The GiveWell Blog

The customer is on your side

Crif-Dogs and I have different goals. They want my money; I want their delicious bacon-wrapped hot dog. They have to listen to me and cater to me to win my $4.50 (shut up – it’s well worth it). They might think I’m an idiot to want mustard with my bacon-dog, but they give it to me anyway because it’s what I want. That’s your standard customer-marketer relationship: the customer is always right.

That shouldn’t be how the donor-nonprofit relationship works.

The nonprofit sector is truly unique, because the charity “serving” me wants the same thing I do: to make the world a better place.

If I could just get the charities I work with to understand this, my life would be so much easier. But when I pick up the phone to get information, I run into a marketer (or “developer”). Marketers are taught to serve the customer; charm the customer; make the customer feel good; don’t contradict the customer. So I get salesy fact sheets; I get reassuring platitudes; I get thank-you notes; and when I ask questions that don’t make sense (it happens), I get answers that don’t either.

There’s no good reason for this. If the information I say I want isn’t relevant, tell me why. If helping people isn’t as simple as I’d like to think, explain. If the only way to get me to really understand your organization is to contradict my assumptions, isn’t that what you have to do? What’s holding you back?

Is it that you’re afraid the truth will make me donate somewhere else? If so, what are you doing working for this charity? You got into this business to help people, right?

Is the reasoning a Machiavellian “Get the money to the right place, for the wrong reasons?” You might want to re-examine your assumptions about your donors. How sure are you that they’re really so stupid and myopic? Might the gains you make by babying your donors be offset by the potential donors you’re losing, people who just want to be treated like adults and told what they’re actually paying for? Hint: people who are smart and thoughtful – and hesitant to spend money when they don’t truly understand where it’s going – often end up with lots of disposable income.

Or is the reason you don’t answer our questions that you don’t know what the answers are? Do you really understand what your organization does? Do you really believe that you work for the best charity in the world? If not, why on earth are you spending your life marketing for it?

For-profit marketing might be soulless and salesy, full of people persuading others of what they don’t believe themselves. But nonprofit marketing should be just the opposite. Marketers shouldn’t want to “serve” the donor; they should want the same thing the donor wants. As a nonprofit employee, you’re presumably sacrificing some income to help the particular organization you’ve chosen – that makes you the donor.

The first step to becoming a great nonprofit marketer should be to do great donor-side research, because when you find the organization you believe in with your heart and soul, marketing and transparency are one and the same.


  • David on March 1, 2007 at 2:52 pm said:

    I fully agree with your point, but I fully know there is another side. (Note, I worked for 5 years for a nonprofit in the middle east).

    How great it would be if all donors truly wanted to be treated like adults and were willing to wade through the often complicated facts of trying to help people. The ‘reassuring platitudes’ and thank-you notes exist for multiple reasons, but one very real reason is that many donors “want” the platitudes and thank-you notes. They don’t actually want the truth: the complicated facts of what it takes to help people. Especially in cross-culture projects, the “best” way to help isn’t always the most efficient way or even the most fiscally responsible way. Sometimes helping involves perceived waste, that’s the truth.

    A small example: In many cultures what you wear when you visit someone demonstrates how much respect you have for them. It is also true that often the first step in helping people is restoring their respect and dignity. The director of our organization often took flak for wearing nice suits – ‘Why is he spending money on suits when he is supposed to by helping people? That money should go for other things.’ Well, that money was going toward communicating the fact that he had tremendous respect for each of the people he visited and the bond of mutual respect would open doors to help in very practical ways that probably would not have opened had he shown up in shorts and t-shirt.

    I wish all donors truly wanted to understand all the facets involved in helping people, but often they actually just want to feel good about being the kind of person who helps people. . .or they simply want the tax write-off. Above all, what they often “don’t” want is their assumptions contradicted. They “don’t” want an education. They just want an easy way to feel good about ‘doing their part.’ It’s difficult to figure out which ones truly care about the goal of an organization and which ones just want to write a check and move on. Unfortunately, there often aren’t enough “adult” donors to allow an organization to do away with platitudes and thank-you notes (actually, it is always good to say thank-you).

    And one hard lesson I learned was that it is often impossible to fully understand a cross-cultural situation without being there. So, no matter how much I wanted to explain or how much a donor wanted to understand, there was often still a gap that was impossible to cross without the common ground of living in the other culture. Sometimes you just get tired of not being understood even when you explain and explain. Settling for a platitude and a thank-you isn’t always a cop-out, but sometimes is simply the meeting ground of trust: the donor trusting the organization to wade through the complications and do good, and the organization trusting the donor to truly be on their side even though all they’re able to do at the moment is write a check.

    The truth is usually simple, but it is a simplicity that exists on the far side of complexity.

    So, should organizations have honest, down to earth answers for questions on how they are spending the money and how they are actually helping others? Yes, of course. Should donors actually care deeply about what they donate to and be willing to stuggle to understand situations that may be completely outside their experience and perhaps threaten their assumptions? Yes, of course. Will this happen in the majority of nonprofit/donor relationships? No, of course not. But should we all keep trying? Absolutely.

  • Holden on March 1, 2007 at 4:38 pm said:

    I’m aware that many donors don’t want the truth. What bothers me is that so many nonprofits don’t even seem capable of giving it to them. At that point, you have to wonder whether the donors are really the problem, or whether nonprofits’ assumptions are self-reinforcing: by assuming that donors don’t want the truth, they make it so hard for donors to get it that they end up attracting only those who don’t want it.

    RE its being “impossible to understand a situation unless you’re there” – I am skeptical of claims like this, but it depends what you mean. If you mean that it’s impossible to prove something about a culture to a donor who hasn’t see it, I agree – sometimes the people I talk to have seen things I haven’t seen, and I have to take their word that they’ve seen them. Trust comes in here. But to tell me that the culture is a certain way is still to give an explanation/description (even if an unprovable one) – by contrast, to refuse any explanation, and say “We can’t do things in such-and-such a way because … well, you just have to be there,” just reeks of refusing to question one’s intuitions.

  • In the years I spent working at a large international nonprofit, I didn’t meet anyone in the marketing/donor services departments who appeared to care about the organization. They were all there because it was a job. I was something of a freak in the department.

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