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Donor Communications: A Tale of Two Nonprofits

Or Is It Tail?

I live within an easy drive of Highway 69 and I-10. If I just want to go to Louisiana, I can take either route. But one will take me close to Shreveport and the other will take me to New Orleans. The path you choose defines your ultimate destination.

Along the same lines, nonprofits all want effective donor communications, but too many take the path that makes their own lives easier. They really need to start with their donors’ perspective if they want to reach the right destination.

With that in mind, this is a tale of two nonprofits, as seen through the eyes of a donor. Her name is Ethel. To look at her modest lifestyle, you would never know that Ethel is a sharp investor. After her husband died and she retired, Ethel continued to build their healthy nest egg into a seven-figure portfolio.

She lives quietly with her constant companion, a maltipoo named Tootsie. On Saturdays, Ethel and Tootsie take a trip to the nearby PetSmart to walk the aisles, say hello to the other dogs and buy a chew toy or rawhide treat. At the register, Tootsie always gets a free dog biscuit. It’s their weekly adventure.

One week, there was a donation jar for a local animal shelter, Puppy Protectors. Ethel dropped the $2.35 she had received as change into the jar. On her way home, she passed a puppy adoption tent that another group, Furr Sure Shelters, had been set up in the park. She made a mental note to look both groups up on the internet when she got home.

She liked what she saw. “Tootsie, let’s give to both of them,” she said, and donated $50 to each group online.

And that is where her donor journeys with Puppy Protectors and Furr Sure Shelters took separate paths. Within moments, Furr Sure sent her an automated thank you email along with its boilerplate tax information. The email template had been created when Furr Sure signed on with a new donor database service to save the staff from having to create and send individual thank you emails. It hadn’t been changed in two years.

Puppy Protectors also sent a thank you email, but this one was followed by two more emails that welcomed Ethel to the organization, told her more about its success in rescuing abandoned dogs, and said Puppy Protectors would send regular updates and occasional fundraising information that she was free to opt out of. That series of emails was also automated, but had been planned out to engage new donors and the email templates were refreshed every three months to keep them up to date.

Ethel was an avid Facebook user and she “liked” both groups. The person in charge of Furr Sure’s page had a lot on her plate, so she tended to put off posting until the last minute. Ethel saw posts announcing a new board member and one that congratulated its executive director on her 10th work anniversary. Ethel scrolled past them without stopping.

Puppy Protector used its page to attract people to its website and add to its email list. The first post Ethel saw on its site was a picture of the Puppy Glamour Shot of The Week, a comical-looking mutt with some Scottish terrier and German Shepherd blood in its ancestry. The post said, “Click here if you would like us to send our Glamour Shot of the Week to your inbox.” so she did. The link went to a form, which she filled out.

True to its promise, Puppy Protector sent her a short email newsletter every week with a picture of a dog, plus updates on the shelter, upcoming events and an invitation to come volunteer. At the end of the month, she also received an email asking her to become a monthly donor. Ethel signed up to give $50 a month.

Furr Sure didn’t send out an email newsletter. The staff knew they were doing good work, but they just sort of assumed everyone knew it. Plus, newsletters took time and most of the people were small donors who never gave again anyway.

Every six months or so, Furr Sure did send an email with a “hard ask” for donations. The first one sent to Ethel said the cost of dog food was going up and, without her gift, Furr Sure would be forced to limit the number of dogs it could take in. “I wonder why they can’t manage their budget better?” she wondered.

Puppy Protectors also sent a donation email that included a short video of one of its adopted pets frolicking in the backyard of its new forever home. It said her gift could help make more dogs that happy. She wrote a check for $500, which prompted the development director to call to thank her. They wound up talking about Tootsie, whose birthday was coming up in two weeks.

Two weeks later, Tootsie got a birthday card from the Executive Director along with an invitation to Ethel to come see the shelter. Before long, Ethel was volunteering at the shelter every week. Tootsie had found a comfortable cushion in the Puppy Protector office while Ethel greeted people looking for a dog to adopt.

Nonprofit Gala Season rolled around in the Spring and an invitation from Furr Sure showed up in Ethel’s mail. She didn’t know anyone of the leading members of Houston society who were chairing the event and felt like she would be out of place. The invitation wound up in the trash. Furr Sure removed her from the mailing list as a lapsed donor after that.

Puppy Protector sent its gala invitations out a month later. The main attraction was a fashion show of formerly abandoned dogs strutting down the runway in original outfits created by local designers. “This I’ve got to see,” Ethel told Tootsie and bought a ticket to her first-ever charity gala.

When they auctioned off the designer outfits, she bid $2,000 and took home a one-of-a-kind Astros uniform that Tootsie wore with pride.

In September, Ethel missed her regular volunteer session at the shelter. The volunteer coordinator called to check on her, and Ethel broke down when she said that Tootsie had passed on the night before.

A week later Ethel called the development director about Puppy Protector’s capital campaign to build a second shelter in Houston. In particular, Ethel wanted to know about the offer to name individual kennel in the shelter in honor of donors who gave at the $25,000 level.

Today, Puppy Protector’s one kennel in the new shelter has a plaque, “In Honor of Tootsie.” Ethel is busy trying to train “Princess,” a lap dog of undeterminable heritage that she adopted from Puppy protector. She’s starting to think about making a legacy gift to the nonprofit in her will.

No one at Furr Sure knows who Ethel is, other than a record in its database that says she once made a $25 online donation.

Two very different donor journeys with very different destinations


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