Why do charities find good customer care so difficult?

I’m a fundraiser. My customer is the donor or supporter. I want them to feel special, because they are special. Without them, my charity crumbles. We are far from perfect but we do try our best to be good at customer care. Whether someone has donated in support of our work, or phoned up for one of our advice booklets, we try to respond promptly, and personally if at all possible. It feels a bit as if all our donors are major donors (and perhaps that new contact today could be a major donor, or a legator, in the future).

This is an issue that extends beyond any one charity. If supporters – or people in need of help – have a negative experience with a charity, there’s a risk they think all charities behave that way. My poor customer care affects your ability to raise funds. Alongside many things charities can do to increase income, my number one wish – that will have impact on both supporters and beneficiaries – is improving what we already do.

Last week, a report from Blackbaud said that over half  of event fundraisers felt their ‘efforts were “not properly acknowledged” by the charity they were fundraising for.’ Sadly, this didn’t surprise me. I know from personal experience and chatting with other charity workers that far too many charities can’t:

  • thank supporters on time
  • get advice booklets to requesters within two weeks
  • sign people up to an email newsletter
  • tell people how much they’ve raised towards a tribute fund
  • give people a smooth and simple website experience
  • provide a cheering station at events

All of these examples are charities failing to get the basics right. And this is really damaging. It reduces supporters’ connection to your cause, so loses you income. It gives a bad impression which gets spread to their social circles, which loses you income. And it fails people who urgently need help. It is unacceptable.

But if charities can build relationships, be responsive, show they care and communicate better with supporters, they will raise more money. I think charity management (the buck stops with us) need to get on top of this and get their organisations to be efficient with processing basic thank you letters or gift aid. What is causing the delay? It can’t just be size, because some small charities can be really slow to respond (but perhaps are forgiven by donors because of their size?) whereas some larger ones are quicker off the mark. Maybe supporter care teams can shed light on the ratio of staff to incoming traffic that works? Previous places I’ve worked did seem very under-resourced for supporter care, and it wasn’t clear that management appreciated the impact on income growth. I have myself struggled to balance quick, responsive supporter care with the pressure to find new ways of growing income.

My personal experience (and that of friends and family) underlines my point. One charity never thanked me for an online giving page I set up one Christmas before they sent me – months later – an email invite to do more fundraising in an event. Another charity has still not signed me up for their regular free magazine, despite me trying to sign up three times in a year. They are also renowned for the slowness with which they post advice booklets. A third has yet to thank a family member who raised £1600 for a fundraising event, when they only had a target of £200. Rachel Brown from the Fundraising Collective puts it well:

Good stewardship links directly to the gift, is timely, and encourages the next donation.

If you’re efficient and effective with your thanking, you will raise more money. Balancing personalised supporter care and finding new ways to raise money is not easy. Sometimes it is difficult to judge when you should invest time and resource into a new idea, which could boost income and enable a charity to do more good, but surely we all understand that an efficient organisation is better for our beneficiaries, uses donors’ money more wisely and gives supporters the sort of experience that brings them back time and again?

Please, let’s sort out basic customer care.

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