donor confidential: jazz night train wreck

This donor story begins at a jazz night. A local chapter of a national nonprofit supporting teens hosted a Jazz night with professional jazz artists jamming together. Let’s call this nonprofit Teen Fun Alliance (TFA). A mid-30’s couple, both professionals, attended because of their interest and love of all things Jazz. Let’s call them Justin and Sara.

As these kind of things go, after the music (which Justin and Sara remember as excellent), the Teen Fun Alliance’s CEO stood up and told the story of TFA’s work and the need. The pitch was compelling and on-point. The stories of need moved Justin and Sara. The CEO’s description of how they were addressing the need was perfect. And it wasn’t too long.

The CEO closed by asking for everyone to look at the materials at the table. The primary ask he was making was for people to become monthly donors via credit card. The highest specific ask he made was for $312 monthly — a number calculated on the number of teens they were helping.

The night had been terrific for Justin and Sara. They believe they are living charmed lives and feel an obligation to give back to their community. Troubled teens are close to Sara’s heart. One thing led to another, and Justin and Sara made a one-year commitment for TFA to charge their credit card for $312 a month. It was their first gift to TFA.

TFA did a decent job of acknowledging and validating Justin and Sara’s decision to give. The quarterly newsletters weren’t great but were good enough that Justin and Sara could remember the general look and tone. And now the plot thickens.

Sara is a professional whose services most nonprofits need. Sara’s really good at her work, and she’s not cheap to hire. About 3 or 4 months into Justin and Sara’s monthly giving, the TFA CEO and a Board Member ask to have lunch with Justin and Sara. Calendars are compared, a place and time are agreed to. The donors and the nonprofit’s leaders did lunch.

The conversation, as Sara remembers it, centered in a thorny problem that TFA was wrestling with. Not a crisis, but certainly headed that way, sort of a pending-crisis. And, wouldn’t you know, the problems centered in Sara’s work. As they talked over burgers, Sara gave good advice and some basic analysis of the situation. The TFA guys leaned in, clearly this was headed in a good direction. They asked, would Sara be able to help them?

Sara agreed to help . . . for free. On top of their $312 monthly credit card gift, Sara has just put thousands of dollars of professional services on the table because of how much she appreciated the work they were doing.

Hands shook.

Business cards exchanged.

The CEO was going to get back with Sara on the problem.

Justin and Sara bought the burgers for everyone.

The TFA guys got in their car and drove off.

Justin and Sara never heard from either of the TFA leaders ever again . . . well, except for the CEO’s column in the TFA quarterly newsletter and as a signature on the monthly receipt.


Sara told me that she kept waiting for an email or a call. At first, she expected a follow up on her offer to help. But after several weeks passed, she then began to expect a “thanks but no thanks” email. She didn’t get either. Another case of radio silence. And she wondered what had happened.

In fact, at the end of the 12-month commitment, TFA continued to charge the card for the 13th month. Sara called the TFA office and canceled future transactions. And asked to be removed from TFA’s mailing list. TFA agreed without asking why and that was that.

Even thought she loves the work TFA is doing, Sara told me she’d never give to TFA again because of how the CEO and Board Member treated her. Not that Sara wanted to do the work for them, but for the fact that they asked, she offered, they agreed and never contacted her again. Sara’s a pro, and she says she would have completely understood if TFA’s CEO had emailed saying that he appreciated the offer but needed to pass. But the lack of communications after all Sara and Justin had done and proposed doing damaged the new relationship beyond repair (not that TFA tried to repair the relationship).

TFA alienated a new donor, lost at least $3,600 annually (via credit card) and didn’t get help with their thorny problem.

What are our takeaways from the Jazz Night Train Wreck?

First, don’t be afraid of offering a compelling monthly donor option at events. Who knew that Justin and Sara were going to be monthly donors? They didn’t know until they were asked. Don’t assume you know who’s in the room. Ask.

Second, don’t be afraid of a “gimmicky” ask amount. Justin and Sara knew $312 was artificial, but they went with it. It was part of the experience . . . and Sara said that for the first few months, when they saw that transaction on the credit card bill they remembered the “ask” and why they were giving 312 dollars, not just 300 dollars. Calculated ask amounts work for a variety of reasons. The right amount can be rather sticky. Unfortunately, toward the end of their relationship, that amount on the credit card statement bugged Sara (“Why had TFA acted that way?). Sara told me that it wasn’t exactly that her feelings were hurt. It wasn’t like she’d offered to help with a problem out of the blue and they didn’t take her up on it. It was that they’d asked for help she could give. She’d agreed. And they hadn’t even given her the courtesy of telling her they didn’t need her help any more. No “thanks, but no thanks.” The silence was what felt disrespectful. And the silence was what ultimately ended the relationship for Justin and Sara. Which leads us naturally to our next take away.

Third, if you ask a donor for help, follow up. Of course, everyone gets busy. Plans and needs change. But. If you open a personal line of communication with a donor, stay with them. Be polite and respectful. Keep your loops closed and tight. Return calls. Respond to emails. OK, you’re thinking that’s such a “Duh” kind of takeaway, right? Except that NPOs and ministries blow this basic rule constantly. Not always about an request for help. But often in general communications, donors ask questions and the responses aren’t always quick or complete.

Last, don’t forget that donors are regular people. They just want to have respectful relationships. Sure they’re busy, and it’s hard to get their attention, BUT when you have their attention, you must pay attention. Just communicate. Talk to them. Tell them. And if you blew it, tell them that. Honest, heartfelt apologies go a long way.

So what about you? What did you learn from the Jazz Night Train Wreck? I’d love to hear your donor story. Email them to donor AT Oneicity DOT com. That’ll reach me.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credit: maximeauger)

Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

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