Talking to donors is one of the best parts of my job and in my 30-plus years in the business I have had the privilege of talking to a lot of donors. In the before times many of those conversations took place in person in focus group rooms scattered across the country. More recently of course, most of these conversations are happening on Zoom. Today Alia and I communicate with literally thousands of midlevel donors each month through our various email-based insight panel programs.
Overall my experience with donors, from the $30 first time donor to the million-dollar mega donors has left me liking and respecting all of these people. But it’s the midlevel folks who have a special place in my heart. For simplicity purposes I consider midlevel to be in the range of $1000 to $20,000 per year – your organization may calculate differently.
What’s so great about these folks?
First, they are unsung heroes. Midlevel donors are gradually getting the attention they deserve but many are still largely ignored. At many organizations they fall into the chasm between major gifts/development departments and the annual gift/direct marketers. There’s no one calling midlevel donors up to wish their labradoodle a happy birthday like there may be for the majors. I once had a meeting with a development director get cut short because she had to run out to In-n-Out Burger to bring a cheeseburger to a multimillionaire celebrity.
Midlevel folks may not even be getting the communications a $30 donor gets, because it still happens that midlevel donors get put in limbo – claimed by the major gifts people but ignored. And yet we rarely hear complaints.
Second, they’re deeply committed. The way philanthropy is currently structured (which is a problem and a topic for another day), in our experience most $30 gifts come from white people who probably can afford a whole lot more. I once sat in a focus group room with a dozen well-to-do white donors to an international wildlife group. I asked them what motivated them to support the organization. Twelve voices came back in unison: ‘the calendar!’ Our experience of small dollar-giving is that many tend to be impulse gifts either motivated by a particularly persuasive appeal, or interested in a premium or responding to an emergency. None of this is to diminish the worthiness of their gifts, but their super low first-year retention rates reflect a certain casualness about their giving. At the other end of the spectrum, major donors get a whole lot of love and attention (which has all kinds of downsides, again a topic for another day) even though their $100,000 gift may represent only a tiny fraction of their wealth.
Many midlevel donors we talk to are working stiffs who admit to having dug deep, perhaps uncomfortably deep, because of their passion for the cause. Do they actually care more than low-dollar donors? Their retention number suggest the answer is yes. Do they care more than major donors? Maybe/maybe not, but they certainly give what they give with vastly less TLC.
Third, they’re in it for the long run. Our research suggests second year retention rates for midlevel donors hover in the 70-80% range. That’s roughly double what we see for givers at lower levels.
Finally, they inspire the fundraisers who support them. The 600-700 midlevel fundraisers who participate in our midlevel giving listserv cannot say enough good things about their donors. And, they are exceedingly generous with one another, freely sharing tips, secrets and discovered best practices with one another. Who’s to say whether the fundraisers’ kindness and upbeat attitudes are a reflection of their donors, or whether it’s the other way around. Either way, it’s a good thing.
It’s impossible to end without saying once again that fundraising in America is too white, too tipped toward lionizing wealth and often too unreflective of the communities that are served. We do not for one second believe a donor who gives $1000 is better than a donor who gives $1. But in the current, cockeyed state of fundraising, we find there’s something especially likable about the folks in the middle of the giving pyramid and the professionals who work with them.