Donor Fatigue: From Diagnosis to Treatment

By Mark S. Charendoff

Published November 11, 2005, issue of November 11, 2005.
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I just returned from a trip to Atlanta, where I found myself in conversation with a fellow traveler who was visiting from Miami. He was only supposed to be in Atlanta for three days, but Hurricane Wilma hit his Florida home while he was away, and he was in no particular rush to get back to a land of no electricity and five-hour waits at the gas pump. After the detailed coverage of the New Orleans disaster, I wondered out loud, “Why aren’t we seeing more coverage of the devastation of Florida?”

“Disaster fatigue,” he replied.

In my line of work, of course, the hot topic is “donor fatigue.” After pouring out their hearts and opening their checkbooks for victims of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina (so the theory goes), donors have precious little left for Florida and Pakistan, never mind the annual appeals they usually support. And while for most Americans this is not factually true — with rare exceptions, they are not exhausting their disposable income with charitable gifts — it seems that the emotional bank account depletes far faster than the one holding harder currency. There is only so much of the world’s burden we can take on. So, what’s a not-for-profit to do?

I spoke with the head of a large foundation last week about Katrina relief and his foundation’s response to the disaster. “We gave a couple of million because we felt we had to,” he said, “but I don’t feel very good about it.”

“Why not?” I asked. “It is certainly a good cause.” I asked if he was bothered by the Jewish dilemma that confronts so many of our members: Should I funnel my relief money through a Jewish agency, or just look for whoever is doing the best work?

“No, that’s not it,” he said. “It is just that we gave the checks in very large chunks to very big agencies and I don’t have any confidence that they know what to do with it.”

Donor fatigue is not brought on because one is exhausted by giving. In fact, we know the opposite to be true: Donors who are satisfied with their giving can feel exhilarated and often watch their giving increase at a dramatic rate. The surest way to increase donors’ level of commitment (and giving) is to help them understand that they are making a difference in someone’s life, that the world, even a small piece of it, is just a little bit better because of their efforts and generosity. Those efforts may be tiring, but it is the exhaustion of running a marathon, of riding your bike up that hill you could never conquer, of mastering a new skill or giving birth to a child. It is not the fatigue of futility but rather the well-earned rest at the top of the mountain.

We have to put as much energy into effectively allocating money as we do into raising it. We have to do a better job telling the stories of the lives we touch, of letting donors understand the impact that their dollars are making on individuals — not abstract figures and canned anecdotes that the marketing department dreams up, but real stories, real people, on the ground experience.

Philanthropy is a retail business — it is one to one. Taking a wholesale approach simply won’t work.

Donors are fatigued because after responding to the tsunami, after trying to do their part, after being a good citizen of the world, along comes Katrina. This one is closer to home. So while the devastation is great, they dig in again, because they know that if everyone does we can make a difference. We can help people rebuild their lives. And then the earthquake strikes in Pakistan. People begin to feel that maybe they can’t make a difference, after all. It is more a case of donor despondence than donor fatigue. As Jews, we don’t relish the role of Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up the hill simply to see it roll back and be forced to start anew the next day.

Many cultures relate a version of what is essentially the same story, that of the old man walking down a beach at dawn. He sees ahead of him what he thinks is a dancer — a young man running across the sand, rhythmically bending down to pick up stranded starfish and throw them far into the sea.

The old man gazes in wonder as the young soul again and again throws the small starfish from the sand into the water. The old man approaches him and asks why he is spending so much energy doing what seems like a waste of time. The young man explains that the stranded starfish would die if left until the morning sun.

“But there are thousands of miles of beach, and miles and miles of starfish,” says the old man. “How can your effort make any difference?”

The young man looks down at the small starfish in his hand and, as he throws it to safety in the sea, says, “It makes a difference to this one!”

It seems the young man knows a thing or two about donor fatigue.

Mark S. Charendoff is president of the Jewish Funders Network.

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