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Impersonal donor communication is harming nonprofit success and growth. On the latest Givers, Doers, & Thinkers, Jeremy Beer and Gabe Cooper discuss how nonprofits can be more “responsive” to donor interests—and make their work more interesting in the meantime.

On the most recent episode of Givers, Doers, & Thinkers, Jeremy Beer sat down with Gabe Cooper, CEO of Virtuous Software—a company that specializes in CRM and marketing software that helps nonprofits build relationships with their donors. Given that expertise, the conversation naturally turned on questions of what motivates people to give, why fewer Americans are giving today, and how nonprofits can best encourage them to do so.

A coherent theme quickly emerged: namely, the centrality of personal connection in philanthropy—and thus of a responsive and relational paradigm, not a transactional one, in fundraising. “At the end of the day we give because we feel a personal connection with the cause,” Gabe said. Not, Jeremy clarified, because we’re reading an annual report or balance sheet and selecting a cause that would be a good investment in society.

But therein lies a common pitfall, according to Gabe. When Jeremy asked what might be causing a precipitous plunge in low- and mid-tier donors (whose charitable giving has declined a full 20% over the past decade), Gabe argued that those donors expect—but are not receiving—that personal connection. Many nonprofits face a yearly turnover rate of over 70%, and the biggest reason is that donors balk at the impersonal communication they receive and the lack of transparency as to what their gift is accomplishing.

“Those are fixable problems!” Jeremy laughed. Gabe agreed and offered several concrete examples of nonprofits that excel at cultivating personal connections and at “shortening the distance between the donor and the good they do.” One organization has every member of the program team call donors once a month—not to ask for money, simply to check in. Another used geolocation and marketing automation to send out concerned emails to donors living in a region affected by a natural disaster. Others have abandoned the one-size-fits-all fundraising campaigns in favor of “dynamic” campaigns curated to the donor’s specifics—just like for-profit companies do.

This sort of responsive fundraising is all the more critically important today, the conversation implied, given the decline in religious affiliation and increasing disconnection from other people in associational ways. As I recently wrote, one of the major takeaways of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is that people are far more generous and altruistic when they belong within groups with a shared moral matrix. The precipitous drop in individual giving appears to be closely linked with the winnowing of religious and associational community. The burden falls all the more to nonprofits to effectively recreate that thick sense of belonging.

Jeremy and Gabe's conversation helped illuminate both why people give and how we can encourage it—by building personal relationships and by shortening the distance between the donor and the good they do. At the conclusion of the podcast, Jeremy asked, “How do we restore joy to fundraising—and what saps joy from it?”

Gabe replied: “If we see our donors as names in a database, if we see them as ATMs … it’s going to be a pretty joyless pursuit for us. And so, the more we conceive generosity as an opportunity to give to our donors, to transform their hearts, to connect them to impact, and we actually get to know them in more personal ways, it’s going to put joy back in our fundraising.”

What one might find distressing about that approach is that it suggests there are few shortcuts on the road to fundraising success. Responsive relationships cannot be outsourced to spreadsheets and robots. Instead, such fundraising requires giving personal attention, communicating directly, and building stronger associational communities. But if we understand philanthropy literally—as love of our fellow men—then perhaps it’s not distressing at all.

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