Retail Therapy and the Donor Experience

In 2005, Thomas L. Friedman told us “The World is Flat.” Were fundraisers paying attention? Probably not. If you weren’t then, you may want to start now.

This past weekend, with warmer temperatures in the forecast, I engaged in some “retail therapy.” I had both the capacity and inclination to put my credit card to work, and as I pulled into the outlet center, I was hopeful about augmenting my wardrobe.

In the first shop I entered, I perused racks and shelves of clothes without any salesperson addressing me. I tried on a couple of items. I found two sweaters for my husband. Finally, when I needed to know whether a particular dress might be available in a different size, I stopped an aloof staff member and inquired. In fact, it was available in my size. In fact, he could have it sent directly to my house from another store. I paid for my purchases and departed satisfied—but definitely underwhelmed—with my consumer experience.

In the second shop, I was greeted immediately by a clerk. “Good afternoon! May I help you find something in particular?” This salesperson recognized both the money burning a hole in my handbag and my “I want new clothes” forehead sign. She pointed out some on-trend pieces the store had just received, asked me if I was shopping for a specific or special occasion, and offered to start a dressing room for me. I spent double the amount in the second store and left feeling joyful about it.

Being a customer in the retail world is not unlike being a donor in the philanthropic world. Decades ago there were fewer retailers and nonprofits, and those that existed benefited greatly from wont and ritual. One shopped where Mom and Dad shopped; one gave where Mom and Dad gave. Then globalization happened, not only in the consumer market but also in the philanthropic one. In 2018, there are ever-increasing options for both retail therapy and philanthropy. This abundance of choice means that customers and donors can be more selective, so competition for their attention and support is greater. With more than 1.2 million nonprofits (Source: Giving USA) vying for contributions, institutions seeking new donors and wishing to upgrade current donors must work harder—and smarter. Those trends show no signs of abating, so embracing an increasingly donor-centered fundraising ethos will be vital to ensuring long-term sustainability and growth.

Make the Giving Experience About the Donor

Put yourself in my shoes, walking into a store, able and inclined to spend money. Suppose a salesperson greeted you and said, “Hi there! Listen, I have to sell $500 worth of merchandise before my shift is over, so will you consider buying $100?” or “Hey, see that woman over there? She said she would buy two dresses for every person who buys one! Will you join the challenge?” or “Our store’s quarterly report to corporate closes this Friday. Please buy something today!” These examples may seem far-fetched, but I frequently see institutions talking to constituents as though donors should be motivated by goals, challenges, or deadlines that have everything to do with the institution and nothing to do with the donor. If you want to make fundraising as important to your donor as it is to you, make the exchange about giving rather than receiving. The shift doesn’t need to be dramatic. Altering a newsletter title subtly, for example, can shift how donors view their important and unique ability to make a difference. Consider the improvement from “Institution raised nearly $12 million to support our mission” to “More than 950 generous and committed donors contributed nearly $12 million to support Institution’s people and programs.” The point is, your donor should play the starring role.

Greater Results Require Increased Donor Engagement

Each time I go to the outlet center, I go to the same stores. I like the way those retailers’ clothes fit, feel good about being associated with their brand, and perceive the clothing to be a superior product. My tried-and-true retailers can pretty much count on me for an annual or more frequent purchase. But what might motivate me to spend more? Perhaps it’s being treated especially well by an attentive clerk, finding more clothes that are right for my lifestyle, or being encouraged to try more diverse styles. Donors aren’t much different. Although existing donors will probably keep giving to your institution out of habit, the best way to upgrade their support is to increase your engagement with them. The good news is that they are demonstrating inclination; you just have to capitalize on it. On a chilly Sunday afternoon in April, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who opted for shopping over yard work. I was probably one of scores of potential customers who walked through the door at each of the shops I visited. But I entered, unlike hundreds of others who didn’t, and demonstrated the inclination to become a [renewed] customer. Address me! Engage me! Offer me new and greater opportunities to spend money. Maybe I love the sweaters…but have I ever tried the jackets? The most reliable way to increase a donor’s support is to deepen and broaden her relationship with your institution.

Put Your Case for Support Front and Center

My favorite retailer was founded in 1954 and has a mission to “inspire and connect with our clients to put their best selves forward every day.” Although I’m gratified to know that they want me to be my best self, I care much more about whether I will have to dry clean my new party dress and whether a cashmere sweater will pill. Likewise, the store promotes its charitable partnership with a nonprofit to advance cancer research. Great! But show me a little black dress that makes me look 15 pounds thinner, is machine washable, and won’t fade, and I’d pay a thousand dollars for it. Well, almost. But you get my point. Your fundraising messages should present, first and foremost, the unique opportunity the institution offers a donor to make an impact. Most [prospective] donors are committed to your mission—that’s why they’ve entered your figurative front door. Don’t start the conversation by boring them with a review of what they already know about your mission and values. Rather, get immediately to the heart of your case for support, by sharing the challenges that your institution is facing and the heroic role the donor can play in meeting them. If I’m here for a business suit, tell me about your best business suit.

Don’t mistake me: I’m not likening fundraising to retail sales. However, donors are more similar to customers than ever before. Gone are the days when institutions could rely solely on donors’ sense of noblesse oblige, the allure of supporting the unrestricted operating budget (really, was that ever alluring?), or the motivation of helping an institution to meet its fundraising goals and deadlines. Today’s donors demand that potential beneficiaries of their support offer unique opportunities for donors to make an impact. If you aren’t providing those opportunities in a donor-centered context, there are numerous alternatives for these consumer-minded contributors to find the perfect little black dress somewhere else.

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About the author

Elizabeth Kolb Farr

Senior Vice President and Independent Schools Practice Leader

Elizabeth Kolb Farr, Senior Vice President, joined GG+A in 2017 and, in 2021, assumed leadership of the firm’s Independent Schools Practice Area. Liz serves the firm’s independent school and higher education clients, supporting them in identifying and seizing opportunities for fundraising growth. She holds particular expertise in instituting and orchestrating…