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Fundraising Without Trinkets

When I first started building affinity groups, my boss at the time insisted that every new member should receive something after joining. She arrived in my office one morning carrying an entire bin of stainless-steel mugs with the university’s emblem plastered across them. Each mug was in a mail-ready box perfect for shipping to new members. The only problem? I hated them. I didn’t hate the mugs, necessarily. I hated what the mugs implied. To me, the mugs felt like a peace offering in response to a donor’s financial commitment to join an affinity program. We didn’t owe them a trinket, I explained. We offered something different in exchange for their membership: belonging.

Trinkets have long been used as a form of marketing to donors. Think about the old school public broadcasting stations’ annual fundraising drives. Coffee mugs, t-shirts, and blankets were all the rage for a donor’s monthly commitment to the network. Many national organizations still use easy-to-mail promotional items as a way to encourage donations. At some point, though, fundraising ceases to be about joyfully supporting the organization when we become too focused on selling the thing.

A couple of years ago, I worked with a coach to help him set up an affinity group to support his collegiate tennis program. We agreed on every detail of the program’s structure but one area: polo shirts. Just like my boss, he insisted that every new member should get a polo shirt after joining his affinity group. He flipped through a catalogue of team swag to show me different color options and varying designs for the team’s logo. Here we go again, I thought. I explained the concept of premiums and how we would have to deduct from every donor’s financial commitment in order to give them a polo shirt for joining. That didn’t bother him. I communicated how someone (not me) would have to maintain inventory and keep track of donors’ shirt sizes. He could do that, he said. I even reminded him that someone would need to be responsible for packaging and mailing every single shirt. He had students to help with that, he responded. None of my roadblocks were convincing enough to change his mind. Finally, in full frustration to my pushback, he asked, “Why would anyone support this program if they’re not getting something for it?” My response? Because they can.

Great donors know they have the capacity to give without getting some thing in return. Even mid-level affinity group members know that a polo shirt or a coffee mug is a nice gesture, but it’s not their reason for giving. If our fundraising strategy is centered on community-building and increasing engagement between donors and our organizations, then trinkets do not need to be part of the conversation. We can sell donor opportunities by showcasing the organization, the beneficiaries of their generosity, and other donors in the group without ever turning to a promo catalogue for incentives.

Fundraising by way of trinkets is transactional. It does not create a transformational experience for the donor to deepen their affinity and strengthen their loyalty to the organization. Intentional engagement does. If we are looking to move the needle on relationship-building with donors, let’s move away from tangible gifts and move toward building engaging communities. Let’s get to know our donors as people, by name, and create a special place for them to belong. Taking the time to build a meaningful community is a better gift than the most expensive coffee mug in the catalogue.

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