A Koan can be defined as “a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment”. Some of the more recognizable ones in pop culture include “What is the sound of one hand clapping” and “If a tree falls down in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

One of my favourite fundraising koan’s is:

If  a donor ends their financial support,
do they still support your organization?

So how are we treating/speaking/continuing the narrative with our donors
should they ask us to suspend current support? It doesn’t look good.

It turns out that some charitable organizations act more shortsighted than 19 year old me when Nicole told me she needed some time to find herself when, although we were madly in love with each other, she was going to college in Oakville and I was going to college in Toronto. We were young, we shouldn’t be tied down, right? And as the pain of that separation anxiety was too much for the both of us, instead of remaining friends [as if that ever happens] than stay in touch periodically, we just cut off all communication. We couldn’t be friends, so we became strangers with memories.

Let’s start by looking at what we might want to consider communicating to the donor when they’ve asked us to suspend their financial support. [Note: This post is not taking into account any reactivation plan that you might have, although, as we will see with the scorecard below, only 3/15 charities’ had a reactivation plan at all]

Let’s take 15:

  1. Have you acknowledge their request within 24 hours [at the most]?
  2. Is the email on-brand with headers/hero/images/etc., or simply plain text [one is not necessarily better than the other]?
  3. Did you take the opportunity to thank them for their support off of the bat? Be slovenly gracious with your thanks, make them feel appreciated, and that their gifts made an impact.
  4. When speaking of the impact above – are you speaking about the impact that you’ve made yourself as an organization – or is it donor-centric – what they’ve help move forward?
  5. Are you offering your lapsed donors the opportunity to either downgrade or pause their recurring donations? [word of caution – do this while remaining respectful of their original request to end financial support]
  6. Have you offered them the opportunity to engage horizontally with you organization? Programs, advocacy, volunteering, social media, etc.? You shouldn’t be circumcising the narrative.
  7. Have you thanked them again?
  8. To allay their anxiety, did you reconfirm the amount of the gift and the date that it was cancelled? Do you provide a confirmation number?
  9. Did you inform them of when they can expect their tax receipt for the donations that they’ve already made?
  10. Are you using language as if their support is now null? A donor has the ability to support you in many other circumstances and channels than simply financially. Their inability to support you financially at this time is most likely temporary. Do not allow this to be the final chapter in your relationship [see number 11]
  11. Have you offered them a follow up survey in order to have a better understanding of why they’ve chosen to not prioritize your organization at this time? [make it anonymous to garner more personal responses]
  12. Have you thanked them again?
  13. Is there additional contact information [phone/email/facebook/text?] should they have any further questions or concerns?
  14. Who is the signatory on the confirmation? People give to people – not “ivory tower” CEOs or organization names as signatories.
  15. Consider the recency bias in how you postpone the growth of your relationship? For example, if a donor wanted to resume their monthly relationship with you and searched their email for your last communication –  is this the highlight by which you’d want them to judge you by?
As mentioned I mentioned this post “The Easy Way To Automate Monthly Donor Competitive Analysis + BONUS 15 Aspects To Evaluate” it’s important that you are meticulous in noting your observations throughout the entire process, especially with cancellations. So as an experiment, I recently emailed 15 organizations that I support: I ensured that my request provided my full address, phone number, and email, but not my credit card. This would hopefully be enough for them to locate me easily:

Good morning,

Unfortunately I ran into some financial pressures and must cancel my current monthly gift.

Please cancel my monthly donation effective immediately.

My information:

• First Last
• 123 Street Blvd
• Toronto
• A1A1A1
• 6471231234

Please confirm via email when complete.

Thank you for your understanding.

Warmest regards,

Note that I specifically ensured that my request provided my full address, phone number, and email, but not my credit card. This would hopefully be enough for them to locate me easily.

Here’s the scorecard [13 national organizations, 2 local ones]:

Request acknowledged within 4 hours    [4/15] 26.67%
Request acknowledged within 1 day        [3/15] 20.00%
Request acknowledged within 2 days      [2/15] 13.33%
Request acknowledged within 3 days      [3/15] 20.00%
Request acknowledged within 4 days      [1/15]1 6.67%
Request acknowledged after 5+ days       [2/15] 13.33%

  1. Is the email on brand [in this case, not just plain text as I made the request in HTML] –  [2/15]
  2. They addressed me by name in their reply – [13/15]
  3. Could they locate my gift with the information that I provided – [12/15]
  4. Was I thanked at all [beyond “thanks for your support”] – [4/15]
  5. Offered the opportunity to pause or downgrade my gift  – [1/15]
  6. Did they mention when I’d receive my tax receipt  – [1/15]
  7. Did they reconfirm the cancellation date and donation amount  – [2.5/15]
  8. Did they clearly offer other engagement opportunities with the cause  – [2/15]
  9. Was I ask to provide feedback / complete a survey – [1/15]
  10. Contact information provided should I have further questions/concerns  – [7/15]
  11. Was it an actual person who responded [an actual name in the signature]- [12/15]
  12. Do I feel appreciated, that I made an impact, it was more about ME more than themselves – [4/15]
  13. Made an attempt to connect with me beyond “if you ever want to restart your gift” – [3.5/15]
  14. Did they charge me again after my first cancellation request  – [2/15]

The Good:

  • We are making sure to address donors by their name [86%]
  • We are able to locate gifts and process requests without back and forth [80%]
  • We are using real names as signatories to humanize the interaction [80%]
 The Bad:
  • We sometimes provide clear contact information and options should donors have further questions/concerns [46%]
The Ugly:
  • We don’t thank donor’s beyond – “thanks for your support” [ 26.6%]
  • We don’t convey appreciation, focusing on the impact that the DONOR has made with their giving [26.6%]
  • We don’t make any attempt to connect with the donor beyond “if you ever want to restart your gift” [23.3%]
  • We don’t offer donors any other engagement opportunities with the cause [13.3%]
  • We don’t allay their anxiety by reconfirming cancellation dates and donation amounts [16.6%]
  • We don’t offer donors the opportunity to temporarily pause or downgrade my gift [ 6.6%]
  • We don’t let them know when they will receive their tax receipt [6.6%]
  • We don’t ask them for any feedback at all as to why they are leaving, or to complete a survey [6.6%]
  • We charge them again after they already ask that their gift be cancelled [13.3%]
 And remember this includes 13 national organizations with revenues in the tens of millions.
When was the last time you tested your infrastructure? Go ahead and make a monthly gift under a pseudonym, then cancel it after a month to discover your own organization’s pain points. If you that such a granular inspection of your communications may seem a bit overboard, you’ve already fucked up. But there is healing. Donor touch points like this are the unseen foundations of donor retention, expectations, the narrative they tell themselves about giving to your organization. Treat it as such.
You Can Easily Judge the Character of a Man by How He Treats Those Who Can Do Nothing for Him
This double-entendre of this quote is beautiful – as we’ve seen most organization’s treat a lack of financial support as if a donor “can do nothing for him”, and treat him as such, as well as come from a view that “he can do nothing for him” BECAUSE YOU HAVEN”T ENGAGED YOUR DONORS across other areas of the organization…
If one cultivate’s the joy of giving and no one is around, do you raise any money? Omm

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