Do your fundraising rules bewilder your donors?

My rules encounter

A few months ago, I ran a training session for the board and staff of a local nonprofit on evaluating outcomes. Because I like the organization and its leadership a whole lot but it isn’t in the inner circle of charities I support with cash donations, I didn’t charge for my services.

A few days later, I received a email notice from the microlending nonprofit Kiva that a gift certificate was given in my name from the board chair. I was touched.

Kiva told me the amount of the gift certificate and that I could use it to make a microloan. Because there was some effort involved, I put the action into my pending basket of not urgent items and promptly forgot to “redeem” the gift certificate.

In a few weeks, Kiva sent me an email reminding me that I hadn’t redeemed my gift certificate. All good. But then the reminder told me that I could 1) redeem my gift certificate (by making a micro loan) or 2) do nothing and the gift would convert to a donation to Kiva.

Because I wasn’t really terribly interested in making a micro-loan and because I know how much nonprofits can use the unrestricted funds, I wanted option 2.

Unfortunately, there was a catch. I had to wait ONE YEAR from the time the gift certificate was purchased until Kiva could convert the gift certificate into a donation.

Well, I thought, I’ll just email Kiva’s customer support and tell them that they didn’t have to wait a year. I’d just donate the gift certificate right now so they could put the money immediately to work.

I promptly got an email back explaining the following to me:

Kiva tries to encourage people to make loans with their gift certificates because if they enjoy the experience and continue to lend, we can have a greater impact on global poverty.  This is why we don’t encourage people to donate their gift certificates, but we do process them as a donation after one year so the money doesn’t get wasted. (Emphasis added)

I wasn’t enjoying the experience any more.

The email was signed with a person’s name (good). I noted the title given:  “Customer Service Volunteer.”

Okay, it’s a volunteer. I’ll give him or her a break. So I wrote back that they really didn’t have to wait a year, that I really did want to have them immediately convert the gift certificate to a donation so they could use it right away.

Instead, I got back the following reply:

If you’d like, I can cancel the gift certificate, and the funds will be immediately returned to the purchaser’s Kiva account.

So, the only options available to me were:

  1. I could make a micro-loan, which I wasn’t interested in doing.
  2. I could let the money sit “unused” for one year and then they would transfer the funds into their general fund.
  3. I could ask that they cancel the gift certificate and return the funds to my colleague.

But what I couldn’t do, under any circumstances, was to have them immediately convert the gift certificate from their microloan category to their general fund category.


I’m sure there must be some pretty complicated accounting rules behind this that I’m not understanding. Or at least I hope so. Because otherwise, I’d just call it foolish bureaucracy on their part. Because instead of satisfying the original donor and a potential new one, they now have no new microloan and a potential donor who knows that Kiva would rather let money sit for 11 months than break ” the rules” to accelerate what it eventually will do anyway.

My “favorite” rules

One of my absolute favorite rules is the one where organizations won’t give membership benefits to a donor who only made a gift through the year end or some other special appeal. Why? Because the donor didn’t formally “renew” their membership — even if the non-membership contribution received was $1,000 and the membership they didn’t get was only $25.  What fabulous membership benefits are they holding back anyway? It’s most likely a crummy newsletter and maybe, just maybe, some small discount on merchandise or programs that I’m unlikely to use. And in this case, trying to keep track of which donors are members and which aren’t is usually a processing pretzel that adds undue administrative hassles.

I know that you’ve heard it before, but please put yourself into your donor’s shoes before you start setting up all of these rules. Or else come up with some more convincing excuses.


P.S. I’d love to hear your stories of off-putting rules that you’ve encountered as a donor.

There’s more to this story. Read what happened next.

6 responses to Do your fundraising rules bewilder your donors?

  1. Steve Thomas

    @Ack! You’d think with all the difficulties Kiva has had with PR, they would be doing everything they can to make donors happy. And I think easy giving options make happy donors.

    Thanks for the info Gayle.

  2. Pamela Grow

    Your closing said it all Gayle: please put yourself into your donor’s shoes before you start setting up all of these rules.

    Yikes! Well I can’t say that I’ve run into any crazy rules like that in my own giving. But your post is an important reminder to us to think like donors.

  3. Mazarine

    I think the plaques I found at a previous organization were my favorite version of needless bureaucracy,

    People had bought these plaques back in the 1990s, and the organization had promised to keep adding little brass plates indefinitely.

    By the time I got there, no little brass plates, no list of businesses who had these plaques, and no incentive at all to continue this outdated system!

    I mean, talk about not giving value for membership money. These days, a listing on a website and a paper certificate, if you really want it, or membership card, should suffice.



  4. Kim

    Horrible experience! Must be a program set up by non-development people…let’s hope. I think their entire staff and volunteer crew needs some solid customer service training.

    And, I totally agree about the “membership” thing. Silly. People don’t think, I guess.

    Thanks for the post.

Leave a reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.