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McLellan: Don’t beg from strangers


I’ve spent a lot of time in major cities like New York City, and as I walk those streets, and I am always very much aware of the homeless. They hold up signs that tell us in a sentence or two the situation that has them on the street. 

It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also, for many of them, a business. They scope out strategic locations. They rotate their signs to see which one garners more donations. And some of them have figured out that a cat or dog by their side increases engagement and contributions.

I always have singles in my pocket and try to order some extra food in restaurants, so I can offer them something to eat. I know we’re not supposed to give them money, but I find some of them so compelling, I can’t just walk away. 

But they outnumber me by the hundreds. I can’t give money to them all, and I absolutely give based on my own biases and triggers. A pet will almost always get me to stop. I give to women more often than men. I am drawn in by certain stories. 

The truth is, I rarely see the same person twice or give to the same person twice. And I don’t give enough money to be significant on its own. Their strategy only works because of volume. Enough people walk by them every day that a dollar here or there adds up. 

I couldn’t help but think about that phenomenon over the holiday season as the solicitation letters started pouring in. Most of them told me their story in a few sentences. They might have included photos of an adorable child or a sweet animal. But like the homeless on the streets, we didn’t have a relationship. They hadn’t been talking to me all year long. I knew exactly why they were trying to initiate a relationship – they wanted my money.

When I did write a check and send it or donate online, suddenly it was crickets. Either I didn’t hear anything at all or I kept getting requests for money. On occasion, it was another email or mailer. Other times, board members or volunteers who know me reached out. They didn’t have any idea that I’d already made a donation.

None of that made me feel like my donation was even noticed or big enough to matter. I know it’s old-school, but I didn’t receive a single thank-you note (from the organization or my peers who did the soliciting) after I made a contribution.

I don’t regret giving the money to the organizations. They were worthy causes that I believe in and want to support. But it was very transactional, and I didn’t feel like I made a difference. Which significantly reduced my interest in giving to them again next holiday season or throughout the year.

I am not ripping on nonprofits. I am grateful for how they change our community every day. It’s not about what they did terribly wrong. It’s that they missed the opportunity to do some things overly right and be even more successful in their fundraising.

Unlike the homeless who may only see a particular donor once in a lifetime and have no opportunity to truly forge a relationship, nonprofit organizations need to amplify their efforts. They can’t get by on a volume of singles.

In next week’s column, we’ll look at some of the best practices and best practitioners of donor relations to see if we can identify patterns and behaviors that every nonprofit in Central Iowa can internalize as they work toward maximizing their fundraising efforts.

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