As fundraisers, we aren’t just raising money for our organizations. Of course, that’s a major responsibility. But, the core of our work is as relationship architects between our organizations and the donors who currently or, we hope will eventually, support us. Our goal is to create two-way conversations that are not transactional and circular exchanges of asking and receiving money. We know this isn’t sustainable in the long-term. How do we shift our approach to our donors? Let’s start by looking what giving does for the donor—an important starting point to becoming “donor-centric.”
Research has found that giving has a positive psychological effect on donors. Three different studies I’ve come across (Science of Generosity Initiative, Social Capital Benchmark Survey, and Journal of Economics and Finance) all concluded that there’s a correlation between a person’s charitable giving behaviors and their level of happiness. All three studies consistently showed that people who gave money charitably said they were “very happy” versus non-givers who reported lower percentages. There are similar statistics related to volunteering as well. Wow! Giving and volunteering make donors feel healthier and wealthier and give them a greater sense of empowerment and purpose. This means that fundraising—both asking and receiving—can actually be a pleasant and happy experience! So, why does fundraising seem so hard sometimes? Donors want to be giving their money away, right? The answer may lie in how we’re talking to our donors.
“The Why” — understanding the philosophy that drives your donor.
Late last year there was a Chronicle of Philanthropy article entitled “What Donors Want to Hear Before a Fundraiser Seeks a Big Gift” that caught my eye. Interestingly, it wasn’t about sharing strategies and metrics of an organization’s work—getting to that “impact” and “effectiveness” we know is important. The article reported that time and again, major donors felt that fundraisers didn’t stop to learn about them—their philanthropic dreams and intentions, factors that influence their giving patterns (income, family responsibilities, other charitable commitments, etc.). Equally as important, major donors didn’t feel that organizations looked at them as partners—as co-investors in their success. That’s key.
Before you present your fundraising pitch to your major individual and institutional donors, get to know them better—and I don’t mean the facts and figures of their lives (income level, number of residences, family members, job, education, etc.) which you can learn from good research. I mean what drives them. Ask them questions like:
- What do you want to accomplish with your giving? What are your top 3 charities/issues that you support?
- What’s important to you when choosing an organization to invest in?
- What do you look for when measuring the effectiveness of an organization?
- What was it about ______________that interested you in our work?
- Who else is involved in your philanthropic decisions (especially important to know if a spouse or other family member has a say)?
These questions generally apply to individuals, corporations, and foundations since each of these kinds of donors have some strategy behind their giving choices. For individuals it will be joy and a sense of accomplishment. For institutional donors it will be good stewardship of their key stakeholders’ (investors, employees, executives) resources. And then, guess what? Your job becomes easier because you have a baseline from which you can start to build a dialogue around shared values. You know where your organization’s vision overlaps with your donor’s philanthropic goals.
“The What” — positioning your mission, vision, and work in a way that demonstrates results and change.
Donors of all kinds (whether high net-worth individuals, annual fund donors, foundations, or corporations) are driven by a sense of wanting to make a difference. They are giving through an organization to solve a societal issue that is important to them. Giving is more than just writing a check. It’s about becoming part of a solution. I’d venture to say that this is pretty consistent decision-making process across all kinds of donors—from the $25 annual donors to the six and seven figure philanthropists.
When you present funding opportunities, lead with the endgame. What do I mean by this? Whether you’re asking for a restricted or unrestricted gift, how will that investment by that donor help you deliver more and/or better services to your community or expand your reach? It’s a subtle difference but it keeps everyone’s sights on those whom you’re serving and elevates your and the donor’s vision to a broader sense of impact that you together are working toward.
Here’s one other thought I’d like to share. Sometimes successful solicitations come out of unscripted and completely unplanned conversations. As you build relationships with your major donors and prospects, you will likely, in turn, inspire their curiosity. They may ask you where your organization wants to go in the long-term or what challenges you face that you can’t overcome. Do you have big, bold ideas? It’s a good idea to do a “blue sky” exercise a couple of times a year. Ask yourselves, “If money wasn’t an issue, how would our organization look? What programs would we do differently? More of? Instead of? How much more of an impact could we have?” Keep these ideas in your back pocket for exactly those moments when your major gifts prospects and donors ask.
If we stop leading every conversation with our organizational needs and start being more curious about our donors’ stories and philanthropic dreams, just think of the aspirational conversations you can start to have!