Feelin' Groovy

It seems like we’re all settling into some form of “normal” relative to COVID and the upheaval in our lives. School’s in session, business is taking place, families and friends are finding comfortable ways of communicating with each other, and nonprofits are looking to the future and stabilizing their organizations.

For most nonprofits, the question still remains about how best to interact with donors — and how to raise money to meet the budget in real-time.

In my mind, it’s a great time to continue, if not strengthen, your relationship with your donors. “Cultivate” and “Steward” are words that are used often, and although I love the concept of “stewarding”, that term feels impersonal and cold. Does anyone really want to be “stewarded”? It sounds a bit like being herded. No warm and fuzzy there. Better words might be “engaging”, “interacting with”, or even “listening to”.

So what should a fundraiser/nonprofit professional be doing at this point in time to keep donors interested in supporting your organization? How can a development person recruit new donors when the "standard process” has been interrupted?

Let your donors in. Engage with your volunteers. Be genuine, authentic, and honest.

And when you do, everybody wins.

How can that be, you ask? If I’m not securing the donations I need to deliver, how do I win?

Then answer lies in years of research into the benefits of volunteering and giving. Both volunteering and giving (or either one) provide myriad emotional and psychological benefits to the volunteer or donor, and, simply said, they create happiness. Happier people — especially when their happiness was facilitated by your nonprofit — are more loyal, more concerned about the health of your organization, and, therefore, more likely to donate (and donate again).

So instead of thinking of fundraising as transactional, think of it as providing happiness. With nearly 41% of Americans surveyed reporting at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition as of this past June (and the number is likely higher now), your donors and volunteers need you more than ever. For anyone who has been impacted by or is connected to your nonprofit or your cause, a non-transactional engagement by you is likely to create or enhance a long-term connection — and help these “fans” of your cause become happier.

So how do you accomplish this?

First, you have to let go of the transactional mindset. Yes, we know you need to raise that money, but for many people, you need to help them feel connected, heard, and cared for first.

Next, look at not only your prospect list but pull together names and contact information on anyone and everyone who has been connected to or strongly interested in your organization and/or your cause. (Read: Not just donors!) Then reach out to them to tell them — honestly — how your nonprofit is dealing with COVID. Let them know about the hard choices you’ve had to make in order to protect the future of your organization. Let them know about the successes you’ve had — against all odds, at times — during these difficult past months. Tell them about staff and constituents who have overcome challenges while staying committed to your cause.

Finally, ask for help! Whether it’s via an online survey or focus groups or just a special opportunity to engage with your organization’s leaders (i.e. a Zoom webcast with a healthy amount of Q&A offered), engage these people with an eye towards creating a relationship that’s more of a caring partnership than the usual donor/fundraiser paradigm.

As I wrote about in my recent post, “Like Oil and Water”, volunteers are a critical asset to your organization — extremely loyal, but often overlooked. Engage them, help them refocus their anxiety into feeling good about helping you do good, and everyone wins.

How often do you get to do your job, support your mission, and also create happiness?


I’m thrilled to share my first book, Philanthropy Revolution, with the world. I’m lifting the lid on our charitable sector with an authentic account that describes exactly how outdated the sector has become and why it’s at risk of collapse. Get your copy here.

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- Lisa

The KISS Method*

Snail mail, email, text solicitations, phone calls — regardless of the vehicle you use for your fundraising “ask”/pitch, remember to keep it simple.

Just like in an invitation to any kind of event, whether it’s a kid’s birthday party, an open house or a gala, you know that you always want to include “who, what, why, where”, right? Don’t forget to also include an email address and phone number. I know that phone numbers are sometimes tricky when staff is working remotely, but surely there is some way that someone who wants to donate can speak to someone to get their questions answered. Ideally you give a direct phone number (i.e. an office number that “rings through” to a cell or home number), but if that’s not possible, then at least ensure that somebody on your team will check messages throughout the day and return calls promptly. (If that “designated staff member” goes on vacation or is unavailable, make sure that someone else is assigned to monitor the calls on a daily basis.) You all work too hard to have your solicitations finally pan out, but then the donation doesn’t happen because the donor can’t get a question answered.

The same goes for emails. A donor who’s decided to donate, but has a question, doesn’t want to wait several days or more to get an email response before sending in their payment.

Also, make sure that your standard information for payment makes sense. Although many donors pay by credit card, many pay by other means. Make sure that alternative options for payment are included on all your solicitations (including your website.) If you accept checks or online forms of payment, say so in your collateral. If you are happy to accept Donor Advised Fund donations, say so — and give the donor the precise information they’ll need to make that donation. (If you’re not familiar with Donor Advised Funds, get familiar with them. This is super easy, and not clearly showing the Tax ID number and mailing address for a DAF check on your website — and actually encouraging donations from DAF’s — is absolutely leaving money on the table. )

If you’ll take appreciated stock, say so, and make it easy for the donor to make that transaction happen.

In addition, here’s a part that many organizations forget, and it’s important. Make sure that all your staff, at all levels, and your lay leaders, too, understand what forms of payment you accept. The first step in receiving a piece of the $121B (billion) Donor Advised Fund pie is to actually understand what they are and how the transaction works. You don’t need to know the ins and outs tax-wise — you just need to know how to make it easy for the donor to give to your organization.

Finally, now is a good time to do the following exercise (based on the “Secret Shopper” concept). Pretend, just for a few minutes, that you’re a donor who wants to give to your organization, and you’ve never donated to this nonprofit before. Create a persona that makes sense to you — as if you (as you) were the donor. Decide if the donor (you) would want to donate online, or send in a check, or ? Then go through the motions and make sure it all works. Is the online form easy to use? Do the questions on the form make sense? (And do you (the company) really need the answers to all of the questions you’re asking? Are you using that data?) Ideally, you would then make a donation — even $5 — and see what happens. Is there a nice “thank you” message that appears on the site? Is the language in the acknowledgement what you want it to be? Does it come in a timely manner? Are you then put into an appropriate database to encourage future engagement?

If there’s a phone number, call it and see what a donor would experience. Is the voicemail appropriate? (Ideally here, you would leave a friend’s name and see how long it takes to get a return call….)

Most fundraisers know that recurring (i.e. monthly) donations are a growing piece of the puzzle. Do your website and solicitations always include a request or opportunity to sign up for a recurring donation — and is it easy to find and to sign up for?

Have you ever been in a department store trying to find someone to take your money, only to get frustrated and change your mind about purchasing? The same is true for donations — make it clear, simple and easy for donors to contribute. If you don’t, you’re spending time and resources getting a donor teed up, only to have them walk away.

*Learn about the KISS method here.

Can't get enough? Follow me on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn, and Pinterest. And please feel free to share.

- Lisa

The Philanthropy Revolution Begins

I’m thrilled to announce that my new book, PHILANTHROPY REVOLUTION:  How To Inspire Donors, Build Relationships, And Make A Difference, goes on sale today (thank you HarperCollins for producing such a beautiful book).  If you know me or follow my blog, you know that I’m on a mission to save giving.

If you’d like to order a copy, please go to Amazon; if you prefer to support independent booksellers, please visit IndieBound.

My publisher created an amazing video for the book, which I would be grateful if you would share across your social media platforms today!  Here is the video:  

Thank you all for your support.  Each and every one of you can help “Save Giving”!

Best, Lisa

P.S. If you’ve already read the book (the e-book’s been out for a while), or when you do, please write a review on one of the bookseller sites above. Thanks!

Philanthropy Revolution

Gratitude and the Corresponding Secretary

There’s been a fair amount of discussion lately among fundraisers about saying “thank you” to donors, including in my “What Would Emily Post say?” column a few weeks ago. That article discussed the strange sentiment on the part of nonprofits (and a donor or two) that saying “thank you” is inappropriate, and even pandering. I strongly disagree, but I suppose everyone is entitled to their opinion. (As a donor, it’s safe to assume that I will not be giving money to any of the organizations or fundraisers who subscribe to the “no need to say thank you” school of thinking.)

Let’s just assume that you, my reader, agree with me that saying “thank you” is very important. In fact, I found this wonderful piece on Forbes Life called “Five Reasons to Write Thank-You Notes”, and I recommend that everyone read it. Author Nancy Olson’s five reasons are:

  • It’s the right thing to do.

  • Jimmy Fallon does it. (!)

  • It sets you apart.

  • Gratitude is good for the brain (check out the research project referred to here!)

  • Handwritten letters perpetuate a very important part of our culture.

Agreed on all counts, and for today, I want to focus on the handwritten letters part.

Several years ago, I was on the board of a nonprofit that had a wonderful woman on staff whose main job was to manage the senior staff person’s calendar, to write certificates and to compose and write thank you letters. She had been at the nonprofit for decades, and there was some concern that the organization’s resources shouldn’t be used for someone to do those seemingly arcane tasks.

I was definitely in the minority when I suggested that the organization modify this person’s job description to anoint her as the official “hostess” and “corresponding secretary” of the organization. In past decades, the corresponding secretary was a real thing, and that person actually was in charge of, well, correspondence. The thought was that having someone 100% responsible for making sure that people are welcomed appropriately and are thanked in a timely and thoughtful matter would have a positive impact on membership and the organization’s “brand”. This woman wrote the most personal, lovely, handwritten thank you notes that I’ve ever seen, and I, as a member, had felt a little thrill when I saw her handwriting on a letter addressed to me. She also made thoughtful phone calls to members when needed, and these were equally lovely.

The National Council of Nonprofits has an excellent article called “Showing Gratitude to Donors”. The piece suggests that “Expressing regular and authentic gratitude to the donors, volunteers (including board members), and others who support your organization’s mission is one of the most important things you can do.”

Most importantly, it goes on to say, “Thanking donors meaningfully has multiple benefits. It helps move your development program from one that is transactional – where each “ask” and response is a separate event – to one that is relationship-based ….. The way donors are thanked can also have a significant impact on the likelihood that they will give again.”

That “giving again” part is, obviously, very important, as only about 20% of first-time donors give a second time (to the same organization), and only about 45% of repeat donors continue giving to the same organization. We need to find a way — or several ways — to improve on these numbers (which have been in those ranges for years).

Of course it would be lovely and ideal if every fundraiser wrote their own thoughtful, personalized thank you notes in a timely fashion, but in today’s busy world, that’s rarely the case. Bring back the “corresponding secretary” — or at least add that function to the member of your admin staff who’s best at this expertise of a bygone era — and give your organization a great way to increase retention and revenue.

I’m often asked if thank you notes need to be handwritten, or if emails or even phone calls are okay. The answer is “it depends”. The handwritten note has a quality of being personal as well as different and special, but any level of thank you is better than no thank you at all. I happen to love the personal phone calls (the ones that say thank you and don’t ask for another donation in the same breath), but I usually save the handwritten notes. I’m happy with any of the above, as long as the sentiment is timely and feels sincere.

One final word on this: It’s totally okay to ask a donor how they prefer to be thanked. You’ll be surprised that most have an opinion on this, and if you really do have a relationship with that donor (as you should), they’ll usually tell you how they feel about being thanked. Pay attention to their answer, and be sure to note their preferences in your database.

Thank you!

Can't get enough? Follow me on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn, and Pinterest. And please feel free to share.

- Lisa

A Deduction’s Just the Beginning

We need every dollar donated to produce at least a dollar’s worth of value for society.

Note: We’re getting close to the release of Philanthropy Revolution, and these next few weeks before launch are busier than ever. Our recent guest column by Evan Schlessinger was so well received by my readers that I thought I’d start doing more of them, so this time I invited my friend and colleague Emily Kane Miller to write one. Emily was my “partner in crime” in the creation of the Greater Los Angeles Hospital Registry back in April, and the Registry has been providing equitable access to PPE for LA County hospitals since then. You can learn more about Emily at the end of today’s column.  Enjoy!

At the end of last year, I made a list of articles I wanted to write in 2020. I slated April for a piece about how we could push charitable contributions to be more valuable to society. 

Enter COVID-19 and tax season in July. While the pandemic pushed back my timeline, it also pushed to the foreground the importance of the premise of the piece. Every dollar donated must produce at least a dollar’s worth of value for society, and it is donors’ responsibility – particularly those making large donations – to make this happen. 

Over a century ago, federal regulation created charitable deductions for individuals, and in 1935 the benefit extended to corporations. The justification for the policy centers around the social good created by the grantees -- nonprofits, which these donations support, play important and unique societal roles.  However, the determination for the benefit preempts this purpose, with the donor receiving the value of the charitable deduction as soon as a contribution is made and likely before society benefits. 

In 2019 alone, American individuals, foundations and corporations donated $449.64 billion. Said another way, the United States’ line item for charitable deductions is roughly the size of Norway’s GDP (the 17th largest in the world).

From a governmental perspective, the success of the charitable purpose and the related value created is never measured or even followed. While the IRS is responsible for regulating the recipient nonprofits and ensuring they are in good standing, there is no governmental entity charged with measuring whether a gift achieved its intended outcome or a nonprofit is meeting the aspiration of its mission.

Let me be clear. By and large, nonprofits serve a critical role, are led and staffed by excellent professionals and provide significant benefit for communities. That notwithstanding, this is a colossal subsidy to be allocating with such minuscule accountability.

Even in the best of circumstances, this model is fraught, and today we are far from the best of circumstances.

COVID-19 is rocking our society. Unemployment is up. Hunger and food insecurity is on the rise. Entire educational systems must pivot to distance learning, often at great expense. A recent study from The Center for Effective Philanthropy found that the pandemic is having a negative financial impact on the vast majority of nonprofits surveyed. While funding has decreased, most nonprofits report an increased demand for programs and services, an impact even more pronounced among direct service organizations. 

Naturally, with this the urgency has come a call for increased generosity. Leading foundations in the United States, including the Ford Foundation, have issued over $1 billion in debt to increase their annual payouts to grantees and called on others to do the same. American donors have committed over $6 billion to respond to the COVID-19 crisis – accounting for over half of the world’s COVID-19 related donations – funding hospitals, PPE procurement, vaccine research, and families in need of assistance. Of this, 65% has come from corporate donations. 

In the same moment, support for racial justice work has also skyrocketed. All told, organizations addressing racial equity saw over $232 million in donations in a month, almost as much as they receive in a typical year.

The need has never been greater, and while many funders are stepping up like never before – something more radical is required: We don’t just need “more” – we need “more” + “better”. 

While I’d love to think a regulatory solution could build in real accountability, we all know that is unlikely, slow and a political nightmare.

It’s also not necessary.  

The better, more viable solution? Donors, particularly those making substantial contributions, must care about the impact of their giving. 

Being in a position to make a major charitable contribution is a tremendous privilege. When high level donors take the opportunity to do so, it must be with the intention that the work they are funding matters and is creating value for society.  In 2019, over $300 billion, or 69% of total giving, came from individual donors and $21 billion came from corporations.  Unfortunately, donor conscientiousness is not guaranteed. Studies show that 78% of wealthy donors do not monitor or evaluate the impact of their charitable giving, and we know that many corporate giving models similarly lack critical follow up mechanisms.  

We must do better. 

High level donors – whether corporations, foundations or individuals – must see themselves as a partner in excellence. A few easy places to start: Craft clear, mutually agreed upon deliverables. Stay closely connected with grantees. Share best practices and successes to help set the bar. If an effort is not working, partner with the nonprofit team to help the project get back on track. Our world is broken. We made a social contract that every American would underwrite these gifts because they matter. It’s time for every donor to work hard to make this so.  

COVID-19 has cracked us open – hopefully it can expose our hearts in the process.


Emily Kane Miller is the Founder + CEO of Ethos Giving, a philanthropic services firm. She also serves as a Scholar in Residence at The Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at the USC Marshall School of Business.

Can't get enough? Follow me on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn, and Pinterest. And please feel free to share.

- Lisa

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