New Year’s Resolutions

Now that we’re well into December, can’t we just get 2020 over with?

The new year won’t be any sort of picnic, but it has to be better than 2020. (That’s a low bar, I know.) And as we look forward to 2021, perhaps we can start making resolutions to help our nonprofit development programs become more effective.

Here are four suggestions. Most are easy to do – and you’ll feel so good!

1) Stop shilling for Amazon Smile. You’re no doubt familiar with the scheme: You get your donors to name your organization as their Amazon Smile charitable beneficiary, and, presto-change-o, you’ll get a treasure trove of gifts – equal to ½ of 1% of what your donors spend on Amazon.

Except that you won’t really get much of anything.

I know one organization that has given precious real estate on its online donation page to Amazon Smile for eight years – and in return it has received only a single $5 check in all that time.

Why? First of all, not that many of its donors chose that organization. Nor will they choose you, I’m afraid. There are over a million charities in the U.S. Each donor can only pick one – and, of course, most donors won’t choose any charity at all. Your donors will probably select another organization. Sorry to be the one to tell you that.

The bigger issue is the fine print. In order to get their purchases credited for Amazon Smile donations, donors need to log into the Amazon Smile portal each time they buy something. And…  they don’t, and they won’t. So real money for charity never seems to show up. (Please prove me wrong. If you’ve landed big checks from Amazon, let me know!)

In the meantime, you’ve given exposure to this Goliath of a corporation with a questionable worker-safety and competitive fairness record, and you’ve no doubt alienated friendly local merchants, for whom Amazon is anathema. Perhaps most importantly, you’ve “wasted an ask.” That is, you’ve asked your donors to do this essentially worthless favor for you, while making them less inclined to support you in a genuinely helpful way later. (“I made the ABC Agency the beneficiary of my Amazon Smile account,” they might say to themselves. “So I’ll just skip sending them my usual year-end gift of $100.”)

I’ve been ranting about this for years – see here and here – to the point where some people think my epitaph will read, “He really, really hated Amazon Smile.” And I wouldn’t mind that – I could be known for worse things, and probably will be. Then again, you can spare yourselves the lectures and simply stop providing free advertising for Amazon – so please do!

2) Eliminate unproductive special events. It’s hard to find silver linings from the pandemic. But here’s one: The disruption gives nonprofits an opportunity to jettison unproductive special events.

That gala that you have held for the last fifteen years, which has netted you less and less money each year, while sapping more and more energy? That art auction that actually loses money, once you account for all the staff salaries? That walk-a-thon that raises barely anything, but is good for “exposure”? Well, now that you had to cancel most in-person events this year, you can simply choose not to schedule them in 2021. Few people will notice. Fewer still will care. Go for it!

I have the reputation for disliking special events – nearly as much as I dislike Amazon Smile. That’s not quite true, but I openly admit that I am an event skeptic. Special events should be approached with caution.

Ideally a special event should accomplish five things:

A) reinforce the mission and brand of the organization,

B) connect the organization to established and new donors, and strengthen those relationships,

C) bring in substantial net income, after accounting honestly for staff time,

D) raise the visibility of the organization, and

E) be fun and celebratory.

Not every special event hits on all five of these goals, but a viable event should meet, say, at least three-and-a-half of the five. I know a lot of events that fall far short of that, and yet continue to grind on, year after year.

Nonprofits tend to keep doing what they’ve always done, so events that make little sense continue to make little sense year after year after year. There’s a tendency, too, to succumb to pressure from assertive volunteers: You don’t want to disappoint Mrs. McGillicuddy, who’s been advocating for the haunted house tour for 30 years. That kind of thing.

Well, now the pandemic has shuffled the deck, stolen a few of the cards, and spilled Cherry Coke on the rest. If there’s ever a time to drop unnecessary, unhelpful, and unproductive events, it’s now. Eliminate them from the calendar for 2021 and beyond. You won’t regret it!

3) Put planned giving information on your website, but don’t call it that.

Small organizations all want to receive charitable bequests, but they forget to make it easy for their donors.

What are they doing wrong?

First, if small nonprofits have anything at all on their websites about end-of-life giving, they slip into jargon, calling it “planned giving,” or “legacy giving.” Those terms don’t have universal recognition, according to Dr. Russell James, the Texas Tech professor who has studied these issues at remarkable depth. Nonprofit staff and board know what “planned giving” and “legacy giving” are. Many potential donors don’t.

Instead, you should have a tab that says, “Remembering ABC Agency in your will or trust.” It’s wordy, yes, but people actually know what a will is. And people with a trust know what that is.

Second, organizations are failing to put suggested bequest language on their websites. That has to change. Keep in mind that most bequests are established without the donor ever telling the beneficiary organization. Attorneys are known to cut and paste the information on your site to include the wills. Make it easy for donors and their attorneys to surprise you. Also, by putting accurate information bequest information on your website, you minimize mistakes in the estate documents. (You surely don’t want the wills to refer to your organization by the wrong name and have another similarly-named group contest the will.)

Third, nonprofits don’t make it easy for donors and attorneys to contact them to discuss planned gifts, or they default to an “info@” email, which is hardly welcoming or reassuring. So do add the name, contact information (with direct phone line and live email link), and photo of the person at your organization to call with questions. And make sure the person is smiling. That helps, too.

There’s a great deal more that you can do to promote planned giving. I give long workshops and advise clients about just that. But doing these three things will absolutely prime the pump for bequests. You can work out the fine points later.

4) Make sure your website and gift form ask for a big gift first. If your organization gets a lot of on-line gifts, but most of them are for $25, I’ll bet that that’s because the first number that pops up on your on-line donation page is… $25.

Instead, start with a bigger amount – $2,500, say – and work your way down. People probably won’t give you $2,500, but you’ve established an anchor point that says you’re a significant organization deserving of significant gifts. Those who can afford it might then give you $500 or $250, which is ten or twenty times as big as $25, if you’re keeping score.

The same goes for your gift envelopes or paper gift forms. Start high. Go down to $100. Then put, “Other.”

This ties to the research of Nobel Prize-winning behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman, which I wrote about a few years ago. That first number pesented sticks in people’s minds and establishes a starting point from which to wander – a bit. That’s the anchor point. Make that amount a big one.

Doing nonprofit development effectively requires following a concerted strategy over time. Building relationships takes years. Honing messages, building systems, and training boards and staff don’t just happen overnight. But these four steps are easy. Do them. Get your new year off to a good start.

And in the meantime, stay safe and enjoy the holidays. (In a very small group, please!)

Copyright Alan Cantor 2020. All rights reserved.

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11 Comments. Leave new

  • Thanks for this great “To Do” list – so many webinars and workshops are offered in this covid-era and I have to say most of the time spent listening out-distances the benefit. But your “New Year’s Resolutions” piece cuts to the chase, targets things we do and are re-evaluating and is easy to “Get Done”! Such efficiency! I’ll share this with my development committee for support. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  • Hi Alan,
    Great piece that I will share with my nonprofit friends. One quirk, when I download the PDF, it shows a date of October 21, 2020 but your blog date is December 9, 2020. Just thought I’d let you know, I’m not sure if its getting messed up on my end or yours.

    • Thanks, Mike. I appreciate that!

      Dunno why that happened. I think the PDF function is a little funky on WordPress. I’ve noticed that before, too. Anyway, thanks for letting me know — and feel free to send people a link to that page of my website, which would sidestep the PDF dating issue.

      Again, thanks — and I hope you’re well!


  • Carolyn DeFrancesco
    December 10, 2020 6:45 pm

    This is great advice, Al! Thank you so much for getting so many points in a small space. Hope you are well!

    • Thank you, Carolyn! That’s kind of you. Yes, we’re well — hope and trust your new position is working out for you! Best for 2021! Al

  • We’ve received over $2,000 from AmazonSmile, with just over $400 of that coming this year. You won’t find any mention of AmazonSmile on our website. We haven’t plugged it on social media or in mailings for a few years now. We told folks about it when we first joined in 2014 and that’s been it, so we’re definitely not shilling for Amazon. I suspect most of the people using AmazonSmile to benefit our organization are our staff and their families who hear about it through word-of-mouth. Using the SmileAlways or Amazon Smile Redirect extensions in Google Chrome helps with not having to remember to go to And Amazon recently added Smile capability to their mobile app; there you only have to set it once and it applies to all future purchases.

    I discard all of Amazon’s pleas to promote AmazonSmile; our mission isn’t promoting Amazon. But someone’s getting the $217 million they’ve distributed to charities and I’m glad we got our tiny portion of that.

    I love the rest of your resolutions!

    • Thanks, Paul! I’m happy for you — and I did indeed ask for counterarguments, and I’m appreciative that you’ve offered that up. I’m especially impressed that you did it without having to give Amazon free ad space. And that’s helpful to know about the redirect extensions and the apps.

      And thanks for agreeing with the rest of my piece. Here’s wishing you all the best for the new year!

  • Alan, thank you for pinpointing these truly helpful action steps and the rationale to support them. I’m taking this opportunity to express appreciation for everything I’ve learned from you this year, and for your willingness to confront barriers and institutional practices that can stymie people’s philanthropic intentions and the orgs that need their support. Thank you sincerely. Wishing you and yours a safe and happy holiday season and new year.

    • Thanks so much, Linda. You’re very kind. Best to you and yours as well! Here’s to a better year to come!

  • Such timely information, Al, and all of it is being passed down to various organizations. I really appreciated what you shared about the nomenclature around PG. We are trying to help clients make this subtle but important shift.

    As always, I appreciate all of your insights.


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