Monday, April 09, 2007

Donor cultivation conversation, part II

Albert Ruesga, proprietor of the excellent White Courtesy Telephone, posted a thoughtful response to Saturday's little rant here about donor-cultivation practices. (Today someone else has also left a comment which is specious, and anyway I don't debate with folks who aren't willing to put their names behind their ideas.) The subject seems worth some continuing examination as opposed to simply dueling comments.

Albert makes several good points, including that we should distinguish between opt-in and opt-out followup practices by organizations. Read his comment in full for more. I think though that our differing perspectives are more at a macro level.

It's probably worth noting that as a non-profit careerist I am reasonably well-versed in modern standards and practices of donor cultivation. At the Nature Conservancy in the late 1990s I had a stretch getting trained in it (attended some AFP conferences and trainings) and for a year I supervised a team of annual-fund staffers and major-gift officers. Then as executive director of a growing performing-arts organization I personally instituted the basics of professional donor management, under the expert guidance of a board vice-chair who had been an experienced successful director of development at a larger organization. I am certainly not as knowledgeable in that subject as Albert or his colleagues, but the point is simply that I do have hands-on familiarity with the theory and practice.

The sense I have today, which I did not have in 2002 or 1997, is that some core assumptions in the non-profit development field (reflected in that NonProfit Times essay) are rooted in a dated understanding of what donors know, want and expect of us. I'm quite sure that Albert is right that a majority of AFP members would agree with the article, and that is exactly my concern. It feels increasingly as if a rapid shift in donor tastes and donor behavior is underway right now and that donor-cultivation best practices are not keeping up.

For example: clearly anyone like me who regularly makes contributions to a variety of non-profits is interested in staying up to date on what those groups are doing. A decade or two ago the only practical way for that to happen was to receive periodic missives from those organizations, and any reasonable adult would accept continuing solicitation or cultivation as the overhead cost of thusly staying informed about the group's work. Today though, the cost in time and effort to seek that knowledge on our own is orders of magnitude lower, and we happily do that because we get to do it on our time and schedule. Put another way: two whole generations of American adults have grown up expecting a sort of control of their own time and information flow which is fundamentally different than was true for my peers or my parents.

Several other examples come to mind. Now of course I know that AFP conferences today are full of discussion of how to adapt donor-contact and -cultivation best practices to the online world; so are any number of well-written blogs, and so forth. The concern I have, or the button which that NonProfit Times columnist pushed I guess, is that discussing how to adapt the existing paradigm seems to really miss the forest for the trees as far as what charitably-minded Americans of today expect and will tolerate, and how they will respond.

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