This past March at TED we were given $100 gift cards for Donors Choose, the online non-profit that connects donors with American classrooms that need money. I’d heard of Donors Choose, but I’d never donated through them, so I was happy to get a push. I’m not an obvious prospect for their work —I don’t have kids, have no particular interest in the primary school system; I’m not even American— and I probably would never have given, without the card.
So I did some poking around the Donors Choose site, and ended up putting the money towards a Grade 4 science class in New Mexico that wanted to buy a model of the solar system. Frankly I didn’t put a lot of thought into it: I just did a search, made the donation, and forgot all about it.
Months passed. Then last night, when I picked up my mail I had a big envelope from Donors Choose.
Crap!, I thought. They have my address. And now I’ve gotten a big envelope of shiny advertorial spam. I’ll never donate again, but I’ll be on their list forever.
But when I opened the envelope, what spilled out was dozens of handwritten letters from Grade 4 kids, addressed to me. “Sue Gardner,” they wrote, “thank you for the money you sent us.” “You are very nice.” “We worked in pairs on the project. Manuel and I learned a lot.” It was the opposite of direct mail: a bunch of utterly unique, handmade letters complete with creases and smudges, misspellings and crossed-out bits, awkward sentence structure and sloppy handwriting. Not from a fundraising staffer at Donors Choose, but from real kids.
It was awesome. I actually cried a little, it was so cute and so moving.
So I tried to figure out why it worked so well.
1) It was a happy surprise. I had ticked off the box in the donation form asking for letters, but by the time they came I’d forgotten all about them.
2) The letters came from kids, so their lack of perfection made them more appealing, not less. This means nobody from Donors Choose needs, I assume, to do any heavy-handed expensive quality control.
3) It’s actually good for the kids too. My mother used to have her primary school classes sponsor poor kids through World Vision, purely so they would learn about charitable values and the importance of gratitude.
4) There was no ask! It’s irritating to feel obligated and coerced, and it felt great to get something from a non-profit that didn’t do that. It also didn’t trigger transactional feelings in me: the letters weren’t a quid waiting for the quo of a new donation. They felt like a gift: pure pleasure.
5) I hardly ever get handwritten mail, but when I do, it’s pretty much always thank you cards or letters from family. “Handwritten” has purely positive associations.
6) There’s something joyful about handcrafted, tactile, physical objects, especially for those of us who spend a lot of time online. Kids writing something on paper and it coming to me through the postal system feels archaic and surprising, which adds to the charm.
I donate to lots of non-profits, and this was by far the best experience I’ve had.
It’s normal for the donation process itself to feel good, but the experience afterwards generally sucks: you either get a form letter thank you or no thank you at all, and then a series of generic e-mails, seemingly published on a schedule, demanding attention and money. “Policy and Advocacy Update: What’s Happening in Sacramento.” “We Need Your Help For Auction Donations: Help Now.” “Highlighting the Devastating Consequences of the Republican Plan and what you can do.” It’s depressing, it’s exhausting and it’s boring.
So I think there is lots to learn from Donors Choose. I started writing a list, and then I realized it really boils down to one big idea.
Conventional fundraising is inherently oppositional and makes the donor feel bad not good. A situation is dire, your help is urgently required, we will hassle and shame you until you give. That kind of fundraising works, but it doesn’t create a very enjoyable experience for the donor. Nobody opens a fundraising appeal in a spirit of joy and curiosity.
My Donors Choose experience, by contrast was pure pleasure. The package I got was surprising and fun. It didn’t create any social obligation from me. It felt like a gift.
And it worked.
I immediately gave again, a hundred dollars to a seventh grade teacher who wants to buy Judy Blume books for her class. I found myself calculating what I spend on clothes and dinners out, and what proportion I might reasonably divert to Donors Choose. Not just because the kids need my money (although I’m sure it helps them, and I feel great about that), but equally for my own pleasure.
In terms of maximizing my own happiness, Donors Choose was the best hundred dollars I’ve ever spent. Kudos to them: the system they’ve built is great.