The Philanthropic Paradox in Donor Communication: Change is the only constant, with ONE big exception

By JoAnn Yoshimoto (CFRE 2000-2021), Senior Consultant

The explosion of online communications channels, expanding new technologies and a younger population is a reality to be reckoned with. Add to those trends the new and exciting fundraising results from online giving, and the projected $8.8 trillion transfer of wealth by 2027, and it’s easy to leap to the conclusion that the wave to catch and surf to the land of opportunity is digital. However, let’s look closely at compelling opportunities, documented results and stated donor preferences before we take the plunge.

Digital versus print communication


  • In 2020, 12.9% of fundraising came from online donations, according to data in the most recent Blackbaud Institute Charitable Giving Report. This represents an exciting growth rate of 20.7% over the prior year.
      • This is indeed an exciting RATE of growth, and it is worth investing fundraising time and resources in this revenue stream. Before going overboard, be mindful of what 12.9% of your fundraising revenue represents in actual dollars, even if that figure should increase by 20% this year.
    • There are new and emerging digital media, seemingly every week:
      • These platforms are easy-to-use, free tools that could quickly help you to harness the power of a disruptive technology to reach donors and streamline fundraising.
    • Generation X and Millennials prefer digital media to print (newspapers, mail, etc.) for reasons ranging from convenience to environmental concerns. Yet, Gen Z (born 1995-2012) values print media and trusts print publications more than digital media.
      • Just as Baby Boomers do not demonstrate one type of donor behavior, the younger generations are not monolithic in their preferences and behavior. Go beyond the surface level to understand the diversity of behavior, test a variety of approaches with various constituency groups and evaluate your results regularly.
    • Regardless of their behavior and their stated preferences, nearly half the population are now members of the millennial generation or younger.
      • Millennials and Generation Z are the major donors of tomorrow, and we need to meet them wherever they are – and wherever they prefer to be – in order to cultivate their interest in our respective missions TODAY.

Where to prioritize your time

Sure, we can just use ALL the communications platforms and saturate the air waves, print column inches, and cyberspace to ensure that we are reaching prospective donors through at least ONE of their preferred media. Or we can deploy our limited staff and limited financial resources in a smart and strategic manner.

  • Consider the finding that 67% of Americans say they still prefer printed materials over digital ones.
  • According to Nonprofit Source, a combination of direct mail and digital mail have a 28% higher conversion rate.
  • There are new and emerging tools to make online fundraising easier and more impactful. Check out

Direct mail is still important, but direct mail STRATEGY is key

While you grow your online giving, be mindful of tried-and-true strategies that can successfully meld the lessons of the “old” with the possibilities of the “new.” Look ahead with the discerning discipline borrowed from the most popular donor communication medium of the previous millennium.  Yes, we’re alluding to direct mail. There are many relevant principles and best practices from direct mail that we can apply when moving forward with digital media. Some of the most important principles include:

  • When in doubt, test a new approach with a subset of your donor base. This can be as broad as testing an email appeal with half your donors, and a text message appeal with the other half. Or it can be as narrow as testing different messages with various subsets of your donor base.
  • Use data (your own or sector-wide results) to inform the emphasis you place on each type of digital media.
  • Remember the importance (and potential small return) of new donor acquisition. Understand where communication overlaps with fundraising and appreciate the significance of both friend-raising AND fund-raising.

The ONE big exception

Media will continue to evolve, but it will never replace personal relationships with donors.  There is a very interesting point of intersection that combines the convenience and reach of online technology with varying degrees of personal(ized) relationships.

Consider the potential of online peer-to-peer fundraising, with increasingly sophisticated personalization.

  • Crowdfunding involves funding a project or campaign by collecting smaller donations from multiple donors.
  • Peer-to-peer fundraising is a more in-depth version of crowdfunding that lets people raise money on behalf of your organization using personalized fundraising
  • Professional and/or amateur/volunteer fundraisers can effectively manage their networks and communication with other fundraisers and potential donors using social media.
  • Group participation can enhance social capital (connections) that plays a positive role in fundraising success.
  • Fundraisers can select and cultivate connections that can be managed and expanded over time. For example, they may start peer-to-peer fundraising by nurturing a small number of connections, evaluating results and adapting approach to maximize success, then eventually expanding their network.

In a world that is ever-changing, evolving and transforming we may crave a touchstone, something that is tried, true and constant. In the world of fundraising, this anchor is the personal relationship. In spite of changing technology – or perhaps exacerbated by a more virtual world – people still respond very well to the personal relationship.

  • People give to people, not to organizations or causes that they may or may not understand.
  • Peers add credibility to the request for philanthropic dollars.
  • Group involvement in a cause can be simultaneously social, purposeful and fun.

The best algorithm in the world may or may not identify the best prospective donor. But the best algorithm certainly won’t help to engage them.

That’s the power of personal relationships, and this is where YOU and/or your volunteers hold the key to success.

The personal relationship and increased personalization in fundraising practice will always be the most important factor in building strong relationships and cultivating and securing the most significant philanthropic investments.

Speaking of personal relationships – send me a note! You can email me comments or questions at