Pitfalls of Multi-Year Pledges

Dear Kim,

I recently started work at an organization that deeply relies on the pledging process, but unfortunately has neglected to cultivate those donors who pledged in the first years of these pledge campaigns. I am now charged with the task of (re)connecting with donors who made pledges over five years but have stopped paying. My job is to attempt to collect on their original pledge and reconnect them to the organization.

I have to say, as a donor, if someone from an organization called me after five years to ask me about a pledge I had stopped paying on, I would most likely be offended when there had been no communication prior to this call, aside from mailed invoices. I’m not sure how to approach these calls and feel that they could be very awkward. Could you give me some advice about what to say?

Many thanks,

~New to Collections

Dear Collections,

You have identified the #1 problem with pledge programs, particularly those that encourage people to make multi-year pledges, which is appropriate and timely follow-up. Follow-Up is the second most common problem in all fundraising, right behind its older sibling which is Not Asking in the First Place.

You are basically being asked to clean up someone else’s mess and you are being a good sport to take it on so graciously. Here’s what you should do:

  • Make sure the infrastructure is now in place to take care of pledges in case you are able to rekindle any of the current ones and in the event you attract new ones. The infrastructure is not just the ability to send invoices, but also to send newsletters that help donors feel good about having made multi-year pledges. Presumably the donors were thanked at the time, but you should make sure that is the case. You need to have a good website that keeps people up to date on your good work and you need to be present on at least one social media platform with regular postings.
  • Start by writing to the lapsed pledgers with a note of apology. This letter or email should be personalized to each situation, noting when the pledge was made, how much it was, and how much has been paid toward it. Remember that the donors don’t know that they all have been neglected. All they know is that they haven’t gotten a newsletter or that they have only gotten an invoice but nothing else. Some donors may have talked to each other and have a sense that this is a pattern but an individual apology will go a long way in mending fences, assuming (not to repeat myself) that this really won’t happen again.   In the letter, tell the donor what you did with the money they donated. “We have made amazing strides in our efforts to….However, our efforts to keep in touch with the people who made all of this possible have been more spotty. I am hoping to talk with you and bring you up to date on what we have done, and ask you if you would consider renewing your pledge because we have exciting work ahead, including…. I will call later this week.”
  • Then call. Mostly you will not reach people. When you do reach them, some will feel apologetic. “I have been meaning to pay this—I am so sorry.” Some may be mad and, since this is not your fault, you can just apologize and not take it personally. Most, however, will have completely forgotten about your organization because while your group was busy ignoring them, they were busy living their lives. Depending on how lapsed the pledge is, you may not even have correct phone numbers.
  • After two to three attempts to reach each donor, and assuming you think you are reaching the voicemail of the donor, send another letter or email saying you have tried to reach them, and you hope they will consider renewing their pledge, with instructions about how to do that.

Notice I wrote “renew” their pledge rather than, “Pay what they owe.” I think you should avoid any implication that any of this is the donor’s fault. I would also avoid multi-year pledges for the time being until you made sure your systems can handle them.

Good luck!

~Kim Klein

Read more Dear Kim columns on pledges.