The Brilliance of Donors

by Scott Decksheimer

I am always struck by the brilliance of donors. I am inspired by the way they entrust organizations with their confidence in an organization’s work, and its importance to our society. Donors are motivated to make a difference in a way that is meaningful to them.

So why is it that when I meet some fundraisers, I am regularly asked: “How can I get that donor to give to us?” Shouldn’t a better question be: “Why do they give?”

A donor is a means to an end. A fundraiser is a means to an end. Ideally, we share the same ends, fundraiser and donor, but our motivations and reasons for engaging together in the mutual support of civil society can be quite diverse.

Much has been made of donor motivation. Research, books, articles and presentations about donor motivation occur at every conference – but do we listen? People like Henry Rosso, Russ Alan Prince and Karen Maru File, Kay Sprinkel Grace and Jerold Panas, to name a few, have published and presented numerous times on this subject. So, I will not add to their work, but look from a different angle. Why? Because our profession must continually think about the reasons for giving AND we must better define our role, as fundraising professionals, in the internalization of ‘donor motivation’ within our organizations. We must use it to enhance our organizational staff and volunteer culture.

What I mean is, though we can guide our organization to align its common values, we must also take steps to collect, gather and refine the knowledge about our donors that is shared with us every day. And we must build an internal culture receptive to the simple understanding that donors act in their own interests when giving, and it is almost a coincidence that donors advance our interests too.

There are some steps we can take in our own organizations to be more effective at understanding donor motivation.

1. Learn and track how and why people touch your organization. Develop a list of trackable attributes that indicate a donor’s known motivation for giving to your cause. After a meeting, make judgements about their interest: for example, is it family connection, self-interested program alignment, friendship with a Board Member, love of the animals or duty to society. As we learn, we can then provide meaningful communications that can benefit them, align with their interests, and provide for a closer relationship with your cause. This means that I expect the fundraising professional to understand their donors and learn about them – a novel idea.

2. Ask and listen. Too often we are afraid to ask people what led them to give a donation. But this powerful open ended question can offer a bounty of information about the donor’s interests, and why they have ultimately chosen you. Also, they may never have thought about why, and simply the art of asking – and the greater art of you listening – will provide you with a lasting engagement with the donor. Again, we must learn about motivation, and continue to refine our understanding of the reasons that our donors give.

3. Build a spirit of giving. With listening comes learning. And learning will build knowledge. Using the information and motivations provided by donors provides information to share with colleagues, board members, trustees, or other volunteers explaining both the importance of donors, and the importance of the work that represents a shared cause. A spirit of giving, or a culture of philanthropy, will ultimately grow when the cause, mission, and motivation are in alignment – ensuring that donors and their giving interests are at the table when key decisions are made.

4. Understand the exchange that you offer with a donor. I believe that when getting to the heart of motivation, there is a gain, tangible or intangible, realized by the donor when a gift is made to a charity or NGO. When asked, donors will offer their understanding of this exchange in words that you may never truly realize until you hear it from them. In my experience, the understanding of what donors receive from your organization, will refine your story, deepen your understanding and engrain in you, your colleagues and your organization in the true reasons that people give to your cause, and ultimately provide a basis for relationship growth. And by the way, enhancing your case for support in the future.

5. Ensure we thank donors in a meaningful way. Rather than a lecture to you, the reader, this is a reminder that a donor’s motivation to become a donor and to stay a donor can be completely different. The simple act of act of giving and philanthropy is part of our process that must be valued and preached internally as a fundamental building block of a thankful and respectful culture. You are not judged by the donor’s first gift, but by those who choose to make their second and third.

The understanding of donor motivation is fundamental to our profession, and each professional must take both personal and organizational action to further track and understand the necessity of witnessing the evolution of our donors, our organizations and the relationships between the two. As technology evolves, we must be sure to more diligently track, communicate, solicit and thank in ways that are specific to each donor, ensuring that their motivation to give, and the difference they can make with a gift, is intact.

Scott Decksheimer, CFRE, is a consultant based in Calgary Canada. Scott has worked in fundraising for 14 years, and now is focused on charitable organizations that are both seeking significant growth in their fundraising operations and interested in building internal staff and volunteer capacity for the long term.

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