Ode to Rachael Jones: Here's to not putting donors in boxes!

rachael jonesOne of the clients I’ve been working with for a while is located in Bloomington, Indiana, which is where I met Rachael Jones. Rachael is a transgender woman who used to own “Rachael’s Cafe”. Unfortunately, after eight years of serving coffee, food and a side of acceptance, Rachael closed her doors last month. During my last visit, the executive director handed me a copy of the June 29th edition of The Herald-Times newspaper with a front page story headline that read “Downtown gathering place closes after 8 years of fostering acceptance“. He shared the newspaper story with me because he knew I had wanted to be there for Rachael’s last day, but I just couldn’t make it work with my travel schedule.
So, what does any of this have to do with non-profits or fundraising? Well, tucked away inside of Kurt Christian’s front page article, there was an amazing story Rachael told that I think is applicable to every fundraising professional’s life. And I want to share it for two reasons:

  1. To pay tribute to an amazing human — Rachael Jones (someone I greatly admire and wish I had half her courage)
  2. To help new fundraising professionals understand something very important about their donors

In the article, Rachael tells the newspaper reporter about a life lesson she learned from one of the construction workers who had been working on the renovation of the cafe prior to it opening in 2007. After coming out to the crew as being a transgender woman, one of the guys asked Rachael if she would consider judging a chili cook-off event in a small rural town south of Bloomington, Indiana.
Rachael was hesitant to accept the invitation because:

  • small town America isn’t ready for a transgender woman
  • people would judge her
  • it might not be safe

Or so she thought.
Thanks to the insistence of the construction worker who had invited her, Rachael showed up and judged the chili cook-off. In hindsight, here is what she said about this life changing event:

“I went, and I was so sure I was going to be judged. But these people were wonderful. It was a beautiful experience, and I had a lot of fun, and I learned a great lesson. I had put them in a box that didn’t exist; they didn’t belong in that box.”

I just love how Rachael framed her experience. I’ve been thinking about these words for weeks during countless hours of windshield time driving from client to client. The more I think about these words, the more I wondered “how many people have I put in boxes during my life?
It was during one of these contemplative moments that another more interesting question bubbled to the forefront:

“How many donors have I put in a box that didn’t exist and they didn’t belong in?”

I fear that I’ve done it a lot, and I’ve justified it all in the name of “segmenting donors lists“.
Segmenting donors is a common practice in most fundraising shops, and it is a best practice. Not only does it keep you from asking people to attend events who hate going to those type of fundraisers, but it also keeps you from sending mail to people who prefer email communications. When done right, you are categorizing donors based on their feedback and their wishes.
HOWEVER . . . is it possible to take the practice of donor segmentation too far? Could we be creating boxes that shouldn’t exist? I’m inclined to think so. Here are a few confessions I’ll make when it comes to constructing boxes for donors that I probably shouldn’t have:

  • I’ve looked at a list of donors and said something like: “They wouldn’t be interested in supporting THAT program
  • Prior to a stewardship visit, I’ve decided what to share with the donor based on what I thought they were interested in hearing
  • I’ve excluded donors from receiving certain solicitations because I was fearful they might make a contribution, which could undercut another solicitation for a different project

In this era of so-called “Donor-Centered Fundraising,” shouldn’t we take a page out of Rachael Jones’ book by engaging our donors in more exploratory conversations and do a little less segmenting and box building?
I’m interested in what you have to say about this question. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment box below.
Here’s to your health! (And congrats to Rachael on eight great years and for being an inspiration to us all)
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC


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