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Ted Wagenaar thinks about why donors stop giving to organizations


On the Group Thinkers podcast, we typically chat with leaders in the nonprofit and commercial space to learn more about their careers and the unique journeys that led them to where they are today. But we took a small break from our usual approach for a special guest.

On this episode, we sat down with Ted Wagenaar, a donor who published the op-ed “Why I Stopped Donating to Your Organization” in The Chronicle of Philanthropy to discuss:

  • His background donating to charities (6:17)
  • The trends he has noticed with nonprofits (13:16)
  • A shift to long-term bond with donors (17:32)
  • How organizations can effectively connect with their donors (21:54)

Meet our guest

Ted WagenaarTed Wagenaar

Author of the op-ed “Why I Stopped Donating to Your Organization”

“You need to think of us donors as part of your team instead of just a donor … and we’re all working for the for the same outcome. We're all working to achieve the same goal, just doing different pieces of it. But unless you do some research, unless you know more about your donors, we can't act together as a team.”

Podcast Transcript

Justin: Welcome to Groupthinkers. I'm Justin McCord. With me is Ronnie Richard, and Ronnie, this is an interesting one.

Ronnie: It's a big one.

Justin: This is super interesting. So, here's the thing. On this episode, we're going to have a conversation with Theodore Wagenaar. Ronnie, tell us a little bit about Ted, and then I wanna give a couple of observations.

Ronnie: Sure, yeah. So, Ted’s story is really interesting, I think. And I’m gonna back up a little bit to a couple of months ago. So, our listeners may be familiar with RKD Group's #QuitBadFundraising movement that we've been kind of talking about, and really, that got started with our CEO, Chris Pritcher, and he was kind of noticing, just like, something wasn't quite right with fundraising in our space. And he's making an observation that nonprofits and their partners, you know, need to change. And so, he planned and wrote this op-ed piece that ran in The NonProfit Times about what we all as an industry need to do to build better experiences for donors. And we knew, at a certain point, we knew this piece was gonna publish on June 28. You know, we were lining it up and knew it was coming out that day. So, the day before, June 27, we look in The Chronicle of Philanthropy and see Ted wrote an op-ed piece, our guest, that says “Why I Stopped Donating to Your Organization.” And I mean, I remember, we were just shocked, like, wow. Justin, you gotta see this. This is, like, the exact opposite side of the coin, saying the exact same thing from the donor's perspective. Then we reached out to Ted and asked if he'd be curious, you know, to join us on this podcast episode, and here we are.

Justin: Yeah. I mean, I don't know if it was Kismet or, like a, I don't know, like a Stockton/Malone pick and roll. I don't know what, like, this is. But here's the thing, is that I'm going to read to the audience the last line of the op-ed. We're gonna have a link in the show notes. I want you to go read it. I implore everyone in the nonprofit space to go and read this and really try and filter it alongside filtering the conversation that we have here with Ted. This is how the op-ed closes:

Transparency matters. If organizations want to maintain relationships with their donors and encourage further gifts, they need to listen, ask questions and respond to donors' needs. Only then can they effectively work together for the greater good.

So here's what's interesting about this, about this episode and conversation, in particular. On every other episode that we've had in the history of Group Thinkers, it's been with someone who is in the field of nonprofit marketing or fundraising or marketing in general in some capacity. They're an insider, and we're talking about things that are advancing within our space. That's not this conversation. This conversation is with someone who is outside of the sector, who is stepping back from their relationship with the sector, and tying together some things that we have felt inside the sector, and he is choosing to be brave enough to put it out there of what he's experiencing. And that's what makes it a unique conversation and a unique episode and something altogether different. And so, we're excited for you to get to listen to it. And, hopefully, it challenges the way that you think and maybe even sets you on a course to doing something different. So, with that, Ronnie, I guess, here we go. Here's our conversation with the author of “Why I stopped Donating to Your Organization,” Theodore C Wagenaar, on Group Thinkers.

Justin: Okay, Ronnie. We have, we've done our fair share of podcasts at this point. This is, this is unique today because this is somewhat putting our money where our mouth is in that we're so used to talking to people that are in the philanthropic space professionally. And today, we get to have a conversation with someone who is in the philanthropic space because they choose to be as a donor. And I think that's really interesting. Like …

Ronnie: Yeah. Totally.

Justin: It’s unique for us.

Ronnie: I was thinking about it, and I don't wanna put too much pressure on our guest today, but this might be, you know, the most important guest we've had for, you know, our audience and everyone. We should really listen to what he has to say.

Justin: I mean, I, now I feel pressure, Ted. I don't know about you.

Ronnie: Set the bar.

Justin: So, we'd like to welcome to Group Thinkers, Theodore Wagenaar. Ted, good to have you. Thank you for being here.

Ted: My pleasure.

Justin: Ted, you're not just any donor. You're a donor who has stepped up and stepped out to say something. And how you came onto our radar was an article that you penned in The Chronicle of Philanthropy that … the headline of the article is, “Why I Stopped Donating to Your Organization.” Walk us through your background and your philanthropy, and then we wanna build up to this, this article that you, that you crafted recently.

Ted: My own experience is that of an immigrant child that came from a very poor family. And, I, as a result, got scholarships all the way through college and graduate school. Now I … and I've always been very grateful for that. So, the main goal of my philanthropic ventures is to help other lower-income kids succeed in school and then also attend college and succeed there. That's how I first got into the whole thing. So, that continues to be my major philanthropic interest.

Justin: I think it's important to note for our audience that, that Ted, like so many people that we think about as individual donors, like Ted, you've got a personal mission. You have something that is your fair way in terms of where you support. Professionally, your career was in academia. You're a retired college professor, and you spent 38 years at Miami University of Ohio and taught sociology. And, and I'm curious, how does your, not just the mission that you just mentioned that you have and your purpose philanthropically, but how did your professional life intersect with your mission and with your perspective on nonprofits?

Ted: That's a good question. I selected sociology because it helps address a lot of those questions as to why things are the way they are in society. And a recurring feature of our society, as well as a lot of society, is growing inequality between people of different social classes. And as part of my work in sociology of education, I came face to face with that reality, did some research for the education and some other agencies to study that. So, yes, professionally, I've long been involved in analyzing the connections between decisions that are made at the policy level and the implications they have for children in our society.

Ronnie: And take us through the, a little bit into the op-ed. So, what kind of spurred you to write it? What was, like, why now, I guess? And what was the spark that made you want to step up and say something?

Ted: It appeared because I had some unsatisfactory experiences with some organizations. And by the time the third or the fourth one happened, I thought, you know what? I wonder if I can compile all this into an article that might be of help to nonprofits. And so, it was an experience with an organization that didn't respond to my request to update my estate plans with that organization. It was an organization that didn't respond to my inquiry as to how they were going to deploy a huge grant that they had received so that I could decide how my donation might fit in. It was receiving the wrong kinds of receipts when you give money from an IRA. And after several of those occurred in the space of a few months, I thought, well, let's put this all together. Maybe it'll help some of these organizations.

Ronnie: In the op-ed, you kind of talked about how you'll often give a gift to kinda, I guess, test the organization and see how they respond when you give a gift. And we've heard that from, you know, people that work with us as well. That they see that at nonprofit organizations. And so, these responses, or lack of responses, I guess, that you've gotten, is this something that you've seen in prior, you know, in the past, or is it really just something that's kinda cropped up more recently? You said it's happened a few times recently. Had you seen anything like this before?

Ted: I have, but not to the same degree. And, of course, this is probably due to the, you know, to the turnover in the nonprofit sector in terms of fundraising, and there certainly are staffing issues and, you know, and I appreciate that. But it all came together for me this year, and that's why I wrote the article.

Justin: Yeah. And you even cite within the article some of the connections to, you know, the reports and studies that we see in our sector on the continued decline in number of individual gifts. And so, you have this compounding effect of, you know, fewer donors and also, maybe, less-than-ideal experiences. You cite within the article―and we're gonna link to the article in the show notes so that everyone has access to it―but you cite within the article a conversation or two that you had with nonprofits that you had previously supported where you were proactive in reaching out to have conversations with directors and executives on staff at the nonprofits. Walk us through those conversations and how were they received, and, and what were your takeaways after having that direct dialogue with the organizations?

Ted: Yeah. That's actually happened several times. Organizations that I have donated to, and then talked with and tried to help them understand how donors like myself might think and how organizations like theirs might respond. So, I've actually done this with a half a dozen organizations already. And it's important to me to help them achieve the goal that we all have in mind, which is to, you know, to generate funds to accomplish our mission. So, in those situations, I would usually initiate the contact, then they would realize I was pretty serious about giving and understanding the giving process. And then we would talk further about how their particular organization might respond better to their donor base.

Justin: I wish more donors were as proactive as you.

Ronnie: I was thinking the same thing. Like, so many donors might have just walked away, but you're trying to fix it and make it better, which I think is great.

Ted: Yeah. I've enjoyed doing it, and it's often important to understand how the people on the other side feel.

Justin: Yeah. I mean, like, absolutely. There is a mutual desire in the donor/nonprofit relationship to solve a problem. And, and what did you learn through those conversations about, you know, the organizations that you are supporting? What were some of the, the trends that you saw from them?

Ted: One of the things that really stuck out was how little they know about their donors. So, I asked them, all of them, what the research was that they had done on their donors. And the responses were that they had done very little. And so, I suggested that they ask donors where their organization is in terms of the top five organizations that the donor gives to and why isn't it higher or why isn't it lower? And so, just trying to get them to understand the notion that donors have reasons for why they do what they do, and we need to study more, learn more, about how people come to that decision, especially in this period of transfer of wealth that we keep reading about that the boomers are going to engage in. The nonprofits need to step up and make a better case for how and why people should give their money to them as well. So, it's an important, it's an important thing to remember in terms of figuring it all out.

Justin: So, Ronnie, this is where we like leaning in and break the fourth wall. To the audience and be like, see. See, like, honestly. Because we believe the same thing, you know, Ted, that there's a gap in the routine, the discipline, even the muscle memory of listening. And, you know, it's interesting, when we were previously chatting, Ted, you kind of turned that question on Ronnie and I asked, “Hey, why doesn't this happen more?” Right?

Ted: Right. Yeah.

Justin: And, and there are so many reasons why. I think that, to me, the root of it is that it seems to be less the priority versus executing on other things. It's not that it's not a priority. It seems to be less of a priority versus the many pressures and things that, that folks within a nonprofit have to deliver on, or at least that's, kinda, my personal take. When you had those conversations and you talked to them about, you know, their own research, what was your takeaway from it? Why do you think that they have not made that a better practice? At least for the organizations that you've engaged with.

Ted: Well, I think you hit the nail on the head. They just don't have the time or the interest, mostly. But you can do a lot of research easily. I mean, Walmart, every time we go to a Walmart or another store, they want a customer satisfaction survey, and they actually do use that information. Well, it's not that hard to set up a similar kind of an arrangement with a donor. I mean, we wanna know why they picked our organization. We wanna know how we stack up with other organizations. We wanna know what the ultimate goal is for the donor. We wanna know how long they've been donating. We wanna know the categories of organizations that they donate to. We basically wanna know how and why they're thinking, of course, to increase their donations to our own organizations but also to improve the overall process of philanthropic efforts in the country.

Ronnie: One of the things that we've kinda pointed out as we've done our #QuitBadFundraising movement is that we see there's often a focus on, kind of, the right now when you're at a nonprofit. They're, like, the focus is on, we have to hit our annual revenue. We have to execute, like you mentioned, Justin, we have to do, you know, get this, this email out, this piece of mail out. We have to do these things now. Do you think that, kind of, hinders this, more of this long-term thinking, like, this thinking of, like, let me send out a survey so we can start planning down the road for this thing of how, you know, to learn more about our donors. Is it … do they need to shift some sort of their approach to more long term?

Ted: I think that's part of the problem, Ronnie, because they, they’re thinking of raising money this year and hitting this year's target. And what they need to do is to cultivate donors for longer-term giving as well.

Justin: Yeah. There's … you know, we actually have, Ted, analysis on, jeez, hundreds of organizations that points toward the opportunity in terms of long-term value. Right? And long-term net value to an organization. And it's remarkable the systems and processes and even design thinking that's towards short term. And you do, you get caught up in, what do I have to accomplish right now? What do I have to accomplish within this year? And it can skew your ability to think about those longer-term impacts. And so, again, like, these things tend to, I believe they tend to build on each other, you know, the gap in listening and, and the focus on short term. Like, those things tend to distract you from getting to know your donors. As you said, you … also within your piece, you note something that I find particularly quirky and fun and interesting, and that's, that's the role that Gala’s play in your life. And, and Gala invites. Talk us through a little bit of the, you know, the space that Galas have with your relationship with the nonprofits that you support?

Ted: Well, I've been invited to plenty of them, as well as the golf outings, and I have never gone, in part because I don’t play golf, but more importantly, because I don't see that as important. The point of the golf outings and the Galas is simply so that the rich people can see other rich people and they can solidify their social status in their communities, and they may cost a lot of money to put on. I have no data, but my guess is that some of them may not even draw in as much money as the event itself. I've always had a big, big problem with those types of events and discourage organizations from doing them, even though they do work in some circumstances.

Justin: Yeah. I think that what I love about it is, one, I love your admission that, hey, they're not for me. Like, this isn't my jam. If you were to talk to me, if you were to get to know me, you'd learn that this isn't my jam, and you wouldn't spend your time and your resources inviting me because it's not my jam. And that's not to say that it's not someone else's or that it can't be beneficial for a certain segment of supporters, but it kinda comes back to the act of listening and listening well. And prioritizing understanding people and building better experiences for those people, of which, you know, there are data attributes that you can add in to understand a Ted versus, you know, a Ronnie, who can't keep the eye off the golf course, you know.

Ronnie: Or those galas, I love dressing up in fancy, you know, suits and tuxedos. That's my jam.

Justin: Such a suit-and-tie guy. Yeah.

Ted: Well, I think it's important to think about it in terms of a, of a different strategy as well. For example, I was talking with somebody, a fundraiser at a major organization on the East Coast, last week. And I said, you know, you need to think of us donors as part of your team instead of just a donor. You need to think of us as part of your team, and we're all working for the, for the same outcome. We're all working to, you know, to achieve the same goal, just doing different pieces of it. But unless you do some research, unless you know more about your donors, we can't act together as a team.

Ronnie: Ted, I'm curious. We've talked a lot about what is not working and what needs to improve. In your experience, what would you say this looks like from an organization that's doing it well? I mean, we don't have to say who it is or anything, but what does the experience look like from your end from an organization that's hitting the mark?

Ted: I’d say the best example is an organization that invited me to spend half a day at their organization, watching kids get tutored and watching, you know, children do different kinds of things and giving me the opportunity to talk with the students who wanted to talk about it. And talking to the staff members. And then after that, having the chance to talk to the director about things like budget, and sources of income and how I might be able to make somewhat of a difference. So, that kind of immersive experience. Now, having said that, I realize you can't do this with every person that comes through the door. You know, you probably would run out of time. But for somebody who's shown a lot of interest your organization and who's already given five or ten thousand dollars, it's a way, it's a way to get people understanding your organization in a way that makes them more committed to giving more in the future.

Ronnie: So, getting them involved, learning about the donor, finding out what they want to be involved in. For you, it's getting in there and being involved in the work, not so much the outings, and then I'm also hearing, I guess, transparency?

Ted: Right.

Ronnie: Tell me about what the gift is doing and how you're using it.

Ted: Yeah. And on the lower-cost end, I like getting updates, newsletters from an organization, not necessarily directed just to me, but directed to all donors―and actually, non-donors as well―that simply say, here's what's been going on the last few months. Here's three examples of our success. Here's where we are in terms of the budget so far this year. Here's the two or three things we have going on this fall. And you can sign up here. You don't have to do this every week or every month, but every few months, that kind of constant awareness shared with your donors is a way to keep them aware of what's going on so that when it comes time to make their donation, they will include you in that process.

Justin: Completely agree, Ted. Completely agree. And that principle of stewardship, you know, that's rooted in, in philanthropy and needs to be something that we continue to work hard at, even to your point of, you know, we see there being places where we might not be able to bring every donor on-site to experience the mission firsthand. Like, that may not be possible. But it is possible to communicate, like you said, through newsletters. Or for some donors, it's a quick video that you send them to where they see a face and they see your, you know, your eyes, and they see you, as a nonprofit professional, light up sharing those impact stories of where the donation is going. There are these, these ways that if we prioritize―maybe modernizing some of our stewardship―it can go further in helping continue that relationship with donors and provide them with a more rich experience. We really do. I mean, like, we're, you know, we're so glad for a donor like you, Ted, because you bring a perspective to the sector that there are a lot of things that we may know, but we don't always choose to act on. And so, it is helpful for us and refreshing for us when we see someone stand up and say, hey, wait a second. Like, I'm the person who you're trying to get the attention of. Let me tell you about my experience. There's a lot of value in that. And so, we appreciate you sharing that experience. Do you have any more, any more op-eds planned?

Ted: No. That, that's it. No. That's it.

Justin: One and done. Well, I, here's what I hope. My hope is that in the months or years to come that your experience with nonprofits becomes more rich and more full, and that you find the space to write something about, “Why I Kept Donating to an Organization” as a, as a salve for the pains that you have experienced.

Ted: I will give that some thought. That's a great idea.

Justin: Oh, very cool. Well, Ted, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. And for sharing your story, for sharing your perspective. And thank you for being an active, an involved, donor. We really appreciate that.

Ted: My pleasure.

Group thinkers is a production of RKD Group. For more information, including how you can partner with RKD to accelerate growth for your fundraising and nonprofit marketing needs, visit

RKD Group

RKD Group is North America's leading fundraising and marketing services provider to hundreds of nonprofit organizations, including hospitals, social service, disease research, animal welfare, rescue missions, and faith-based charities. RKD Group’s omnichannel approach leverages technology, advanced data science and award-winning strategic and creative leadership to accelerate net revenue growth, build long-term donor relationships and drive online and offline engagements and donations. With a growing team of professionals, RKD Group creates breakthroughs never thought possible.

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