Non-profit inside-the-box thinking: Donors are the boss

As promised in last Friday’s post, I am dedicating yesterday, today and tomorrow to challenging proponents of “outside-the-box thinking” and examining various “inside-the-box thinking” principles. This week’s posts were determined by DonorDreams blog subscribers who took the time to voice their opinions via a poll last Friday. Thank you to those of you who voted. Additionally, the foundation of these posts are rooted in Kirk Cheyfitz’s book “Thinking Insider The Box: The 12 Timeless Rules for Managing a Successful Business.” 

DonorDreams blog subscribers voted to hear more about chapter five of Cheyfitz’s book, which is titled “The Box Top: Customers Are The Boss”.

I love how the author starts each chapter with a short sentence that serves as “food for thought”. The following is how chapter one was started:

Give customers what they want, not what you want to give them.”

Most of this chapter talks about how the “customer experience” has been the foundation of our economy for centuries and is easily traced back to the Middle Ages. Cheyfitz does a great job telling readers about customer-centric lessons we can all take to heart that were developed by the silk merchants in the 1300s, the town butchers in the 1700s, and the department store barons like Sears and Wards in the 1900s. It was eye-opening to see how the author took seemingly “modern” business practices (e.g. using CRM to segment customers into niches, using customer loyalty programs to reduce turnover, etc) and trace them back to pre-Magna Carta days.

As I attempt to make heads-or-tails out of this chapter for non-profits, it strikes me that non-profits have a more difficult challenge than their for-profit cousins when it comes to focusing on customers and thinking inside-the-box.

Why? Because when a non-profit reads the word “customer,” two different images are conjured up . . . “donor” and “client”. I believe that successful non-profit leaders are able to balance these interests and develop customer-focused approaches for both audiences. However, for the balance of this blog post, I am just going to focus on the donor side of this equation.

For those of you who routinely read DonorDreams blog, it won’t be surprising to learn that everything Cheyfitz talks about in chapter five aligns perfectly with what Penelope Burk espouses in her book “Donor Centered Fundraising“.  You can see this is clearly the case from the following language on page 74:

Simply put: Find out what customers really want, then give it to them. Make sure they have plenty of choices — in what they buy, where they buy, how they buy, and how they pay for it all. And address them personally, talk to them honestly, and treat them well every step of the way.

The bigger question for me is: “How many non-profit organizations are really doing this?”

  • We work hard to convince donors to give us unrestricted gifts rather than funding a specific program.
  • We write funding proposals aimed at telling donors what we need.
  • We solicit donors using tactics that fit our needs and match our resources rather than how the donor feels most comfortable being solicited.
  • We fire off a database generated thank you letter and skimp on the transparency when it comes to showing donors exactly what their contribution paid for and what good it helped do.

As I think back to some of the most successful donor relationships that I’ve personally built, it really goes back to personal interaction, building a relationship into a friendship, understanding what the donor really wanted to get out of the relationship, and treating them like I treat members of my family.

So, how can non-profit organizations get back to the customer service principles used by the small town butcher or general store owner? How do we build our box and think inside of it rather than trying to “think outside-the-box”?

At the end of this chapter, Cheyfitz offers six different tips on how to build this box. I won’t ruin the surprise (because you should buy this book and read it), but I will share two of his tips to whet your appetite:

  1. Never assume you know the reason a customer does anything. Always ask. Always listen. Always use the resulting information.
  2. When creating a customer relationship plan, ask . . .
    • Who needs to be talked to and courted?
    • What different groups do they fall into?
    • What outcomes are desired?
    • What messages will be delivered?
    • How will success be measured?

Not only will these tips help you craft an awesome stewardship plan for your donors, but they are the basis for almost any plan you will ever write for you organization (e.g. strategic plan, marketing plan, business plan, board development plan, etc).

It is easy to conclude after reading this chapter that if you’re not personally sitting down with at least one donor every day, then you’re not living “inside-the-box” and your organization is not donor-centered.

How do you meet your donors’ needs? How do you know what those needs are? How do you successfully align donors needs with your clients’ needs? What are you doing to keep this “inside-the-box” principle in front of you every single day? Please use the comment box below to share answers to these questions or any other thoughts that this post may have inspired.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847


  1. Oh boy Erik… there’s an element to this post that makes me very uncomfortable.

    I can see how you would say that non profits have a different challenge with focusing on customers, given their dependence on donors. But to conflate donors with customers is problematic and dangerous.

    This I think is partly where mission-creep comes from. When I read “simply put: find out what customers really want, and give it to them…” and then I overlay “donors are the boss” I see a train rolling off its tracks.

    Donors enable the agency to serve its clients. They are not the boss. Agencies should not be “donor-centered.” They should be customer-centered AND they should have donor-centric strategies and tactics…

    That is an important distinction for me…

    You extrapolate great points regarding donor relationship building and donor development. To be able to influence behavior, we have to understand the underlying motivations and we there has to be trust. You nail this.

    But I see the nature of the challenge more as thinking inside the box in terms of customers wants/needs and the agency’s mission, and thinking outside the box in terms of their donor development strategies and tactics.

    Said another way, broadening the enabling efforts (donor development) while staying laser-focused on the mission (customer service in its most true sense).

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