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Thoughts & Musings

What's In A Name?

A few years ago, I was facilitating a design session for a CRM implementation at a mid-sized nonprofit.  At one point, I asked the project team to give me examples of the type of constituents they track.  Their response caught me off guard.  The project manager said, “we don’t call them constituents...that doesn’t mean anything to us here...we call them donors.”  

As a consultant in the nonprofit space, I try to be careful about stepping over boundaries, especially when it comes to terminology - as terminology is often tied to an organization’s culture and values.  But this particular time, I couldn’t help myself.  I explained to them that the industry uses the term “constituents”, because the individuals and organizations that contribute to your nonprofit are part of your community (or constituency).  They have a vested interest in your mission and your success.  They want to be involved and engaged in your work, so the language we use should reflect that.  “Donors”...well, they just give you money.   

My advice was respectfully rejected, and per the team’s request, I replaced all references to “constituent” throughout the system to “donor”.

Although this may have seemed like a disagreement over semantics, I believe it highlights a broader issue nonprofits struggle with.  As fundraisers, we group the individuals we work with in a category that makes it easier for us to process, so we can plan our fundraising and marketing efforts accordingly.  I solicit my donors one way, I notify my volunteers about upcoming events in another way, and I send my corporate sponsors their pledge reminders...everybody fits in their box.  But it begs the question, does such a rigid approach to categorization lead to missed opportunities?  

What if I looked at everybody as a potential donor for my nonprofit?  

What about the volunteer who racked up 150 volunteer hours last year?  She is a huge fan of our work, perhaps she never made a gift because nobody ever asked her.  And what about the office manager for the corporate sponsor we work with?  We only send him pledge reminders every month because he is an “organizational contact.”.  But what’s stopping him from becoming a personal donor himself?  He’s familiar with our nonprofit’s work through his employer, perhaps we should make an ask to see if he would give personally.

And what about our contact at the investment firm who sends us checks on behalf of her clients through donor advised funds?  Or the attorney who facilitates our planned gifts?  There are so many individuals who are exposed to our nonprofit on a daily basis who indirectly learn about our mission, our work, and our people.  For many fundraisers, that’s half the battle!

So what can we do?  Here’s  a few recommendations...

  1. Refer to all contacts as “constituents"...both in your systems and in your internal communication.  If there’s a better term that is more aligned with your nonprofit’s culture, that’s fine too...but keep it broad enough so individuals are not pigeon-holed based on their current interaction with your organization.

  2. Make sure your CRM system allows your constituent to be categorized in more than one way i.e. Donor, Volunteer, Board Member, Major Giving Prospect, Planned Giving Prospect, etc.  If it doesn't...customize it.

  3. Craft marketing programs that aim to increase the overall number of categories a constituent falls into.  For example, aim to convert 20% of your volunteers to donors this year, or convert 50% of your event attendees to donors this quarter, etc.

What we call the people who love and support our work will likely shape the way we think about them.  If we think of them simply as “donors”, or “volunteers”, that is the most we can expect from them.  But if we think of them as multi-faceted individuals who are eager to express their passion about our work, it may uncover opportunities never before imagined.