Surprise Me

Note: With my new book, Philanthropy Revolution, hitting the shelves in the UK (and online everywhere) this week, my schedule is more packed than usual -- so I invited my friend and colleague Evan Schlessinger to write a guest column as a follow-up from last week’s newsletter. You can read all about Evan at the end of today’s column.  Enjoy!

Surprise Me

When my wife and I were pregnant with our first child, the doctor asked us if we wanted to know the gender of the baby. We decided to wait. We felt that there are so few real surprises in life.

It is the same in the business world. Very few real surprises. Top selling author Seth Godin wrote in his classic book Purple Cow “that in this noisy world you’re either remarkable or you are invisible”, you need to surprise people and to stand out to be remembered.

This is especially poignant for non-profits. So many organizations, so many similar sounding names. In a famous business school case study, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society found that their fundraising peaked during the Jerry Lewis Telethon. (Note: Jerry Lewis raised money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association). I once took a Rabbi friend of mine to the cereal aisle of a supermarket. As kindly as I could, I told him that his organization was too similar to many others and that he was getting “lost in the cereal aisle”.

Non-profit execs understand how their respective organizations differ, but donors often miss these nuances. Givers rarely give to “words on a page” nor to brochures. Thus, the adage that donors give to people, not to organizations.  (Think of Ruth Messinger raising tens of millions of dollars for AJWS!) And the best professionals retain their relationships when they move on. If this is true, how can development fundraisers build better relationships with their key donors? At the very basic level, it starts with appreciation.

As a speaker on non-profit marketing, I often carry a brand-new tennis racket as a prop. I hold up the tennis racket and say that this is how philanthropy used to work. That is, “NO STRINGS ATTACHED”; But nowadays altruism is dead. Every donor wants “something”. Some givers want their names on buildings, but I believe the majority of givers simply want the emotional satisfaction of being acknowledged and appreciated. Giving a gift should make a donor feel good. There is a decade of behavioral science research to support the notion that people who donate money experience more happiness. In brain imaging studies, voluntary giving has been associated with activation of the reward centers in the brain. And expressing thanks only reinforces these good feelings and promotes additional giving.

When I speak, I often read perfunctory thank you notes that I have received. Many organizations write short thank you notes like a Bar Mitzvah boy (i.e. thank you for your generous gift.) I ask, how much EXTRA effort would it take to create an INCREDIBLE thank you letter? I still have a three page thank you note that I received in 1992 from Pastor Cecil Murray for a donation to his food drive.  THREE PAGES LONG! I also saved a hand-written thank you note that was sent to my seven-year old daughter from the Children’s Burn Foundation for a lemonade stand that she ran.

I can not stress how important acknowledgement and appreciation are to donors. My dentist says that I only need to floss the teeth that I want to keep. I would suggest that organizations only need to thank the donors that they want to keep! It is far less expensive to keep a major donor, than to find a new one. One of my wife’s favorite organizations has a goal to acknowledge and thank each gift within 24 hours of receiving any donation (by phone, letter or email depending on the size of the gift). I compare the emotional feeling of being thanked right away to other organizations, who only acknowledge gifts once a year…. with a tax receipt.

As a volunteer I once helped solicit a local corporation for a charity walkathon. After the event, I went through the photographs and found some great “candid” photos. I framed one of the pictures and sent the photograph with a handwritten thank you note. A year later we went back to the corporate offices to ask for a larger six-figure sponsorship. Even I was surprised to see the candid photograph of the CEO (tying his six-year old son’s shoes) on his cadenza.

I will close this guest essay with a new word. The word is “lagniappe”, which comes from old French and means “an unexpected small gift or surprise”. My challenge to non-profits during this time of Covid is to brainstorm some unusual ways to surprise their donors. Try thanking them in small, but meaningful and unusual ways (without asking them for another gift). Donors do remember, and they do care, and it is the first leg of building lasting relationships.

As an example, in the early days of Covid, the LA Jewish Community Foundation sent me two cloth masks. That’s it. No pitch. Just the masks. And several non-profits are now hosting on-line “wine-tastings” as fundraisers. But only one of the development fundraisers invited me “as their guest” (and waived the $50 ticket-fee because of my past generosity). I thought that was classy and made me want to thank them for recognizing and appreciating me!

As Mother Teresa once said, “we can do no great things in life, only small things with great love”.

Besides being a colleague and friend, Evan is a community lay-leader (and accomplished business professional) who speaks frequently about marketing for non-profits. Evan and I served together on the board of the Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation and Cutting-Edge Grants committee. You can learn more about Evan here.

Stay safe!

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- Lisa