Trust, more valuable than money ⋆ Hands-On Fundraising

Man's hand holding a cracker out to a small, blue-gray bird. The scenery is green and covered with moss.

Trust is one of those things that you can’t necessarily put a dollar value on, but you know matters, a lot. But like your database or your donor relationships, it’s critical to a successful fundraising program.

Your brand isn’t about colors, type, or taglines.

Do you remember the outrage that United Airlines created years ago when it had a paid customer dragged from a plane? The customer’s crime was not volunteering to be removed when UA wanted seats for staff members. He was selected by a random drawing. In spite of purchasing a ticket, boarding, and taking his seat, he was expected to leave quietly and deal with waiting a day for a new flight.

The video was scary. His cries and his busted lip immediately went viral.

The airline’s non-apology apologies didn’t help a bit. The next day, their stock was down and their brand was in tatters. As the internet blew up about the incident, no logo, no tagline, or clever ad campaign was going to help.

United forgot what its brand really is: how people perceive the company.

When you offer terrible customer service, your brand suffers. When you treat people well, your brand improves.

Do unto others, people.

So what does this mean to us?

(Besides looking for a different airline if we fly, that is.)

It’s a good reminder for every organization. Focus on the important things first.

A great website, logo, and tagline are important. But their importance is in being part of something broader: the organization’s brand. That brand is informed by those assets. But the brand is so much bigger and the important parts take constant attention.

Communicating your values well, and acting in accord with them, builds the trust every organization needs. And if you’re asking people to give you their trust – and their money – you need to nourish that brand. With actions, not just colors or fonts, or logos.

Your brand is how people feel about you.

I can happily get as lost as anyone in colors, fonts, taglines, and all of that. It’s like handing a kid a new box of crayons.

But while all of how you look is important, how you behave is more important.

A more positive, personal story: my family drives the same brand of car. We’ve purchased that brand through several iterations now.

The cars are good. But so are other brands. What keeps us coming back? Great service. When we first bought our cars, the salesman was a friend. And the service department is the best. I have never approached a visit with fear and anxiety – with my “fight” reaction ready to go.

I’ve never been “little-ladied” there, either. If they tell me something needs to be fixed, I know it needs to be fixed.

That’s trust. And that’s what your organization needs.

The good news is that trust isn’t a matter of spending money. The smallest organization can do as good a job as the largest. (Maybe better, because they’re closer to their donors.)

The bad news is that once lost, trust is very hard to regain.

How to establish and build trust

There are things you can do to build the trust your donors and others have in you. None of them are big secrets – they’re common sense, really.

But give them the time and energy you might spend arguing over a typeface and you’ll have happier, more loyal donors.

Do what you say you do: example one

The Red Cross got in a world of trouble over their work after the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Sandy.

Sure, there were difficulties and distinctions that only an insider would appreciate. But what the public saw was simple: “You said my money would pay for this. It didn’t.”

Example two

Recently, I read a few tweets about CVS pharmacies and a campaign to give at the cash register. I love those – it’s an easy hit of “feel good” and pretty painless. But today, I read that CVS is being sued for asking customers to donate to the American Diabetes Association at checkout. The problem apparently is that CVS had already committed to giving those dollars (so a CVS donation?) and customers’ gifts were perhaps reimbursing the company for their commitment.

I don’t know the legal requirements at play here. (Here’s an article if you’re really interested.) But it almost doesn’t matter. Because if customers see this, the lack of transparency will make them question the organization. That’s a loss of trust that a huge corporation can probably absorb.

But what if it was your organization?

So don’t fudge. Be honest. It’s a challenge: honesty is often nuanced and complicated. And simple and clear makes for better fundraising. You need to figure it out all the same.

You want a simple, clear offer. But it must be built on a trustworthy reputation.

“This is a big problem. We need your help. Our plan is to rebuild Haiti – but when we get there, we may learn more. What’s best for the people of Haiti may change how we use your donation. We know you care, so we’ll keep you informed every step of the way.”

“We committed up front to ADA and they will get every cent of that commitment, whether our customers contribute or not. But we should have been more open with our customers about this arrangement.”

Be consistent

This is where branding tools such as logos and colors can matter. If your donors come to expect one look and are suddenly presented with a complete change, that will cause questions.

“Is this my organization? Why did this change? What else don’t I know?”

Communication is the cure here, too. I know it’s fun to have a big unveiling. But I think you should consider your donors as insiders, too.

Surprises that make them question your identity are not fun surprises.

Be transparent with success and setbacks

Yes, I know that’s a word verging on jargon. But that’s because so often, transparency is said but not done.

So please do it.

Share your successes, but also any setbacks. Charity Water does a great job with this. That project you funded? You know how it’s going every step of the way. And when the project doesn’t perform as expected, you know that, too.

Check out “Capturing Water Flow” here.

Build trust by being open with your finances

Also: your finances. When how you use money, and how you spend money, feels like a secret, you lose trust.

And I know this is tricky because the past dependence on a simple, deceptive ratio (fundraising expenses as a percent of the budget) helped no one. Report honestly – and explain.

Maybe you’re forecasting a greater need for your services in the next five years. Responsibly, you’re ramping up fundraising efforts now so you’ll be ready. Report those expenses – and why they’re smart.

Donors are not strangers, so don’t treat them that way. You don’t want them to be outsiders. And as fundraisers, part of your job is to be sure everyone in the organization understands that.

Be in it together

I often talk about treating donors like partners. It’s not just talk and donors aren’t stupid. Believe me, we can all sense when we’re simply ATMs.

So begin by placing yourself on the same team as your donors and other supporters.

Did you know that showing similarity can build trust?

You and your donors have something powerful in common: your mission. Remind them of that, and treat them like the colleagues they are.

Be trusting and reliable

Assume the best in the people you deal with. That includes your donors. That angry person who calls about her name listing might have good reasons to be upset.

The donor who wants one solicitation a year is probably very organized – and will donate loyally if you ask once. If he can depend on you to do as requested, you can depend on him to continue giving.

And yes, you need to thank every donor for every gift – regardless of size.

And you need to report to them about what their gift makes possible. That’s part of the bargain, too.

A pain? “Extra” work? Maybe. But that’s the relationship you’ve solicited.

Don’t assume any of your donors are trying to make life difficult for you. Assume they’re wonderful people who care about a good cause.

Treat them with respect and they will trust you.

Trust is precious today

We all live in a world where our fight-or-flight reactions are constantly tweaked. It’s horribly stressful.

Your organization can be a refuge from that stress for your donors and potential donors.

Giving creates the opposite reaction in our brains. It makes us happy. So be the place that makes your donors happy.

Just as I can relax when heading to my car dealership, make your organization a sure thing – a safe port in the storm of their lives.

Be human. Be thoughtful. Be responsible and honest and kind.

That’s the branding that matters most and builds trust.

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash