It’s time to listen to the Hamster of Fundraising Wisdom

July 26 2015 - Mark Phillips

When I was child, we lived in a flat (that's an apartment or condo for my north American readers). Like any small boy, I wanted a pet. I'd have liked a dog or a cat, but the architectural restrictions we lived under meant this was impossible.

So instead I got a hamster. I called him Herman. Both because of the alliterative quality of the name and because I liked Fred Gwynne's character in The Munsters.

Getting him was far from easy. I only got the go ahead after an extended period of pleading and negotiations that meant I had to agree to a series of tough conditions.

I had to feed him and change his water, I had to make sure he received plenty of exercise and most importantly, at least in my mum's eyes, I had to make sure he didn't smell. That meant that I had to regularly clean out his cage.

I readily and excitedly agreed to every single one. And I kept to them too. For or at least the first month. It was then that my mother realised that I needed "support and encouragement" to ensure that Herman had the nice clean home and interesting life that he deserved.

So a whole range of privileges became dependent on how well Herman was treated. A request for a little extra pocket money was met with the suggestion that it might be forthcoming once his cage was cleaned. Asking for a bar of chocolate would generate a response that focused on me being asked when Herman was last given a good run outside his cage.

In short, I discovered that having a hamster wasn't like having a toy that could be put away and forgot about until the next time I decided that I wanted to build Thunderbird 2 out of Lego.

No. A hamster came with responsibilities. It was all well and good having Herman as a little playmate, but it was when my mum said that if I wasn't prepared to actually care for him, I shouldn't have asked for a hamster in the first place, that I actually started to understand.

Having a pet, was as much about care as fun. And the more care I put in, the better my relationship with Herman became and the more fun we would both have. We even developed a trick where he would climb up my trouser leg and finally emerge through the neck of my T-shirt.

So, what's this got to do with fundraising?

To get the most out of your relationship with donors, you need to look after them.

So many of the complaints that we've seen from donors over the last few months are based on the fact that many charities aren't bothering to build a relationship with them and instead are replacing engagement with repeated requests for a regular gift and upgrades.

Back in 2004, nfpSynergy found that the fundraising method that irritated donors the most was direct mail. Today, it is what can be broadly termed as interruption techniques – face to face, telephone and text messaging.

The fact is, these techniques can raise significant amounts of income. But it's really hard to engage people recruited through these methods. I've written about my thoughts on the type of donors these routes can generate before.

A focus on them tends to build a file that is highly unresponsive to anything other then telephone calls. Cash appeals, legacy campaigns and newsletters struggle. The result is that fundraisers often give up and just focus on upgrade calling, keeping their fingers crossed that regulars givers won't cancel. It's got to the point where some charities are attempting to upgrade regular givers every nine months.

This sort of misses the point. Just because these donors aren't direct mail responsive, doesn't mean that they should be treated like living ATM machines. If they only respond on the telephone, use that to engage them. Ring them up and say thank you. Ask them why they support you and concentrate on that in your future communications – this is particularly important for healthcare charities.

As a sector, we are in danger of building a feeling amongst the next generation of donors that we don't really care about them.

In Bluefrog's private research we still find older donors tend to be very forgiving when it comes to charity communications. The fact is they actually don't expect that much from us. It's a far different situation with younger (middle-aged) people. They are much more likely to actually get angry when they feel they are being treated poorly by charities.

We need to remember that donors are not 'ours'. We share them. We need to consider the fact that we are all responsible for caring for them. A poor experience can hurt us all. And though an over-reliance on interruption techniques might recruit more donors for your charity in the short-term, that may well come at a significant cost to the sector.

Which might make all our good ideas, hard work and innovation a waste of time. When we look at the numbers, we'll see that we resemble a hamster on a wheel. No matter how fast we run, we simply don't get anywhere.

Which brings us to a little friendly advice from the Hamster of Fundraising Wisdom…

Recruit-donors

And if you are thinking of calling your donors with a thank you call, now might be a great time to start. Many telephone fundraising agencies are struggling as charities cancel their campaigns. I know that they would be glad of the business.

The fact is we don't have to stop using the telephone. We just need to use it differently.

  • I now have this image of a donor climbing up the inside of my trouser leg……. I suppose he becomes a legacy pledger when he pops out of the top of my T shirt

  • Very enjoyable analogy used in this article, Mark. I hear countless tales of people who have been abused by the very organisations which they are giving money to. I once heard of a donor who, having given a considerable sum was looking forward to a call/letter of thanks and to say what the money had been used for. When a letter arrived in the post you can imagine how insulting it was that instead of a letter of gratitude the charity had sent a request for more money! Is that comparable to trapping the hamster inside the shirt? If so, you’re sure to get bitten.