Earlier this year, I made a $15 donation to a small nonprofit and also pledged a planned gift, potentially worth six figures, to a huge charity. Guess which organization did a better job of followup?
Prompted by one of those "Thanks to a generous donor, all donations made TODAY will be matched!" appeals, I made the $15 donation online. As with most online donations, within minutes of pressing the "Donate" button I received an acknowledgment of my support.
But what was truly astonishing was what happened over the next two weeks: not only did I receive a written thank-you personally signed by the executive director by regular mail, I also received a phone call from a staffer thanking me for my generosity.
The potential six-figure planned gift was made in person, in the charity's office. I was there for a meeting and learned by happenstance that every time the organization was mentioned in a will or named as a beneficiary of a retirement fund, an anonymous donor would make a substantial gift to the group. I had long admired the charity's work, had made numerous gifts in support of its efforts in the past, and years ago had designated a percentage of my retirement account, upon my death, to its cause. With pleasure, I signed the pledge card, knowing that my potential future gift would also have an immediate impact on the organization's bottom line. I was thanked in person for my gift and was told I'd be invited to an event for those who had committed to making similar gifts.
Months have passed since that day and I have yet to receive a written thank-you note — either via email or regular mail — for my pledge, nor any formal welcome to the organization's planned-giving society. No one has asked me to document the pledge or share the name of the investment company that manages my retirement fund. I have received no communiqués spelling out how my future gift will make a difference. Nor, for that matter, have I received any information about a donor event.
The organization that received my modest $15 donation raises less than $2 million annually, has a small staff, and, according to its financial filings, depends on the generosity of about a dozen individuals for approximately half of its funding. Given its size and relatively narrow donor base, one could argue that it needs to enthusiastically steward all donors and supporters who come its way.
By contrast, the second charity is many times larger, in both budget and staff headcount, and has an experienced, professional development office — which makes it all the more puzzling that the organization has made no effort to date to acknowledge my planned gift. After all, if the donor of such a gift does not feel valued and appreciated, there's nothing to prevent him or her from changing the named beneficiary of the gift.
To be clear: I am still committed to the mission of the second charity, and my primary motivation for making my pledge was to ensure its good work continues after I am gone — not because I need someone to say "thank you."
But in the ever-crowded marketplace for philanthropic dollars, a charity cannot assume that others will feel the same way.
According to Giving USA 2019: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2018, there are at least two emerging trends that should worry leaders in the nonprofit sector: 1) the 1.6 percent year-over-year increase in dollars donated by individuals in 2018 was almost entirely driven by gifts of $1,000 or more, even as the number of people who gave fell by 4.5 percent and the number of new donors fell by a worrisome 7.3 percent; and 2) the nearly $40 billion total in charitable bequests in 2018 was essentially unchanged from the 2017 total (and down 2.3 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars) — despite rising mortality rates among the Silent Generation (those born before 1946) and the oldest boomers (those born after 1946).
Put simply, the data suggests that charities which ignore both ends of the giving spectrum — new, lower-level donors who might one day become bigger donors, as well as those who care enough about a cause or organization to include it in their estate plans — do so at their own peril.
My small charity of choice knows what means to have a donor-centric culture. As for the larger one, the jury is still out.
Ellen Flax (www.ellenflax.com) served as the director of a public foundation and as a program officer and consultant at several large family foundations and now works as a philanthropy consultant.