Do we really value our supporters?

One of the most striking things said to me in my fundraising career, happened at WWF a few years ago. I was presenting a strategy to the finance committee which included a section on supporter research (which had been carried out before I started at the charity).

The research was of a type many of us will be familiar with. Supporters were grouped into a number of categories based on their (perceived) attitudes. The groups were given catchy names by the young whizz-kids from the agency .

One group, I remember, were the charity’s core supporters, people who were strongly motivated by the plight of endangered species, particularly iconic animals like tigers, pandas and polar bears. They were and are the backbone of WWF’s animal adoptions, the key regular giving programme . The agency called them “the cuddly army”.

When shown this, one of the committee members said “do we seriously give our supporters such demeaning names? How do you think they would feel they knew that?”

To which the answers were of course, yes and possibly quite peeved. We hadn’t thought.

The same committee member, a man of some wisdom, later on in the same meeting observed “it seems to me this is a charity that has fallen out of love with its supporters”.

An extraordinary statement but one I wonder that could be applied to other non profits. How many times have you heard from people in your charity that we need a new sort of supporter. Younger than all these fuddy-duddies on the database. People who will really understand the issues that we are dealing with. Who will be the future.

“We must get beyond Dorothy Donor” they say…

Where to begin when faced with his madness? The dismissive name and the laziness with which the stereotype is applied, is of course quite telling.

But where do they get the idea that old donors are bad thing? We know that older donors are much, much more valuable than young people. They give more, more often and are much more loyal. And you don’t get a lot legacies from the under 50s, astonishingly. With the population ageing, there will be many more older people in the future.

(And it’s not just giving. As the only part of the population which reliably votes, the over 50s have vastly greater political power than the young.)

So why on earth would we want a younger supporter base? And when looking for new supporters, surely you look for people who are similar to the ones who already support you.

With WWF, I’m pleased to say, reason did prevail. We stopped patronising our donors and decided to go looking for new people with the same characteristics. And, would you know it, there turned out to be quite a lot of them. And by the time I left, there were nearly three times as many animal adopters as when I joined.

Full of surprises, fundraising.


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