Let’s stop recognizing donors by donation levels

[Image description: A profile of a fluffy squirrel, with orange-brownish fur, staring to the right. They seem to be standing on a white towel or something. Not sure what this picture has to do with the post. But if you think about it, does anything have anything to do with anything? Or is our need for things to be connected a way for us to cope with our short existence in an arbitrary and chaotic universe? Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone, a couple of announcements before we start on today’s topic. In recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, here are a few things we each can do to be more respectful of Native/Indigenous Cultures.

Meanwhile, on October 22nd, at 12:30pm Pacific Time, I’ll be doing a Facebook Live “Ask Me Anything” to provide updates and answer any questions you may have about RVC’s work, nonprofit fashion, adult acne, and why the Oxford Comma is essential to our sector.

Also, a while ago, the Community-Centric Fundraising Council released the Fundraising Perception Survey to ask how folks are feeling about the way the sector does fundraising. Thanks to everyone’s help, we collected over 2,000 surveys. We are in the process of analyzing the results and hopefully will have a report in the next few months. Preliminary data, however, indicates it’s going to be a doozy. Stay tuned. We’re also working on a website and other exciting stuff.

Speaking of Community-Centric Fundraising, this week, I am challenging us all to abandon an established fundraising practice, the public recognition of donors by the level of their donations. This often occurs in annual reports, where we list the names of the highest contributors first and then move down to the lowest. So first the $10,000+ donors, then the $5,000 to $9,999 donors, then the $1,000 to $4,999; and so on, ending usually with $1 to $99 donors. It has become such an ingrained way of doing things that we don’t stop to think about it. And we need to.

Because, the way we do things communicates and reinforces our values. Whenever we recognize donors by financial segmentation levels, with the highest levels listed first, it sends these messages, whether we like it or not:

  1. Money is the most important contribution anyone can give
  2. The more money someone gives, the more they’re helping a cause
  3. Those who give more money deserve special praise, acknowledgement, and treatment
  4. Those who give less money should be thanked, but they’re just not as important

Even the language we use props up these beliefs. We call the high-level donors “major donors,” which implies that the everyone else is a “minor donor.” The major donors get additional attention (phone calls, letters, customized thank-you videos, invitations to exclusive events that involve tiny foods, etc.). Minor donors, because there are more of them, get fewer privileges, and in fact, have been so used to it that they really don’t often expect much. If I donate $50 to an organization, I hardly expect to hear from them at all (which is fine).

A couple of years ago, for my birthday I asked readers of this blog to donate to my organization. We got a few grands. I tried to call every single person who donated, no matter the amount (apologies if I missed a few). A conversation that would stick with me is one with a colleague across the country who donated $10. She was nearly in tears. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I wish I could donate more, but I’ve been unemployed for months. I wanted to support your work, even though I can’t give much right now.” I thanked her profusely, deeply grateful for this gift.

This story highlights the problem with our current philosophies and approach. There is a dissonance. We fundraisers often share heartwarming stories, for example of a kid who saved up their allowance over months and sent in $16.42 in coins to help individuals experiencing homelessness. Or of an octogenarian who sends in a check for $3 every year to help animals in need. We love these stories. They motivate and inspire us. They show us the kind of community we’re working to build.

But we would never consider these individual as “major donors.” Why not? Is not a $10 contribution from an unemployed donor, or a $5 gift from a student, or a $1 from a low-income client, not as meaningful as a $10,000 gift from a more well-off individual? If we truly believe that every donation of any amount is equally valued, shouldn’t our recognition practices reflect that?

It’s time we stop publicly recognizing our donors by segmentation levels in annual reports. Or heck, just do what Kivi Leroux Miller recommends and just abandon the donor list altogether. If you have to have a list, I recommend just having a section called “Our Supporters” and list everyone in alphabetical order and omit the amounts they gave. This list should include volunteers, who are often left out of being thanked, which is another glaring example of our sector and society valuing money as the most important contribution, even over time, a finite resource that none of us can ever make more of.  

I know what some of you are thinking: “Vu, you idealistic fool, what you propose might work in your land of rainbows and unicorns and Kenny Loggins songs, but in the real world, we need major donors to continue giving, because whether we like it or not, a $10,000 gift does help way more than a $10 gift.”

Let’s give it half a chance, though. First, I think we’re underestimating our donors. My organization, RVC, does not recognize our donors by level in our annual reports. We haven’t had a single complaint. (Uh…it may change after this blog post, but I doubt it.) In fact, I would bet many donors would prefer this, as they might not like to seem to be “bragging” about their wealth. Some may not want it to be made public what they give, as it could tempt sharp-eyed development professionals across the sector to expect the same level of giving to their orgs.

Second, if we look at political fundraising, candidates often boast that most of their contributions come from small donations of less than $20. Given a choice between having a million donors who each gave $5, or having 5 donors who each gave a million, every single candidate would choose the former. Having more “smaller” donors is an indication of broad community support. Despite targeting these small donations, political campaigns often raise a ton of money, and while it’s certainly not a perfect comparison, there are some lessons we nonprofits can learn.

Third, isn’t it a significant part of our work to build an ideal world? I keep seeing instances of us conforming to the way “the world is” instead of doing our part to move the world closer to what it should be. We can keep reinforcing existing practices despite their limitations, or we can start to change and improve them until these new practices become the norm. If all of us start recognizing our donors as one broad community without segmentation levels, then eventually that will become “best practice.” We have way more power to change things than we think.

So, let’s try it. Have a conversation with your team about this. I know not everyone will agree—and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section—but I think for our field to advance, we need to have these discussions.

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