We don’t care what our donors think of us

home_photoby Guest Editor Tom Ahern It was a moment. Adrian Sargeant—that’s Professor Adrian Sargeant—researcher, author, holder of the first Robert F. Hartsook Chair in fundraising at The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, had just finished explaining how marketers use satisfaction surveys to gauge the contentment of their customers. You’ve seen these surveys. They make statements, then offer the survey-taker five choices: strongly disagree, disagree, neither agree nor disagree, agree, strongly agree. (That particular range of choices is called a Likert scale, by the way; named for the psychologist who invented it. It’s the most widely used scale in survey research.) So. There were at least 150 fundraisers in the room on December 1 in Toronto, at the AFP Congress. And Dr. Sargeant asked that audience, “How many here conduct donor satisfaction surveys?” My head swiveled to sweep the room. Not one hand went up that I could see. It was definitely a moment. A room packed with professional fundraisers had just admitted they didn’t know the first thing about measuring customer (i.e., donor) satisfaction. And yet that kind of measurement is the foundation for predictable, sustainable marketing (i.e., fundraising) success. Welcome to another dark secret of the fundraising industry. Fundraising, stripped of its airs, is technically just a form of marketing. Yet fundraisers do not commonly track marketing’s most basic metric: satisfaction. Oops. Dr. Sargeant has conducted his own donor satisfaction surveys, since charities seem universally disinclined to do so. I’ll give you a moment to fetch a tissue. Here’s his key finding: Donors in general are not very satisfied with the charities they support. Let’s return to the Likert scale. The choice in the middle of the scale is neither agree nor disagree. Another name for that same middle value is neutral. And that’s where the fundraising industry is stuck: neutral. Adrian Sargeant found that most donors have neither a good nor a bad opinion of their charities. Mostly they have no opinion. Happy with that? Don’t be. In a well-run, profitable marketing (i.e., fundraising) operation, most customers (i.e., donors) would say they are either satisfied or very satisfied in satisfaction surveys. Neutral is for losers. And that’s where we’re stuck. Dr. Sargeant went on to enumerate how businesses “lose a lover” (i.e., a customer, i.e., a donor):
  • Ignore them
  • Lie to them
  • Fail to return calls/answer letters
  • Be uncivil
  • Fail to deliver on promises
  • Increase prices
  • Don’t turn up on time
He also pointed out that the #1 reason—by far—causing customer (i.e., donor) defection is this: “lack of interest from the supplier” (i.e., lack of interest from the charitable organization). Translation: The apparently common practice of never asking donors about their satisfaction is suicidal. Takeaway: The predictable result of neutral satisfaction among donors? Shamefully subpar donor retention. According to Dr. Sargeant, in the UK, half of first-time donors do not make a second gift. In the U.S., it’s even worse: Of every six new donors acquired, five depart inside a year, his studies show. Reprinted with permission from the Ahern E-Newsletter: About Donor Communications. Copyright © 2010 by Tom Ahern.