaining consistent engagement with your community.
Are There Instances When Donor Spotlights Are Not Ideal?
Yes, two at least:
1. Privacy Concerns
Some donors are indifferent to the limelight. (They’re already quite motivated.)
And some outright want to avoid it.
Last thing you want is to go to the effort of publicly recognizing a long-time supporter, only for them to be furious and end their support! So be quite sure beforehand that they will appreciate the recognition.
When in doubt, secure their informed consent before spotlighting any donor.
If overdone, donor spotlighting can shift the focus from the organization’s cause to a perceived “popularity contest”.
And that will alienate some donors (and prospective donors). You don’t want that either.
Other Rules of Thumb for Donor Spotlighting:
1. Authenticity is Key: It’s essential to ensure spotlights don’t come across as fabricated or overly polished. (See section 1 above.)
2. All Donors Matter: Ensure that your communications emphasize the importance of every contribution, big or small.
3. Engagement With the Entire Community: Encourage feedback, reactions, or even nominations for the next spotlight.
4. Use it to Inspire and Connect, Not Just Recognize: By weaving a tapestry of individual narratives, nonprofits can create a community bound by shared goals and mutual appreciation.
5. Don’t Mention $Dollar Figures in Spotlights: Most people have some level of discomfort around money – especially if their financial donations are disproportionately large, and might attract so-called gold-diggers.
6. Community building
In the heart of any thriving nonprofit lies a pulsating community.
Building and nurturing this community is more than just networking—it’s about creating a collective identity, a shared purpose, and mutual support.
Your supporters may have come for the Cause …
… but they will stay for the Community.
Why is Community Building Powerful?
1. Shared Identity
A robust community gives donors a sense of belonging.
They’re no longer solitary supporters; they’re part of something much bigger than themselves – a collective movement making real change.
2. Feedback and Insights
A close-knit community offers feedback, new ideas, and insights.
These can be clues to areas of new growth or redirection.
3. Resilience in Numbers
In challenging times …
… (and people almost always feel they’re living in challenging times now) …
… a cohesive community can rally people together, providing both emotional and financial support to see the mission through.
How to Foster That Sense of Community:
1. Regular Events
Host regular get-togethers, online or offline.
Workshops, webinars, social gatherings … all will help.
Online and offline each have their advantages. Ideally, use both. But generally, people value offline, in-person events more.
Direct, physical, human touch … being able to pump real flesh, and look someone in the eye without a screen in the way … goes further to building those invisible human bonds.
2. Engagement Platforms
Establish forums or social media groups exclusive to donors, facilitating conversations and collaborations.
This can bring added expenses, but doesn’t have to. There are plenty of freemium software platforms, and depending on the size of your donor base, they might be adequate.
And it can be as simple as creating a group for the community on WhatsApp or Telegram. (Although the older your donor base is, the more likely they are to find the technology challenging.
3. Collaborative Projects
Launch initiatives in which donors can participate directly, collaborating on projects or brainstorming solutions.
4. Feedback Loops
Ensure there are channels for donors to voice their opinions, share experiences, or suggest improvements.
When Community Building Gets Tricky:
1. Size Challenges
As the community grows, personal connections inevitably dilute.
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has become famous for his Dunar number, which suggests that the human brain can handle up to 150 stable and significant human-human relationships.
So striking a balance between inclusivity and intimacy becomes challenging if your nonprofit’s support base grows to where it becomes impossible for individual donors to connect with all the others.
2. Diverse Opinions and Conflicts
Surprise, surprise. Human beings don’t always see eye to eye.
With a melting pot of perspectives, conflicts are bound to arise. Proper moderation and conflict resolution become paramount.
Other Community-Building Rules of Thumb:
1. Inclusive Spaces
Do everything reasonable in your power to make your community spaces – both virtual and physical – welcoming and inclusive.
(Bearing in mind what’s been said above about accommodating donors from diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and abilities.)
2. Regular Updates
This is a repetition of what’s been said above, but keep the community informed.
Regular updates about organizational activities foster a sense of involvement. People hate to feel they’ve been left out.
Donors who feel marginalized … do not stick around.
3. Value Every Voice
While some donors might be more vocal, it’s crucial to ensure that quieter voices also find their space and are heard.
So-called wallflowers still have views and opinions. They want to be heard too.
They just need greater confidence that you, the nonprofit director/manager … actually want to hear them.
4. Safety and Moderation
Especially in online spaces, ensure that discussions remain respectful, and any form of harassment or negativity, or (God forbid) abuse … is addressed promptly.
In a nutshell, community building isn’t just about increasing numbers—it’s about deepening connections. For nonprofits, this communal spirit can act as a buffer against donor fatigue, providing a rejuvenated sense of purpose and camaraderie. When managed with sensitivity, inclusivity, and active engagement, community-building efforts can significantly elevate the collective spirit and commitment of donors, propelling the organization’s mission forward.
The Antidote to Donor Fatigue, Simplified
As a nonprofit director/manager, you will never get to a place where you don’t have to worry about Donor Fatigue anymore.
But if you’re diligent … you can get to where you can worry about it less, and you have some powerful tactics for inhibiting the donor leakage.
This article gives you 6 tools for staying on top of it. There are others, but these are the best we know.
And as mentioned earlier, a simple way to get started is with a simple sequence of nurturing emails. They don’t have to be long or complicated, and we know how to deploy a sequence like for you.
By all means, if you could benefit from this, or support on any of the tools mentioned in this article … just ask! We’re always happy to help!