Communications principles in the day-to-day work of fundraising

[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In Representations of Global Poverty, Nandita Dogra advances several critiques of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) public fundraising and advocacy messages. Some of Dogra’s key areas of concern include:

  • the inclination of INGOs to use negative messages that highlight needs, crisis and disaster and that paint a picture of weakness, inferiority and dependence;
  • a tendency for INGOs to focus on their own achievements;
  • the portrayal of the developed world as ‘active givers’ and the majority world as ‘passive receivers’;
  • the erasure of complexity and context when INGOs communicate about relief and development to such an extent that they end up communicating ‘safe’ and overly simplified messages that do not say much.

Dogra’s critiques are serious and INGOs must grapple with them. In this article, I analyze my own practice as someone who has extensively communicated to MCC’s donors, using Dogra’s concerns as a guide.

MCC’s brand guide, which addresses many of Dogra’s critiques, provides basic information meant to shape the “communications of all MCCers”, including donor relations, or fundraising, staff. The priority in all MCC communications is to “share stories and information about our international programs and the people we serve in order to actively engage donors in our work, to broaden people’s worldview and to increase our donor base.” MCC messaging aims to: focus on people (“characterized by dignity, agency and value”); reveal both need and strength (“We report honestly about the needs we encounter while affirming the dignity and agency of each person”); and show compassion, as modeled in Jesus’ concern for the poor and marginalized.

Donor emails, however, are a ubiquitous form of communication that fall outside of MCC’s formal and edited communications and are not always consistent with the standards outlined in MCC’s brand guide. For this study, I reviewed 118 donor thank-you emails that I sent to MCC donors between January 3 and 13, 2017. Roughly one in six emails (19 out of 118) had an “impact report” attached, supplementing the content of the email with more detail.

In reviewing each of the emails I had sent to donors, it became clear that many of Dogra’s critiques applied to them. The emails are short and give minimal detail, especially those without a link to an impact report. They are generic and simple, avoiding complexity and context, echoing Dogra’s criticism of simplified, “safe” messaging. In the few words used in the emails (50 words per email was typical), the main actors are the donor (“your generous gift”, “know that your gifts have made a real difference”; all emphases here and below are added for this article) and MCC (“your partnership with us”, MCC’s work, “as we respond”). The project partners, communities and participants (i.e., “beneficiaries”)—central to the story of MCC’s relief, development and peacebuilding projects—are rarely mentioned. Furthermore, while compassion makes an appearance, the emails do not balance need and strength in alignment with MCC’s stated guidelines when beneficiaries are included (“those in need around the world”; “refugees in crisis”; “your gifts have made a real difference in the lives of families in need”).

What implications does this analysis have? From a fundraiser’s perspective, it would be unrealistic and problematic to stop sending these short thank-you emails or to substantially lengthen the thank-you emails to include everything named in the brand guide that is important to communicate. Either course of action would overlook some critical realities: we need to say thanks and we only have about 11 seconds to do so.

We need to say thanks because, along with our communications guidelines, we are committed to the Associate of Fundraising Professionals code of conduct and ethical code, which mandates timely stewardship (including acknowledgement and thanks for the gift). And saying thanks is itself one of the communications principles from our brand guide: “we take every opportunity to acknowledge and thank supporters who make our stories possible.” Donors are a central part of the story of MCC’s relief, development and peacebuilding work, and they should know this!

There are some significant challenges that donor relations staff face in this critical work. For one, people’s attentions spans are short. Litmus Email Analytics has shown that the average time that people spend reading an email is 11 seconds. Another challenge is the sheer volume of emails required if we want to thank everyone who makes a gift. In 2017, approximately 7000 unique donors in Ontario alone made financial contributions to MCC. The combination of short attention spans and the need to reach out to so many donors lends itself to a short email. Put another way, a short email directly correlates to a higher number of donors receiving a thank you and actually reading it (assuming the same number of hours invested in the task). The result is an imperfect solution (a brief
email) to an imperative (the need to say thanks).

The question thus becomes: how might we improve the imperfect imperatives that are donor thank-you emails? A 50-word email will never avoid all of Dogra’s critiques (a short email must by its nature be an oversimplification), nor do justice to MCC’s own communication guidelines. But there are some simple tweaks to these short emails that are possible, such as avoiding negative messages that highlight needs or crisis. And as we saw with 19 of the 118 emails analyzed in this study, fundraising staff can quite easily attach impact reports that align with MCC’s brand standards (balancing needs with strength and highlighting the agency of beneficiaries and implementing partners rather than the achievements of MCC) and also address Dogra’s critiques. While it does not completely resolve the tension among Dogra’s critiques, short attention spans and limited staff time available for donor engagement, a clear improvement and next step for fundraising staff is to more consistently attach impact reports that align with MCC’s brand guide to donor thank-you emails whenever possible.

Allan Reesor-McDowell worked as MCC Ontario donor engagement manager and currently serves as executive director of Matthew House Ottawa.

Learn More

Dogra, Nandita. Representations of Global Poverty: Aid, Development and International NGOs. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014.

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