Valerie Morton: What I've learnt from being on 'the other side'

I've recently been a donor and the chair of a grant-making trust, and the experiences have taught me some lessons

Valerie Morton
Valerie Morton

There was an article recently about how doctors are so used to using technical language they have lost sight of the fact that most patients don’t understand a word of what they are saying.

Fundraisers can learn something from this. We think about what we want, not the donors’ perspective. We use language that does not resonate with our supporters. We try to be donor-focused, but we are not (such as thinking it’s a good idea to use a job title such as donor development manager rather than fundraiser, when arguably it is worse).

I have been "on the other side" quite a bit recently: first as a donor (or, more accurately in some cases, a prospective donor); second, as chair of a grant-making trust. I think I have learnt more from these experiences than would have been in any number of training courses.

Last week I chaired the annual meeting of the trust to consider which charities would benefit from the (modest) amounts we have available to distribute. My experience leads me to give you these top tips.

First, trustees are human and, like anyone who has made an effort to do something nice for someone, we can’t help hoping to get a nice "thank you". It doesn’t need to be a long formal letter – a heartfelt email or postcard would do – but not to get any response at all does make us wonder why we bothered, even if the project itself was good.

Second, if you go to the effort of giving feedback on how a grant has been spent, please don’t think you are being clever by relying on a few photos. We know what a child rock-climbing looks like.

Third, please remember that by giving a grant we are fulfilling our charitable purpose. Telling us that x number of people benefited from something or y people used a certain piece of equipment means nothing. We want to know we have made a difference.

Fourth, if you don’t cash your cheque at once, it means either you can’t be desperate for money or your administrative systems are rubbish. Either way, it does not incentivise us to support you again.

And fifth, just because we have given you a grant for years doesn’t mean you can take us for granted. And if you have an exciting new project that needs even more money, wouldn’t we be the best people to come to first? We might find it exciting too.

My second "other side" experience is as a prospective donor. In fact, there have been four such occasions recently and in none of the cases have I ended up giving money. Not because I changed my mind, but simply because the charities did not give me the opportunity to do so. Heaven knows why, for most charities say they are desperate for money, but I suspect it is all to do with being too focused on internal issues and forgetting a key principle of fundraising, which is that people do want to give but just need you to make it easy for them to do so. So, five more top tips for you.

First, if you experience a technical issue that stops a donation from being processed, don’t just thank the donor for letting you know. If you give that donor another, easy, way to give, perhaps it might, just possibly, mean you still get that donation?

Second, if you make a big shout about a great new project you are working on, there might be a few people who go to your website to get more information or even make actual donations. If there is nothing specific there, don’t expect them to feel happy just making a general donation to the charity. And don’t expect them to feel quite so enthusiastic months later when you choose to ask them for money.

Third, yes, of course you might not want to invest in an outdated website when your spanking new website is due to go live in a few weeks. But it won’t be weeks, it will be months, and those donors who lose the will to live after clicking through six stages only to be told how to send in a cheque might not come back to you in the future (that’s one more legacy lost too).

Fourth, and in a similar vein, even if the back end of your website is a "sales"-type system a donation is not a purchase.

Fifth, people who come to a charity gala event will, surprise surprise, usually expect there to be some fundraising on the night. If you have only an auction, where the highest bids will be from people with plenty of money to spare, might it not be a good idea to have some other, more accessible, fundraising activity on the night? You wouldn’t want someone coming along with £100 cash to use on the night to find they have come back with £80 of it still intact, would you?

If you want to be the best possible fundraiser get on the "other side". Be a donor, be a volunteer, be a trustee. Being a fundraiser is not enough.

Valerie Morton is a fundraiser and consultant

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