Can you read your donor’s mind?

why1Ever since the first day I was introduced to the concept of fundraising, I’ve seen lots of people around me struggle with one basic question: “Why do people make charitable contributions to non-profit organizations?” Maybe it is just me, but I think our profession is obsessed with finding an answer to this question.

Here are just a few examples of situations where I’ve seen a version of this question debated:

  • Board volunteers who are reluctant fundraising solicitors trying to rationalize why they won’t make an ask,
  • Fundraising volunteers who are grappling with an organization’s internal case for support document, and
  • Fundraising professionals and non-profit executive directors who are trying to craft a strategy or develop a resource development plan that results in increased revenue.

This question reminds me of the plot in “Moby Dick“. The characters I just described above are Ishmael, and the answer to the question that I posed in the first paragraph is Moby Dick. Am I off base? Or is this one of those age-old questions that are elusive and difficult to really answer?

Last night I was back in my basement unpacking boxes and I came across more training materials from the Boy Scouts as well as Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Those two documents got me thinking about this topic.

why3The following are the “six reasons why donors give” according to my Boy Scout training material:

  1. They are asked.
  2. They believe in the ideas of the organization, and care.
  3. To achieve prestige and recognition.
  4. To seek power and influence.
  5. Because of peer pressure.
  6. For tax consideration.

When I looked at the Boys & Girls Club’s training handout, it was based on survey research found in Jerold Panas’ book “Mega Gifts“. In that book, he listed TWENTY ONE reasons donors give (e.g. major gifts individuals who give more than $1 million) to non-profit organizations and he listed them in the order these individuals ranked them. I won’t give you the entire ranked list (because you need to click the link above and buy his book), but here are the top six for comparative value to the Boy Scout’s list:

  1. Belief in mission of the institution. (1)
  2. Community responsibility and civic pride. (15)
  3. Regard for staff leadership. (17)
  4. Fiscal stability of the institution. (20)
  5. Respect for the institution locally. (4)
  6. Regard for volunteer leadership of institution. (9)

After each of the ranked reasons, I provided a number in parenthesis. The number in parenthesis is where fundraising professionals ranked the same reasons they believe donors give to their charities.

why2What conclusions can we draw from all of these lists? Here is what I think:

  • Generalizations are dangerous, and we need to stop stereotyping donors’ intentions.
  • I believe donors are like snowflakes. While there might be a few generalizations we can make, we need to invest time into getting to know our donors and understanding their individual motivations.
  • Reviewing all of the lists and rankings, we apparently don’t know as much as we think we know.

What strategies and tactics do you and your organization use to figure out donor intent on an individual level? Are there big reasons you believe donors give to your agency that aren’t on any of the aforementioned lists? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comment box below because we can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC
www.thehealthynonprofit.com 
erik@thehealthynonprofit.com
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