We need a new audience!

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How many times have you heard something like this from a senior executive in a charity? “We have a real problem with our donors. They are really old. And they are really passive.  They don’t understand the breadth of our work. All they do is give us money. We need to find a new audience!”

Cue, often, for a lengthy and expensive market research exercise. Followed by appointment of a shiny new agency who talk excitedly of the new audience demographics the non-profit can reach, each segment with a catchy name and exciting graphics. Culminating in an above the line marketing campaign launched which great fanfare and vast budget that recruits exactly three donors, one of whom is the creative director’s mum.

I wish I was making this up but it is astonishing how frequently something like this happens in charities. Despite the long, inglorious history of expensive failure, there still seems to be a default setting in many charities to be dissatisfied with the donors that they have.

I well remember a wise trustee (they do exist) at one of the charities I worked for who listened patiently to a long presentation about why this particular international conservation organisation needed to reach out to new, younger audiences. At the end he said “it feels to me that is a charity that has fallen out of love with its donors”. He was dead right. And the non-profit was charging down a path which would result in the donors falling out of love with it.

So let’s just repeat all the reasons why charging off and trying to find a new audience for your charity is probably a really bad idea.

  1. What’s wrong with the audience that you’ve got? Your charity’s current donors are the people who care most about your cause, they are the reason you exist at all. Why would you want to leave them behind? Of course you probably want more donors, everyone does. To replace those who fall off for whatever reasons and to grow. But wouldn’t the obvious course be to look for new donors who are as similar as possible to your current ones?
  2. You don’t want younger donors. It’s extraordinary really that we have to keep repeating this as it’s so obvious but having an elderly donor base isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s great news. Old people give massively more to charity than young people. They have more money and more of it is disposable, they are more charitable and there are more of them. As donors they are vastly more valuable, giving both much more and much more reliably.  (Despite what the Daily Blackshirt might say, most older people don’t suffer from dementia and are perfectly capable of deciding who they do and don’t want to give money to). Why on earth would any sane fundraiser target young people?
  3. But what of the future you say? What happens when all your lovely old donors die. Well, first of all that means a great legacy opportunity. But yes you do need to continue to recruit new donors because people do die and they stop giving for other reasons. That doesn’t mean you replace your eightysomethings with teenagers.  Replace them with people as close to them in characteristics as possible,  that probably means getting donors who are a bit younger but closer to 75 than to 25. If anyone says to you “but children are the future”, say yes they are and we will target them in 40 years time when they’ve got some money.
  4. Research doesn’t find you new audiences. It might be that there simply aren’t enough people who are both sufficiently like your current donors and can be reached through channels that are available to you so there is no alternative but to find a new audience. I’d still say that doesn’t mean you should go haring off after totally different sorts of people to your current supporters. And be wary of spending a lot of effort on researching potential new audiences. Research is a very bad way of finding out whether people will give you money (there’s a variety of reasons for this, most importantly donor market research tends to get answers from people based on how they think they ought to behave rather than what they actually do). The only sure way to find out if someone will give you money is to ask them for some. So “new audience research” should actually be replaced by “fundraising testing”. Find a channel which you think you can use to find some donors, develop a proposition and test it. As cheaply as you can. (This was how UK charities radically reduced the average age of their donorbases, by the way, they discovered face to face fundraising. It wasn’t an unmixed blessing).

If your charity isn’t happy with the supporters it has got, I’d say the fault lies with the charity not the donors. If they’re not following the charity on the journey it is going on maybe it’s going the wrong way.  In any case, the answer to the problem isn’t to find a new audience. Love the donors you’ve got. And try and find new ones just like them.

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