November 2018: Reexamining Assumptions about Our Donors, Volunteers, and Patrons

By Amelia Aldred

This month the Philanthropologist features three pieces about assumptions nonprofits make regarding our supporters.  In the day-to-day grind of work, it is easy to fall into habitual ways of thinking about our donors, volunteers, and other supporters.  Since nonprofits’ ability to operate relies on these relationships (and our supporters may also be the focus of our mission) it is important to regularly reexamine these assumptions.

Article 1: Jeanne Bliss, “Introducing Anthropology and Ethnography to Your Customer Room: An Inside Look with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital,” Customer Bliss (blog), November 6, 2018,

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has an unusual problem–their brand and reputation are so positive that donors are hesitant to criticize the hospital in surveys and other data collection.  While this may not seem like a problem, in the long run, it puts St. Jude Children’s at risk of losing supporters without having a chance to repair the relationship.  It is analogous to a couple that loves each other deeply, but has difficulty discussing any problems in their relationship–resentment and frustration build up and puts the partnership at risk.

In order to address this problem, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital conducts in-depth ethnographic interviews with their supporters.  According to St. Jude staff, donors were able to be more honest in one-on-one conversations and the interviews helped staff better understand their donors’ experiences.

Takeaway questions:

  • What are the data collection pain points at your organization? How do your current data collection methods (surveys, comment boxes, focus groups etc.) address these pain points?
  • Jude Children’s identified several donor “personas” in the course of their ethnographic research. What are the donor personas at your organization?  Which personas do you know more or less about?

Article 2:   Overgaard, Charlotte. “Rethinking Volunteering as a Form of Unpaid Work.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, (November 2018). doi:10.1177/0899764018809419.

Dr. Charlotte Overgaard is a sociologist who studies paid and unpaid labor.  She argues that volunteering is, before all else, unpaid labor and should be studied according to the kind of work volunteers are doing (health care, sports, education etc.) rather than grouping all voluntary action together.  She also questions the assumption that volunteering is a net positive for volunteers as well as the assumption that volunteers make a choice between volunteering or not rather than a choice between paid and unpaid work.

By lumping all volunteer work together, researchers and nonprofit professionals may overgeneralize the experiences of volunteers and fail to consider how the type of work performed affects volunteers’ experiences.  In addition, grouping all volunteers together ignores the fact that volunteers operate in the same space, sometimes performing the same tasks, as paid workers.  Ignoring the relationship between paid workers and volunteers limits an organization’s ability to effectively manage both groups.

Dr. Overgaard also points out that many volunteers would prefer to be paid for their labor but can’t access paid work.  For example, women who are primary caregivers may want to continue in the workforce but their child-rearing responsibilities make it difficult to work full-time.  These women may volunteer in order to keep up job skills but would have preferred to work a paid job with a flexible schedule, or a part-time paid job.  In this example, does the conventional definition of volunteering as an activity given freely to benefit others really apply?

Takeaway questions:

  • As a thought experiment, try grouping all volunteers and paid staff at your organization by type of tasks performed rather than whether not or they are paid. What patterns emerge?  Does this challenge any assumptions you make about the role of volunteers at your organization?
  • Why do you think people volunteer at your organization? On what data do you base that assumption?  If you knew more about your volunteers’ motivations, what would that change, if anything?

Article 3: Simon, Nina, “Who Are We Protecting?” Museum 2.0 (blog) August 1, 2018,

Nina Simon designs and researches participatory, community-based institutions. She the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) and author of The Participatory Museum and The Art of Relevance. Since assuming the role of executive director at MAH, Ms. Simon has led an aggressive change strategy at the museum to make it more inclusive of all Santa Cruz residents, focusing especially on marginalized and vulnerable populations, such as youth, the elderly, and minorities.

In this blog post, she rejects the idea that cultural institutions should protect their current patrons from their new patron base.  She argues against the notion that institutions can diversify while isolating populations of patrons from each other.  She writes,

Loyal patrons don’t need protection–even if they may be the people who gave us those artifacts. Loyal patrons get most of our attention, assets, and appreciation. And they already have most of the power. They are, on average, wealthier, whiter, more educated, and older than the general population. They are, on average, people with privilege….For people with privilege, protection is a waste of resources that demeans their agency. Loyal patrons don’t need to be wrapped in archival tissue paper. They need to be engaged in change processes. They need invitations–to participate, to be part of the new, to embrace the unexpected alongside the familiar…. [at MAH] We didn’t want to reject some people and anoint others. We wanted to build a truly pluralistic institution.

Takeaway questions:

  • Do you feel that you need to protect groups of your supporters? Why is that?
  • What are the pros and cons of protecting your supporters from other groups in your organization?

About the Author:

Amelia Aldred is a lead analyst on the prospect research team at the University of Chicago and the administrator of The Philanthropologist.  Amelia specializes in international and arts fundraising and has taught seminars on international philanthropy, industrial research, and internal communications at CASE (Council for the Advancement and Support of Education)  and APRA (Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement). For more information about Amelia’s nonprofit experience, click here.

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