Getting to Know the Keynote Speakers: Penelope Burk

Penelope Burk
"Being Donor-Centered in Changing Times: How to Use Donor Trends and Changing Technologies to Make a Profit"
Friday, October 5

Your keynote is titled “Being Donor-Centered in Changing Times: How to Use Donor Trends and Changing Technologies to Make a Profit.” Why do you start with the topic of changing times?

At your conference, we’re going to release the second edition of Donor-Centered Fundraising, which is the book that got me really well-known in the fundraising business. I wrote that back in 2003, so it’s now 15 years later. On a number of times, I’ve gone back to the book to review this or that, and I’ve gone, “Holy smoke, it’s way out of date!” Particularly in the area of donor communications.

We do a research study every year called the Burk Donor Survey, which follows year-to-year and period-to-period changes in how donors are giving, what’s important to them, what their plans are for the future, et cetera. There’s a lot of change happening and it’s happening quite rapidly. So, with the combination of the book itself needing to be updated and the fact that we’re seeing so much that’s new and different in how donors are managing their philanthropy today from how they did a couple of decades ago, it really warrants that title.

What other challenges are you planning to address?

The number one that affects anybody who’s at the ADRP conference is the growing importance of donor relations, and the fact that, according to donors, what matters most is the quality of donor relations, the quality of what happens when they’re not being asked to give.

Donors say that once they’ve made a first gift to any not-for-profit, whether they’ll give again and, if so, whether they’ll give more generously, is completely dependent on what happens in between the asks—not at the time they are asked for money. So, by default, because you need to retain donors and inspire them to give more generously in order for your fundraising program to be profitable at all, let alone increasingly profitable, the responsibility for profit actually falls on the shoulders of donor relations professionals more than anyone else in fundraising.

Wow, that’s powerful!

It’s quite a statement, isn’t it? The logic just says that this is the case. What donor relations people choose to do with their time, or are directed to spend their time on by their bosses, and how they go about doing those things including what they choose not to do are incredibly important to how much money the not-for-profit ends up making.

I was going to ask what might surprise attendees about your keynote, but that might be it!

That’s it! It might even horrify them for a minute, until I tell them what donors feel are the critical, non-negotiable, inspiring things that get them to keep giving and give more generously.

What is something you’ve personally learned recently that surprised you?

I’m learning things all the time. But I’d say in the big picture, something that affects how fundraising is organized is that one of the top changes in donors’ behavior is that they are trending toward supporting fewer causes. Not giving less money, just concentrating their giving on a smaller number of not-for-profits. That has huge implications, first on people who work in direct marketing, where their programs are dependent on volume in order to make money. It also has a big impact on donor relations professionals. As donors are supporting fewer causes, there’s even a bigger spotlight shining on what is going on in between the asks. So, it’s becoming more and more important every year.

Everybody who jumps into a fundraising job has about a nanosecond to figure things out before they become completely responsible for the organization’s financial future. So, it’s not surprising that fundraisers learn fast on the job, or that when I talk to fundraisers, regardless of the role that they play in development, they instantly understand what I mean—because they have to!

Why do attendees need to hear your keynote?

I’m transmitting information from donors, so listening to me is the same as listening to donors. I take what they say verbatim and statistically. Wherever the weight of opinion is, that is what I report on. Donors are saying, “Look, we need very specific things from the not-for-profits we support, and there are other things that we’re getting but we don’t need them at all.” Listening to what donors have to say will help people sitting in the conference understand where they should be focusing the majority of their time and budget resources.

It also helps them “sell up” their case to their bosses. One of the hardest things to do is to educate upwards, as I’m sure anyone in donor relations understands. The donor relations person is never the CEO of the foundation or the chief development officer. It’s someone who works for others, who ultimately make the decisions. On the other hand, the donor relations officer is often the person who’s closest to donor sensibility. But knowing that and being able to manage up are two different things.

On that front, we’ve done a lot of research not just with donors but with professional fundraisers too. My other book, Donor-Centered Leadership, is all about how to keep fundraisers on the job longer, more satisfied, and producing at a greater rate in less time. It’s quite the challenge. But one of the things we found in the research was that one of the great weaknesses fundraisers have is that, while they seem to viscerally understand how donors are feeling and what they want, they have difficulty putting that into objective, evidence-based terms so that they can convince their boss, the board of directors, or the CEO that changes should be made in how fundraising works, so that more money can be made.

What do you hope people will take away?

The core piece that they will take away is the statement from donors about the specifics of what they need in between the asks. Donors have stated that there are only three things they want, and they have clearly articulated them. They’re not difficult to understand. They are more challenging to implement within a fundraising system that works differently.

The second thing attendees will take away is actually how to make this work in a giving world that is changing very rapidly and in a fundraising environment that is somewhat behind the times—in other words, that doesn’t keep up as fast with the changes that donors are making.

Finally, why are you excited to return to the ADRP Conference?

Before ADRP was what it is today, it was a loose collection of people in donor relations (before it was even called donor relations) at universities and colleges in the Northeast U.S., who would get together every couple of years for a small—and I mean very small—conference and talk about this emerging field.

Through a very happy accident, I was put in contact with the person who was chairing an early predecessor to this conference. I started to tell him about research I had conducted in Canada on this same subject. He was very interested in it and said, “I just happen to still have open the closing lunch address slot for this conference. Would you like to tell us about your research?” And I did.

And at that conference, people came up to me and said, “When is the U.S. version of that research going to be finished?” Of course, it hadn’t even been on my radar! But the next day, I went home and I started it. And that evolved into the book, Donor-Centered Fundraising, which led to the creation of my company, Cygnus Applied Research, and I never looked back. I can trace it all back to your original association, this group of donor relations people. It all started there.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Get to know Penelope even more through her introduction video! Penelope will be presenting on Friday, October 5, at the ADRP conference. Learn more about her presentation.