Stop Making “Test Gifts”

In fundraising, there’s a little glitch in the Matrix some call the “test gift.” These are your not-small-but-not-large gifts — let’s say $250 to $1,000 — given by a donor to “test” a nonprofit’s stewardship. Often, I find, these are donations given by folks on the fringe of an organization’s orbit, or not involved at all.

The reasons donors do this are varied. Some may want to see how snappy a thank you note or call from the organization will arrive. Some may actually want to be more involved, and feel this is one way to open the door. Whatever the reason, there are better ways to spend one’s time and resources.

I follow someone on Twitter called The Whiny Donor. Usually their posts are pretty spot on, though a series of recent diatribes (about not being stewarded by a nonprofit to which they gave a test gift) was unsettling. They go on through a number of posts to express disappointment in the lack of follow-through, even noting a call to the organization to see if the gift arrived. Admittedly, the NPO gave a fairly lackluster response.

Most people flocked to their side, though Twitterer Peter Gannon took an alternative view; suggesting nonprofits aren’t always well-oiled machines, and perhaps The Whiny Donor could offer to volunteer and help them improve. TWD’s response: You are assuming I am invested in this organization. I am not… I have no obligation to help them correct their flawed stewardship. Then why make a gift in the first place?

This hit deep. I work in development for a sizable organization. Our stewardship game is down to a science (in place long before I arrived), though on my own time I volunteer on boards for a number of *small* organizations — budgets under $100,000. These are basically all-volunteer shops, where the boards are not only governing, but operational. In these emerging NPOs, you immediately feel it when things go well, and you also clearly see where the screws need tightening.

Sometimes in these “small, underfunded nonprofits” (TWD’s words), the mail isn’t checked everyday. Online donations aren’t tracked in any systematized way. It is unclear who the most right people are to lead stewardship. I’m not excusing these behaviors, though the scrappiest nonprofits are often founded and led by people with a tremendous sense of responsibility for the mission, with only a modest comprehension of how nonprofits function.

Don’t misunderstand — I believe all donors should be thanked, often, and with haste. They are the life blood of our sector, and make transformative things possible. The fact I work in development creates a laser-focus for me on this issue, and it’s typically my prime directive for the organizations with which I work. But along the way, I made it a practice to discourage test gifts, and stop making them myself. Nonprofits have enough on their plates, and while I believe there are too many of them, it’s our charge as mindful humans to help make them the best they can be. Not challenge them publicly, brazenly, and unnecessarily. Instead…

  • Feel like making a test gift? DON’T. Instead, make a hearty act of charity because you like what the organization is doing. Some would say, the act itself is all the thanks you need.
  • You made that gift and get radio silence? DO call or e-mail and see if it arrived, but only if you really care about the cause. If the response is uninspired, explore appropriate ways to offer constructive feedback. Who knows, this could be the next board on which you serve!
  • Do all that and still feel shafted? In research, sometimes “no data” are all the data you need. Acknowledge you did a good thing, and move on. There are 1.5 million other nonprofits which would be delighted to count (and steward) you as a donor.

That’s all, folks. It’s a fantastic time of year for kindness and thoughtfulness, so go do those things, and do them often.

Grinch

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