by Kyla Winchester

This may be a controversial statement: I donated to a GoFundMe a few days ago, and I loved it.

Over the weekend, you may have seen that Iqaluit had no drinking water. Not just the common but nonetheless appalling news that an Indigenous community has been under a boil-water order for several years, but that their water was too contaminated to drink at all. This would be extremely difficult for me to handle even in the middle of a city, but for isolated communities, this is devastating.

Almost as soon as I saw social posts about the undrinkable water, I saw a GoFundMe posted as well. I donated. At the time I gave, the original goal of $1000 had already been surpassed; it is now at over $60,000.

You might be wondering, what is this person doing with $60,000? Well, I can tell you, because the creator of the GoFundMe has posted several updates, with a detailed list of what has been purchased, how many people/households have been helped, what’s next, and even photos showing supplies being unloaded. As a donor, seeing this update (emailed via GoFundMe) felt very good.

There could be lots of reasons people give to a GoFundMe or similar: some people might not have been donating to traditional charities yet, so don’t see email, mail, social, etc. appeals; people see their connections sharing GoFundMe links for friends, and it can feel good to help someone you know; maybe their donations are small and they don’t care about a tax receipt; or maybe they have had bad or even just less satisfying experiences with charities in the past and actively avoid them.

For all of these reasons, and many I likely haven’t predicted, charities are losing ground to individual donation appeals, because they can be very, very effective at eliciting emotion. The more controversial statement likely is: we’re not doing right by these donors.

Thank you isn’t enough

We know that we need to thank our donors. I heard someone say in the beginning of my fundraising days that donors need to be thanked 3 times before they feel thanked.  This was insightful to me in several ways, one of which was that it illustrated the gap between what we think we’re doing as fundraisers and what our donors feel we’ve done.

While we still need to thank donors (repeatedly), a basic thank-you may not be enough, especially when GoFundMe allows me to not only know the name of the person I donated to, but to get an update from them in real time, via a personal thank-you. While fundraisers understand the need for thank-yous, we are not as great at impact. It’s hard to break through silos and speak to program staff about the impact of each dollar; it’s hard to quantify the cost to help one person or provide an "average" service; it’s hard to find heartfelt stories that demonstrate impact, especially when considering privacy and dignity of certain populations, or the inability of a rare plant to show appreciation; and it’s hard to stray from the formal language we usually use and speak like I would speak to you in real life.

Deep impact

Despite these difficulties, it’s important to fight through them to truly demonstrate impact for donors, and not just when it comes time for an annual report. Firstly, not everyone receives an annual report, whether via mail or digital communications. Secondly, even if every donor shared their email address when donating, no email or organization gets a 100% open rate. Accordingly, if you rely on the annual report to thank and demonstrate impact as part of the annual stewardship-renewal cycle, you’re missing a lot of donors.

The solution is to demonstrate impact at every given opportunity. In the automated thank-you email, the mailed letter and even the gift confirmation page, there should be a story demonstrating the effect of their donation. It should:

  • make a personal connection;
  • demonstrate how a gift makes a difference;
  • if appropriate for the context, thank the donor.

Example 1:

Thank you so much for your gift. When I walk through these halls each day, I see the difference your generosity makes. One of my cherished memories this last year was witnessing Jane’s eyes light up when she opened her backpack full of new school supplies. It was beautiful moment, made no less significant that we are able to do it for hundreds of children like Jane each week. It’s all possible because of you and others like you believe so strongly in the importance of education for children in North Main. Thank you.

Example 2:

Thank you for your generous donation to Street Cats Rescue. As cat-lovers, we know the difference it can make to spay and neuter strays and to find loving homes for those we can. Last week I walked into the vet to find another beautiful stray cat about to be adopted, because of you. When Snowflake was brought in, her coat was matted, her tail broken, and her body worn from life on the street and repeated litters. But when she was adopted, she purred in the arms of the teenager taking her home. You gift has made all the difference for Snowflake and for every cat like her that we are able to help. Thank you.

If you’ve written a number of thank-you letters, you’ve probably notice some of the key features: use “I” more than "we" (thank-you letters should always use “you” a lot, to centre the donor as much as possible); use simple, short words, not jargon or overly impressive language; use warm, emotional language, and not stats, facts, or abstract ideas. 

[continued in part 2, here]