A Universal Problem: How to Communicate with Donors

I’ve had the blessing over the past year to mentor 7 nonprofits in Nigeria. Their projects are helping people with disabilities, women and youth to play a more active role in elections and other political processes. 

My job is to help them develop their communications skills so they can tell their amazing stories in more meaningful ways. 

Worlds apart, same issues

Like nonprofits in the States, they certainly think about how to spread the word effectively to the people they serve. And they’re seeking the support of lawmakers and other community influencers every day.

But just like their U.S. peers, the one audience that seems to vex them the most is donors. How do they keep up with what donors are thinking and tell them stories that will inspire them to keep giving? And how do they attract and keep new donors?

In the international development context, donors are usually government foreign aid programs. You probably know what it’s like to manage projects for local governments and foundations. The paperwork!

Now imagine having to do all that for a funder who’s from a different culture than your own!

Communicators to the rescue

Thoughtful communications can help – and your website is a great place to start.

Have you thought about the “buyer’s journey” your donors take as they move from simple awareness of your cause to considering whether your nonprofit is better than all the others? 

Then what compels them to make that first donation? Does your website clearly answer questions like:

  • Who are you? What makes you special?

  • What inspired your founder to start this nonprofit?

  • What do you stand for?

  • Why should the donor trust you?

  • Do you have a record of success? What’s your proof?

  • Exactly how do you manage money?

  • What kinds of things can donors do to support your cause?

  • What can donors expect from you after they make a donation?

These seem like pretty basic questions, but I find many nonprofit websites are incomplete, overwritten, or just darn confusing. How does that happen?

I think it’s because websites can be political beasts. We get so focused on what we (executive director, board, programs, finance, legal) want to say that we forget what our audiences need to hear. 

We forget to make a simple argument that we are humans who care about the cause and will respect people’s precious time and hard-earned cash. We also forget to keep answering these questions again and again in other channels like newsletters, emails and social media. 

It used to be that people needed to hear a message 7 times to remember it. With the buzz-buzz of our smartphones, some experts now think that number is 21. Keep on saying what donors need to hear.

Breaking brand silence

Another theme that keeps coming up is how hard it is to consistently keep in touch with donors. Sure, we write proposals and get our donor appeals out. But what about the in-between times?

Are we like the friend who only reaches out when they need a job? Or do we keep donors updated at least monthly with what we’re doing on their behalf?

Do we take them inside our programs to meet the people we serve? Do we make them laugh, cry, get mad or celebrate with us? Do we ask them their opinions or just offer our own? Are we inviting them to make our cause their only cause with every letter, email and tweet? 

If you’re struggling with consistency, I want to encourage you to rethink your priorities.

According to Blackbaud, retention rates are 31 percent for new, offline-only donors and somewhat worse for new, online-only donors. Regular communications can help. (And social media posts are probably not enough.)

Sharing the love

Advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi is famous for an idea called lovemarks. The idea is that brands should strive to move from silence to the point in which people are infatuated with you beyond reason.

Coca-Cola is an example of such a brand. Some people have an attraction to Coke that goes far beyond sugary soda water. 

Don’t like the fizzy stuff? Apple is another brand that embodies who people feel they are or want to be.

I think nonprofits have all the raw materials they need to inflame this kind of passion in most if not all their donors. 

But it’s never going to happen if you keep donors a world away from those you serve. 

What is your advice for keeping the passion alive in donors?

Laura Ingalls Fuqua is co-founder of Abeja Solutions, a fundraising marketing firm in Phoenix, Arizona. A recovering journalist, Laura has worked over 20 years as a professional communicator in both the nonprofit and corporate sectors.