What Do Donors Want? Are Nonprofits Listening? Are Compromises Possible?
by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin
Nonprofit leaders face tremendous pressures today: living, operating and succeeding in a competitive marketplace of ideas, programs and services presents innumerable challenges. Donors who are guided by a passion for certain aspects of an agency’s mission and vision might be unaware, or unconcerned, about the everyday deliverables the agency must produce to achieve certain goals. Keeping both supporters and constituents happy is often a delicate dance.
Nonprofit leaders must continuously upgrade and strengthen their abilities to translate their mission into a “selling proposition” for a variety of interest groups. This selling proposition involves creating a case for support that clearly communicates what the agency does, their goals, and the methodologies used to achieve these goals. All of these complexities must then be translated into “everyday language” and communicated in the fundraising context to donors of all shapes and sizes, from national foundations to individual givers.
In today’s economy, customers drive the marketplace, and in the philanthropic world, donors drive the discussion around sustainable funding. The essential question then becomes, “What do donors want?” What are their motivations to give, and what do they expect from the agencies they support and the staff who run them? How are decisions made in the current giving climate, and what are the “deal breakers” today?
We thought that it would be most helpful to address these issues through questions that are often raised during our interactions with donors across North America. Let us predicate this conversation with two basic assumptions about why people give:
- They care about the person making the “ask.” Despite advances in technology and the way people give to agencies (text to give, online fundraising websites, etc.) the dictum “people give to people” is still as true as ever.
- They care about the impact of their gift. The vision of the organization and the resulting impact of the contribution are critical to encouraging a donor to make a gift. The difference that the gift will make in the lives of people, the life of the community and in the life of the donor remains essential parts of the “selling proposition.”
Now, let’s move onto the top three questions we receive as fundraising consultants.
DONOR QUESTION #1: Do you have a Business Plan?
We first heard this question more than ten years ago during a meeting with a prospective major donor to a prominent Jewish arts group in New York City. Nowadays the question seems intuitive enough, yet the organization’s Artistic Director who was leading the meeting was taken aback.
“Well, we have a budget,” she responded.
“I’m not looking for a budget,” the prospect responded. “I want to know that my investment will not be swallowed up because the organization – as much as I love what you do – won’t exist five years from now. Show me that you believe and can demonstrate that you will be around and in good health and I will make the gift that you are asking for.”
SOLUTION #1: Be prepared with current facts and long-term vision.
Be ready with the facts: your nonprofit is a business with a ”selling proposition” that provides demonstrable benefits within your community. Know what those benefits are and how they will change over time. Luckily for our example organization, the Director had considered the long-term viability of the mission and vision and was able to communicate it to the donor, who then made a significant gift. It is essential for nonprofit leaders to consider the long-term vision for your nonprofit: where it is today, where it will in five years, and in ten years. This long-term vision (which will often include grand plans such as new programs, services, and resources) will inspire and motivate your donors.
DONOR QUESTION #2: Why does it take so long to understand what you do?
“It is like I have ADD sometimes: I cannot listen to long explanations,” complained a leading benefactor to a growing Israel-based organization. This individual, a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist, made a good point.
In today’s fast-paced and hyper-competitive world driven by smart-phones, tablets, and the demand for instantaneous responses and results, donors want the information now. In addition, loyalty is an almost-dying commodity; unlike in decades past when someone picked one cause and stayed with it for a lifetime, today’s donors spread themselves around.
SOLUTION #2: Make your point quickly and use varied communication channels.
Modern nonprofits needs to be deft and nimble, framing their”selling proposition” in small, understandable bites through a variety of communication channels. Create an “elevator speech,” no longer than 30 seconds, that explains your organization’s mission, vision, and deliverables, and distribute it to your executive staff, Board of Directors, and leading donors. Utilize online tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as traditional media like newsletters, press releases, and direct mail. You must always be ready to make your case quickly, because donors who notice that you are slow to respond to their interests might move on to the person or organization that best fills that philanthropic vacuum with easily digestible information.
DONOR QUESTION #3: I cannot ask my friends for money; can’t you just do it for me?
This is the question we most often receive from leading donors and Board members. For example, a committed Board member of a Jewish day school was recently approached to set up meetings with his contacts for the head of the school, who would then present the school’s “selling proposition” and hopefully engage these prospects as donors. The Board member was devoted and generous with his contacts but would not attend a prospect meeting with a contact he knew personally.
“Just tell him I said he should give,” the Board member offered. “If he hears that, and knows that I am also supportive, then he will give.”
“Come with us,” we implored him, knowing the power of personal connection. “We will help you prepare and role play for the meeting. Tell him yourself how much you support this cause, and he will be moved and surely respond.”
“I cannot ask my friends for money,” he lamented. “What if they say no?”
“He agreed to a meeting and knew why we requested the meeting. If he was going to say no, he would have done so already,” we advised.
We went to the meeting without the Board member and made our presentation.
“I really like what I am hearing and am interested in supporting the school,” the prospective donor replied, “but I really need to speak with my friend who set this up to know why he’s giving and how much before I’ll give you a final answer.”
SOLUTION #3: Conquer your fear of the “ask.”
So many leading donors do not want to ask their contacts to support their favorite charity. What drives this phenomenon? Fear! Leading donors are afraid that if they ask friends for money, these friends might then turn around and ask them for money. That sometimes happens, but is typically for a good cause, and should not be considered reason enough to NOT ask. Secondly, leading donors fear of losing a friend when they ask for money. In our 21 years of consulting, this has never happened. Strong prospect research eliminates candidates who do not want to give, so that by the time a leading donor asks his/her friend to help support a cause, the answer is always yes. The amount varies, and sometimes it takes more than one ask, but at EHL Consulting we have never seen a friendship dissolve because of this situation.
Remember, the mission and not the market drives the donor, so know WHY your agency is in business and be clear and concise in how you communicate your “selling proposition” to your stakeholders. Use ALL of the tools that you have at your disposal … from online marketing to far-reaching contacts of your Board members and agency leadership. They all have their role in helping communicate long-term vision. Also, don’t be afraid to ask others to support your passions. The real reason a donor supports a worthwhile cause is because he/she receives a formal request. Finally, if you want to close a major gift, take a deep breath and meet face to face.
Don’t rely on technology to do what humans do best.
Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to eJewishPhilanthropy.com. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook; TWITTER: @EHLConsultGrp; EHL Consulting Group Blog: biggiver.wordpress.com