Are Your Treating Your Donors Like Gumballs?

Gumball Machine cartoon Hugh MacLeod
Do you get your donor’s gift, chew it up, then spit it out? Done?

Want your donors to sustain you? Then you can’t consume them in five minutes. Yet all too often nonprofits treat their donors exactly like a gumball dispensed from a machine. Chew it up. Spit it out. Done.

Oh, yeah… maybe you send a quick thanks to whoever gave you the change to buy the gum.  But that’s as far as your gratitude takes you. You’re over it. You never even think about that gumball again. You probably can’t even remember what color it was. You’re off hunting down your next snack.

Little snacks are nice.  But they won’t sustain you over time.  One-time donations are the same way.  And they’ll stay that way – one time – if you treat them the way you treat your gumballs.

There’s a better way. You’ve got to think from the perspective of the gumball.  It’s perfectly happy to have you enjoy it. That’s why it’s there.  But it wants to know it made an impact. Tell it how happy you are with it.  Tell it you think its color is pretty (that means, of course, that you have to take notice). Blow a bubble.  Tuck it away to save it for later. Write it a note. Invite some of its friends over to your place. Find out more about it. Think of it fondly, and let it know now and again.  Don’t wait until the next time you want a gumball to tell this one how you feel.

Okay… the metaphor may be breaking down a bit, but you get the picture. You’ve got to think about building a relationship with your gumball (aka donor).  No one enjoys being simply tossed into the trash (or your donor data base) and then being forgotten about.

If a donor makes a gift and you simply dispense an automated thank you, and nothing more, that’s not a donor relationship.  That’s a transaction.  And you can have 100 or 1,000 or 100,000 thousand of them this year.  But that’s just now. They may help you balance your annual ledgers, but they won’t move the needle on solving your overarching problem or achieving your ultimate vision. One-time gifts are here today, gone tomorrow. In fact, a benchmarking report conducted by Blackbaud shows that a whopping 70% of first-time donors won’t give again. Zowie!
Transactions won’t help you next year or the year after that. No. You’ve got to transform the transactions into something longer lasting. Stop with the spitting out of snacks.  Start with creating some nourishing meals.

Here’s another metaphor – the potluck.  When I’m asked to bring some snacks or paper goods or even a beverage, I run to the store at the last minute and grab something.  I’m not too invested.  However, when I’m asked to bring a main course that will serve 10 then I get serious.  I think about what I’ll make.  I go to the store and buy enough ingredients to serve the full group.  I come home and cook.  I make sure I don’t flake out because people are depending on me for the main meal.  Even if I get sick, I’ll make sure that somehow the meal gets there.  That’s how you want your donors to feel!

Your donor needs to know you rely on them.  You’re all about solving problems, right? Well so is your donor. They need to know they’re essential to your survival.  It’s your job to let them know. If they ask how much you need, don’t say “any gift helps.” That’s like telling me to bring “whatever” to the potluck.  It makes me feel unimportant, and certainly doesn’t fire my imagination.

If you’ve been treating your donors like gumballs, start tomorrow with these 5 tips:

1. Thank them immediately, and with gusto.  Savor the moment of this first gift. Remember, first gifts are where the relationship building begins.  They aren’t where it ends. A study conducted by Charity Dynamics and NTEN shows that 21% of donors say they were never thanked for their support. Don’t be one of the bad guys.

2. Pay attention to any particularities. Did they ask to remain anonymous? Do they want you to mail only once a year? Did they ask you not to send a written thank you? Is there contact information on their check that isn’t yet in your database? Make a record of whatever you notice and put this into your database so you can create reports and queries and donor segments later on (if you don’t notice the gumball is blue you can’t group it in your database with all other blue gumballs, nor can you indicate in your thank you what a lovely blue color they were sporting).

3. Develop and implement a donor stewardship plan that offers your donor opportunities of value to them.  Donors want to know their money didn’t go into a black hole. Thank them more than once. Show them the impact of their gift through photos, videos, client thank you letters, etc. Make sure you touch them more than once before you ask for another gift.

4. Wrap engagement opportunities into your stewardship plan.  The goal is to learn more about your donor, and to reveal more of yourself to them.  This is what’s called a relationship, and it requires an investment of your time. And the donor’s time. Once a donor becomes engaged they’re much more likely to become invested further.  That’s why Publisher’s Clearinghouse makes you tear off and affix a zillion stickers to your sweepstakes entry. They want you to have some skin in the game. The wedding comes after the engagement. If you want folks  to say “I do”, don’t rush it.

5. Always be donor-centered. Today’s donors can be found in many different places.  Maybe your first gumball came from a machine.  But gumballs also hang out in boxes on shelves in stores.  And you can find them in piñatas. If you want to consistently find them, you have to look in all the places they are. If you want folks to be there for you, you’ve got to  be there for them.  It’s just common sense. So find out which social channels your supporters frequent (you can do a simple survey using Google Docs or Survey Monkey); then engage your donors where they are.

Donors are people too. Don’t you like it when people make an effort to get to know you? And when they then show you they know you?  It’s pretty simple, but for some reason most nonprofits don’t do it all that well.  If you become the exception, you’ll rock your fundraising next year.

What’s your favorite donor stewardship tip?

 Cartoon by Hugh MacLeod, Gaping Void

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About Claire

I’m Claire and I want to help you raise more money, reach more people and build long-lasting relationships with your supporters. Take a look in the archives.


  1. Love it! Keep it coming! Great work! Great insight!

  2. Love the metaphor….. Thanks for the giggle, and for articulating this so well!


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