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Troubleshooting Midlevel Donor Programs

Posted: 9/7/2021

Click here to read on Philanthropy Daily.

By MATTHEW GERKEN

If you haven't seen it yet, you'll want to review NextAfter's study on "the Crisis of the midlevel donor." NextAfter made donations of between $1,000 and $5,000 to 37 organizations, then track what sort of communication they received in the 90 days following the donation. Would the nonprofits call up right away? What sort of mail and email would they receive? Would they be asked for another gift?

Most nonprofits have a system of some sort for thanking donors and transitioning them into house file mailings and other regular communication schedules (or at least, they should . . . if you don't, !). And the protocol tends to vary depending on the size of the gift. On the front end, a donor giving a first gift of $100 might get a courtesy call from a major gifts officer, while a first gift of $25,000 might earn a thank-you call from the board chair and an eager Executive Director demanding to know when he can show up in your living room.

But there's a difference between having these protocols in place in theory, and actually executing them successfully. And this is what NextAfter set out to test. The full study has finally been released, and you can download the whole e-book here, which includes numerous other studies. But a few shocking takeaways tell most of the story:

  • Only 3 out of 37 nonprofits (8%!) called to thank the new donor.
  • A handful sent no communication whatsoever: no call, no thank you note, no emails, no mailings.
  • Most communications weren't personalized, instead using generic terms like "Dear Friend". About one out of three groups never personalized at all, and as a group, the rest personalized mailings or emails less than half the time.

And remember, these are all in response to someone giving an initial gift of $1,000 or more. With stats like these, I'd rather give $1,000 to the next homeless person I meet. He or she will definitely at least remember me, whereas this evidence suggests that with nonprofits I'll get little other than a tax receipt and a clogged inbox of generic emails.

NextAfter's conclusion from their data is that there is a "dead zone" of midlevel donors in most organizations. In other words, low-level donors get mailings and emails appropriate for their gift size, and major donors at $10,000 and above get lavished with attention from development staff and executives. But at the crucial level of $1,000 to $5,000, you might be taken off the mailing list because you are perceived as too "high level" for direct mail, but then also miss out on personal cultivation because you are not seen as valuable enough to warrant attention from high-level staff.

There is no doubt some truth to this theory. But I wonder if the real story is that the situation is even worse: that nonprofits on the whole do a poor job of on-boarding new donors at any level, and that even well thought-out cultivation and communication strategies for different buckets of donors tend to fail at the point of execution due to overworked staff, poor communications infrastructure, and/or leadership wanting to chase the next big gift from a handful of top donors.

There's only one way to know, of course, and that is to test the theory. So if you've got an extra few hundred thousand dollars lying around, please contact me at , and together we'll see if we can replicate the results with larger gifts of $10,000 to $25,000.

Or, if you're leading a nonprofit receiving gifts—whether they are $100, $1,000, $10,000, or $100,000—take some time to review your acknowledgment procedures and your staff's execution of those procedures. Update them and make sure you aren't overlooking anyone or too understaffed to serve everyone.

And, finally, remember where you're most likely to find your next major donor: in your current file. Overlooking the mid-level donors is a tragedy above and beyond the loss of their next $2,000 gift. It's the loss of their future $50,000 gift.

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