Bristol Organizations

An Organization Made Up Of Organizations

By Dan Sonners

Over the last few years, authenticity has become a buzzword at nonprofit conferences. Authenticity is a powerful tool for building stronger relationships, but it can be difficult to quantify. Last year, I decided to develop a checklist that fundraisers could use to measure if they were having authentic communications with their donors. Eventually, that effort gave birth to the “6 Principles for Authentic Fundraising,” which I recorded as a podcast last summer.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, nonprofits across the sector have employed authenticity to help sustain their fundraising. However, authenticity isn’t something which needs to be broken out in an emergency. It represents a fundamental shift in how consumers interact with brands, including nonprofits. Organizations that embrace authenticity will be able to cultivate more meaningful and loyal relationships with their donors. These six principles will help you know if you’re on the right track to doing so.

1. Honesty

Any meaningful relationship is built on trust and that includes organizations that we donate to. Trust is the most important component of an authentic relationship. It’s also difficult to rebuild if lost.

Simply put, be able to back up any claims you make about your organization and its impact. One disaffected donor can easily turn into hundreds or thousands with the reach of social media.

2. Relatability

Imagine you’re at a party having a conversation with two co-workers. One only talks about work and the other is willing to discuss their family and interests. Chances are you’re going to feel more connected to the person willing to let their guard down.

Likewise, donors don’t expect nonprofits to always be “on brand” and understand that people are different versions of themselves in unique settings. When donors are on social media, you are inviting yourself into their virtual “home,” which makes it important to try and replicate the relationship they have with friends and family online.

This can be achieved by doing things as simple as acknowledging major holidays and pop culture events. (For example, during James Holzhauer’s run on Jeopardy, I recommended organizations share clips of answers relevant to their mission.) If appropriate, you can also include discussions about major news events as many organizations have done during COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests.

The principle of relatability also explains why “minimally produced” content, such as smartphone-recorded videos, are an effective way to communicate with donors, as many organizations have found out during the

Relatability helps “humanize” your brand, but more importantly, it will help your so

cial media reach because it builds community with your donors instead of a transactional relationship.

3. Empathy

Don’t hide the elephant in the room: In 2020, there are plenty of reasons a donor might be reluctant to contribute, including concerns about the pandemic, financial distress and donating to “more pressing” causes, such as COVID-19 relief, social justice or the presidential election.

Addressing inertia head on may not change their individual situation, but it might make them more receptive to your message. Donors are capable of focusing on multiple causes at the same time and are willing to sacrifice in order to preserve the things they care about. They just want to know that you “get it” and recognize that sacrifice.

Many non-coronavirus-related charities employed empathetic messaging at the start of the shutdown to avoid coming across as tone deaf while still emphasizing the negative impact the pandemic could have on their own

4. Accountability

If you make a mistake, own it, take responsibility and explain how you’re going to improve. Donors don’t expect perfection from other people, nor do they expect it from the organizations they support. In fact, they’re hardwired to forgive — science shows that forgiveness increases dopamine production, which is critical to the giving experience in the first place.

Accountability should be implemented for mistakes of all sizes, ranging from an internal scandal, to program failures, to even a broken link in an email. Not only will donors respect the human element, it will enhance trust (remember principle No. 1), and they may even reward you for it.

I know multiple examples of organizations making mistakes on mail pieces and grossing more revenue from the apology mailing. The most significant involved an expensive DVD mailing in which a vendor burned the wrong film onto the disk. The apology mailing (which included the correct DVD) grossed more than they had originally projected for the campaign.

5. Vulnerability

The response of donors to causes indirectly impacted by COVID-19 demonstrates the power of the ask and how motivated donors are to give when they know their gift will really make a difference.

On the other hand, how many nonprofits will need to shut their doors or cut their services because they were unwilling to show how vulnerable they were? Nonprofits are afraid to be vulnerable for the same reason individuals are: We fear judgement and think it makes us look weak.

In reality, being vulnerable requires inordinate strength and connects us with others who recall times they, too, needed help. As Brené Brown said in her famous TED Talk (viewed over 48 million times): “Vulnerability is not about winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up even when you can’t control the outcome.”

6. Gratitude

Think about a friend you take to the airport who never offers you gas money. You may not really want the money; you’re just looking for a gesture of appreciation. You’ll probably let it go the first time, but by the second or third time, it starts to change the dynamic of your friendship.

That happens every time you fail to properly thank your donors. The way we communicate with donors has changed, but many of our gratitude practices are stuck in the 20th century.

In an era of real-time communication, a welcome package doesn’t have the staying power it used to. Like the gas money, the gesture is more important than the reward. While gratitude expressions by phone and direct mail are powerful, they’re limited by time and cost. It’s with social media and email that organizations are missing opportunities to express gratitude at scale.

That doesn’t mean you should pour your heart out with thanks every day (that would not be authentic), but you should do so occasionally. Besides overt expressions, you can also subtly note that your donors make your work possible when touting your achievements. Jeremy Reis, author of “Magnetic Nonprofit: Attract and Retain Donors, Volunteers and Staff,” refers to this as positioning the donor as the “hero” of your story.

A quick Google search will yield countless studies demonstrating the positive impact gratitude has on giving, but expressing gratitude isn’t just financially beneficial for nonprofits; it’s meeting our fiduciary of care for the donor. The “warm glow” associated with dopamine releases is an integral part of why donors give, and delivering that as much as possible is mutually beneficial.

COVID-19 has revealed the power of authenticity to help nonprofits survive, but it should not be a wartime footing. In the era of GoFundMe fundraising pages and hyper-targeted causes, organizations that deliver the most authentic relationships are the ones that win and retain donors.

About the Author: Dan Sonners is director of nonprofit marketing and an assistant VP at Conrad Direct, a leading independent list brokerage firm. He also hosts the Dynamic Nonprofits podcast. Dan can be emailed with comments, questions, and feedback at

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