Penelope Burk, Author, Trainer, Presenter and President of Cygnus Applied Research Inc.
Penelope Burk has more than 40 years of experience in not-for-profit management, fundraising and research. Burk’s innovative work, advocacy for donors and passion for the philanthropic spirit led to the publication of her book titled Donor-Centered Fundraising. This best-seller established her as a leading authority on fundraising research, training and strategic planning. The book is the only statistically based research ever published on the impact that meaningful communication has on donor retention and gift value.
Interview with Penelope Burk
Annual Conference Keynote Speaker to Share Approaches to Research-Based Fundraising
Penelope Burk is the Force Behind the Donor-Centered Fundraising® Philosophy
By Pamela Poland, APRA Connections Editor-in-Chief
Author, trainer, presenter and President of Cygnus Applied Research Inc., Penelope Burk will give the keynote address at APRA’s 25th Annual International Conference, Aug. 1-4, at the Hilton Minneapolis in Minneapolis, Minn. Penelope has more than 40 years of experience in not-for-profit management, fundraising and research. Her innovative work, advocacy for donors and passion for the philanthropic spirit led to the publication of her book, Donor-Centered Fundraising®. This best-seller established her as a leading authority on fundraising research, training and strategic planning.
Her research-driven approach to fundraising makes her well-positioned to engage with APRA members and conference attendees. Recently, APRA Connections Editor-in-Chief Pamela Poland spent some time speaking with Burk. The conversation began with a general discussion around Burk’s work. Her enthusiasm for fundraising and for donors, in particular, was palpable.
Poland: Thank you for taking some time to speak with me, Penelope. We are all excited to have you as our keynote speaker at our 25th Anniversary Conference, particularly given the parallels to your work and the work we do as researchers. It’s so nice to sense the passion you have for your work. What keeps you so excited about this field?
Burk: It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to work with so many donors. People want to give. The more they give, the more they want to do it. It makes them feel good. In our 2009 survey, more than 80 percent of the respondents told us how they had been hurt by the economic recession. There were extreme stories. No one was untouched. Retired people lost investments. Employed people lost their jobs. Still, the majority of donors said they would give the same or more. They said no how matter how bad they are hurting, they know someone is hurting more. Giving is a way for people to express the very best of themselves.
Poland: Donors are trending towards supporting fewer causes for a variety of reasons, including the economic landscape, the shift in wealth generation, the changes in donor attitudes and preferences, the competition for philanthropic dollars, etc. How have donors’ attitudes and preferences changed to get to that point?
Burk: It’s a point of practicality. Donors want to make larger gifts so their giving will have more impact. Understandably, there is no defined limit to any donor’s potential for philanthropy. People still have a sense they aren’t capable of giving until a good fundraiser comes along and changes that notion. You get in your head that you have some kind of a budget. Over time, you gain through experience that giving $20 per year or more doesn’t amount to much. Most donors get the feeling that fundraising is expensive—the several mailings that increase after making a gift. To get past that, donors—especially middle aged donors—are more likely to narrow the number of causes to which they contribute. That means the gifts they make are more profitable to the respective organizations. It means more to them that they are accomplishing more.
Poland: What is the most important thing a nonprofit needs to do to be top of mind with a donor or donors and to be considered one of those organizations that gets funded?
Burk: They have to assign every gift that a donor makes to a specific measurable program or projects and not just through it into the general fund. They have to do that so that at the back end, they can talk about what has been accomplished. If they just give to the organization, all the fundraiser can talk about is the worthiness of the organization. If it goes to a specific project, they can talk about measurable progress of that project. How many more people have you been able to help? Have you improved the quality of care?
For the donor, they want to feel they actually helped accomplish something. That feeling of accomplishment makes them want to give and to give again. The thing that holds fundraising back the most is unrestricted fundraising. It leaves a fundraiser with nothing to say because you can’t be specific. It’s tantamount to saying, “we are still here.” The organization’s own programs and services define its merit. The brand gets the donor in the door the first time. It’s enough to get someone to write a check but not enough for the second time.
Poland: One of the things you talk about is the need to understand what donors want from nonprofits before they make donations. What can our function areas (research, relationship management and analytics) do to help better understand the donor’s preferences?
Burk: Data analysis is an opportunity for the growth among other things. This is a big weakness in the nonprofit world. Fundraising is all about numbers and goals, and yet there is little knowledge of how to do things but count numbers. Analysis tells us about the patterns that have been emerging in donor behavior and allows us to forecast further behavior. When we work with clients, the first thing we do is analyze their donor history—three to five years, where we know we have good data. We look at two primary areas: What’s happening on donor retention/attrition issue? How many donors are at the other end of the scale? How many are staying long term—five years or more or five campaigns of more? Gift value is another issue. There are tons of questions that we look at when we analyze donor data. Before we do a research survey and create strategy, we can tell just from the data analysis what the problems are and where they are doing well. That shapes it all. It starts with numbers analysis.
Poland: What are the most critical items we need to look at in the data when trying to move broad-base donors to major gift levels?
Burk: As a broad statement, there is nothing that is unimportant as far as data is concerned. One issue is donor longevity. Donors exhibiting great loyalty are excellent prospects. Their gift value isn’t telling you their potential, and they are great planned giving donors. There tends to be a focus on misleading characteristics. Set aside the loyalty factor, most fundraisers would probably not target a donor who has given once or twice at a fairly modest amount. Between 2 and 5 percent of new donors could give a major gift right away if they get what they need. They don’t move gradually up the giving ladder. Donors are a product of how fundraising works, not what donors are willing to do.
When donors make a first gift, most come in through direct mail, and they come in huge volumes. The first gift is a product of how much they were asked to give (by following instructions) and of a modest size because they don’t know the organization yet don’t know how the organization will react to them and communicate with them. Donors become cautious and don’t want to throw good money after bad. They are prepared to do much more if they get what they need.
Fundraisers see the modest gift value and don’t proceed further. The value of the last gift is the most misleading and useless piece of information you have about donors. The major gift officers who need these donors so desperately end up working with 10 percent of the potential for 90 percent of their time and effort. The real potential prospects have walked out the door. We take too long to get to them. There are so many charitable organizations to choose from, but a donor decides to give to this one. That donor, having made this single choice out of so many options, should not be treated like the $20 they donated. They should be treated with care for choosing you. We should be looking for other triggers.
‘Treat Donors Like They are Important’
Burk mentioned the importance of researching first-time donors. She also shared a story about working with a colleague at a big disease charity. To save the jobs of well-trained staff during an economic downturn, staff was asked to cross-train for other job functions. Some researchers were asked to help with data input, which had unexpected positive outcomes.
“Working in data input, the researchers still worked like prospect researchers. The organization over-solicited something fierce, asking 10 times per year for a gift. Some donors gave every time they were asked but didn’t give large amounts. In the norm, this would not get noticed. But the researcher saw a pattern, an exceptional characteristic. The donors who were giving to every single solicitation were pulled out and targeted. Many became major gift donors. It took someone who saw things differently,” she said.
“What all donors want is to be treated like they are important. If you start doing that, they will become major donors because of it. If you wait to treat them like major donors once they are major donors, they will never get there. It’s the difference between being proactive—it’s my responsibility to create major donors and reactive,” she added.
In addition to hearing Burk present at the annual conference, you can read her new book coming out this fall entitled, “Donor-Centered Leadership.”
Pamela Poland is the president of Pamela Poland + Associates, a fundraising consulting business that specializes in all areas of prospect development. Poland is a past president of APRA and the current Editor-in-Chief of APRA’s online publication, Connections. Prior to starting her own firm, Poland was a consultant with Bentz Whaley Flessner, the director of development for Glimmerglass Opera, the director of development operations for Japan Society, the director of research for The Metropolitan Opera and an assistant director of development for New York University Medical Center. A frequent speaker and author, she started her career as a researcher on Wall Street.