Trickery Doesn't Help our Sector
Recently I received an emailed news article — from a respected source in the fundraising world — that got my attention. It got my attention so much that after reading the headline, I started to get nauseous, then angry, then sad. Why? Because the emailed subject line said (paraphrasing to protect the sender), “Learn how NPOs are increasing their donations with these simple tricks!”
Maybe this has to do with different concepts of the word “trick”. My teen says that there are multiple definitions of a trick, and one of them is not negative at all. In fact, a “trick” can simply mean a tip or suggestions on how to do something more simply and/or effectively.
I see that, but Webster’s and others highlight a more traditional definition of the word. In fact, although some show a secondary definition of “trick” as a “knack”, every resource I checked primarily defines “trick” as a word with distinctly negative connotations. Here are a few:
a: a crafty procedure or practice meant to deceive or defraud
b: a mischievous act
c: a deceptive, dexterous, or ingenious feat
Although the body of the article talks about tricking potential donors, it’s clear that the marketing/communications person who wrote the headline/subject line thought that they could get our attention by showing that raising money from donors is simple if you trick them into giving.
This incident suggests that two different things are occurring at the same time — and both are very problematic.
First, somebody who is employed by the organization — someone creating marketing messaging under the organization’s name — thinks that tricking people is the way to raise more money. Anyone who reads my work knows that I find the “tricking people into giving” concept to be reprehensible, short-sighted, off-putting for the donor, and wrong. This doesn’t just apply to charitable giving, either. If I saw a pitch for a class on selling, say, cars, I would find the “trick” method to be just as offensive and shameful — and again, short-sighted. Is there anyone on the “buy” or “give” side who wants to be “tricked” into giving money?
Second, despite the fact that the organization that sent out this email is well funded, well respected and professional, clearly someone isn’t paying attention. This issue goes way beyond this particular “error”. In fact, it suggests that, as they saying goes, “nobody’s minding the store”. For a donor, or even for a potential customer, partner or volunteer, if it looks like nobody at the organization is paying attention to their outward-facing messaging, the money spent on that kind of marketing is completely wasted. In fact, it’s akin to putting a sign on the “door” saying “Danger! Do Not Enter!” Worse yet, the organization’s name will stick in the minds of potential donors as something to stay away from. Would anyone want to give money to an organization that basically said “Come here for a bait and switch!” Of course not.
I have to wonder why some nonprofits use scare tactics to get donors to open their solicitation mailings. They must think it’s effective, or they wouldn’t do it. As a donor, I get email and snail mail regularly that are clearly trying to trick me — or, in other words, to “play me like a fool”. Sometimes the solicitation thanks me for a donation I didn’t make, telling me that it’s time to renew my gift. Sometimes the ask suggests that “time is running out!” to help the organization or cause. There are multiple nonprofits that appear to try to confuse me by using only initials as their organization name — with zero subheading or explanation of what the organization does or is about. None of these tactics help the charitable sector.
We know that charitable giving declined in 2023, both in terms of donors and in terms of money raised. We also know that the percent of first-time donors giving again the second year remains in the 18-20% range, meaning that at least 4 out of 5 new donors (who were likely costly to recruit in the first place) will not give to the organization again after their first gift. We also know, per Independent Sector’s 2023 report (among others) that trust in nonprofits is declining.
The US Federal Trade Commission’s report, “Donating Safely and Avoiding Scams” is pretty clear about conflating nonprofit donations with concerns about scammers. Did the writer of that article (above) suggest that fundraisers try to “scam” donors by using the word “trick”? Probably not, but that doesn’t help when we’re all trying to raise money for our important and reputable nonprofits. Suggestions from the FTC report are:
Don’t let anyone rush you into making a donation. That’s something scammers do.
Some scammers try to trick you into paying them by thanking you for a donation that you never made.
Some scammers use names that sound a lot like the names of real charities. This is one reason it pays to do some research before giving.
Scammers make lots of vague and sentimental claims but give no specifics about how your donation will be used.
Whatever the definition is of “trick”, the word doesn’t feel compatible with the ever-important word “trust”. If we start believing that tricking donors into giving is the answer to sustaining our nonprofits, we’ll never be able to truly build organizations that have the resources to succeed long-term.
The message of all of this is simple: promoting “tricks” should be used in messaging about magic shows, cooking “hacks”, or Halloween. That term, and that sentiment, has no place in nonprofit fundraising. Let’s keep our eye on the path of honesty, transparency and authentic relationships.
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