The Only Cure for Donor Fatigue

It happened again. I was meeting with a school head recently and she told me, “Our fundraising is flat, we are experiencing a lot of donor fatigue.” I told her that I was not surprised to hear that, because donor fatigue is easily spread through contact with unicorns. Ok, I really wasn’t that sarcastic (but I wanted to be). I did go on to explain to this very knowledgeable and experienced school academic leader that there is no such thing as donor fatigue. Donor fatigue is not a real disease; it is a misdiagnosis of another significant problem. That problem: the inability of organizations to keep donors excited and engaged in their missions, accomplishments and goals. Donors do not get “fatigued” from giving to support things they are passionate about. In fact, that experience excites and invigorates donors. What donors get tired of is being taken for granted. They get tired of the assumption that a hastily crafted annual-fund appeal, to maintain the status quo, is all that is required for their continued generous support. Donors get tired of uninspired strategic plans. They get tired of the same message over and over again. School leaders and development officers want to put the blame on them – or on others – by diagnosing them with donor fatigue. However, the real issue is how institutions have cultivated the relationship with them, stewarded donor’s past gifts, communicated the value of what the school is doing and failed to engage supporters in making the school’s goals come to fruition.

How do we – fundraising consultants – know that donor fatigue is a myth when so many others believe it to be an epidemic? We know because we are constantly listening to donors in the course of our consulting and feasibility study work. One donor recently told us “There is no shortage of philanthropic funds; what is in short supply is good, well-conceived and exciting projects to fund.” Donor fatigue is really just code for donor apathy or “I’m not interested in this.” I cannot tell you how many times we have interviewed a prospective donor about a potential capital campaign and had them tell us that they were “pledged out” at the moment, only to interview them a short time later, for a different project, and have them indicate significant financial support. What they were really telling us the first time was not “I don’t have any more money to donate,” but “I don’t have any money that I’m willing to donate for THAT project.”

Donors do not get tired of supporting organizations that do good work, communicate their successes, have a vision for the future and communicate that vision in a clear and inspiring way. So, what is the cure for donor fatigue? Other than the obvious (avoid contact with unicorns) the prescription is – Physician heal thyself – take a hard, objective look at how you are communicating with donors and assess whether you are invigorating and exciting them, or exhausting and tiring them.