In Reciprocity We Trust

Tom Ahern

Newbies, skeptics, the timid (and Ian) DO worry: “So, Tom, where’s the irrefutable research that switching to ‘donor-centered’ communications will raise more money for our org. than the comms mess we now send out?”

Mike wrote me a couple of weeks ago….

I’m an avid follower of your newsletters and webinars, so first a little bit of flattery. Thank you for having taught me so much over the years!

(Thanks back at you, Mike!!!)

You often talk about the importance of donor-centricity in newsletters and other strategic communications that tell the story of donor impact. It makes sense!

Unfortunately, the approach at my organization has been more on the corporate communications side (we did this…we did that…) and fails to give proper credit to what our supporters make possible.

Question for you: Who ARE the charities out there that are really getting it right? I can talk about donor-centricity until I’m blue in the face. But I’d love to be able to point to a few great examples in practice and get my team moving in the right direction.

Thanks again for the great work that you do.

Best, Mike


My reply…

It IS the problem, Mike.

So few nonprofits (aside from the top crust who can afford great agencies) practice donor-centricity, full steam ahead, no holds barred.

One of those top crust agencies is Toronto’s Agents of Good. Their portfolio is online. Another is Ask Direct in Ireland. Bluefrog in the UK. TrueSense in the US. Pareto in Australia. Harvey McKinnon. Good Works. Blakely Journey. Stephen Thomas. So many others now….

Three risk-taking nonprofits also jump to mind. They all switched to ever-more-intense donor-centricity, from three to 12 years back … and now reap the financial rewards.


Animal Rescue League of Boston: ARLB’s emails are religiously donor-focused

Another is Food for the Poor. The ED there, Angel Aloma, attended a single workshop about donor-centricity, went back and baked it into all his org.’s materials … and soared to greatness. Angel credits donor-centricity with helping Food for the Poor become a billion-$/yr-gross aid charity. The ED of USA for UNHCR, Anne-Marie Gray, credits donor-centricity for changing their newsletter from a cost-center into “an excuse to print money.”

Donor-centricity isn’t about style or “I like this better.”

It’s about making more money … way more money, over time … using neuroscience and other psychological insights … so charities become better at nurturing and inspiring donors.

Good luck.

If the question is, “Do we want to raise more money for our mission?” then donor-centricity is a proven strategy.

If the question is, “Do we like donor-centricity?” … well, the organization isn’t asking the right question.

Again, good luck. I’ve been fighting this battle for 20 years. Thank you for taking it on.

— tom

Mike wrote back…

Tom: one more quick question if you don’t mind — could you point me in the direction of any published data or case studies that support donor-centricity as a proven strategy to raise more money from donors? Thank you again for your time.

I replied…

Sorry, Mike. There’s no magic wand I can hand you.

I mean, there are Penelope Burk’s books. And Adrian Sargeant’s. These researchers have talked about donor-centricity for years and include plenty of data re: results.

And there is The Agitator, the pay-for data-crazy blog which flogs the idea of donor-centricity, especially getting to know your donors using a product called DonorVoice.

And there are the many top agencies I mentioned before … all of them live by the donor-centered creed.

But if you’re looking for a single, scientific study that says, “We tried Tom Ahern’s ideas about donor-centricity and they worked” … then no.

I have collected anecdotal evidence over the years. And I have my clients who are pleased. And I have all the people I’ve trained for two decades who took the “risk” … and were delighted with their improved results.

But I’m not a scientist.

I put my understanding of donor-centricity together over the years, listening to hundreds of experts.

Honestly, I didn’t know donor-centricity would work nearly as well as it does.

Still, it always made complete sense to me, since I started in commercial marketing, not fundraising. In the commercial world, you worship the customer. You understand the customer. You please the customer. You deliver great customer service.

The breakthrough for me was figuring out that fundraising actually HAS a customer … and that’s the donor. Once I made that leap, everything fell into place. You keep that “customer” happy, they give more. Just like any business: keep the customer happy, and the customer returns.

Bottom line: there’s really no risk in switching to donor-centricity in your donor comms. Donors won’t give you less because you tell them how much you love them. Worst case? Results will be flat.

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PS: The headline of this article mentions “reciprocity.” That’s a concept researched by persuasion expert Dr. Robert Cialdini. Basically, reciprocity goes like this: when I give you something, I expect something back (subliminally). So…when I make a gift to your charity, what do you give me back? Thanks is merely transactional. Flattery is far more penetrating. Tell me I’m a wonderful person. Over and over and over. I’ll actually pay you for that.

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Photo by Kristina Wagner.