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The Psychology Behind Donations

Are you expecting all donors to be the same?

If you answered “no…well actually… kinda,” then you are not alone. It’s simple to send out the same fundraising message to everyone. However, you can transform your fundraising when you understand that there are many reasons why a person chooses to donate to a nonprofit. Once you understand the psychology of donating to charity, you can then best appeal to current and potential donors.

Why do Donors Give?

Along a spectrum, there are two extremes that prevent nonprofits from using donation psychology in their fundraising messages. On one end, the person making the ask – the Executive Director, Development person or Board member – assumes all donors have the same motivations for giving that they do. This translates into single-focused messaging that appeals to the person making the ask and to some donors, but not to others. 

On the other end of the spectrum when a nonprofit neglects philanthropy psychology, the person making the ask becomes paralyzed. They fear offending donors by asking at the “wrong” time. They focus on external, societal crises, such as the pandemic, wars, tragedies, and make a decision for the donor that this is the wrong time to be asked for a gift. They assume that the donor would be offended if asked.

The Millennial Impact Project studied why donors across generations start giving. Unexpectedly, according to the researcher, Derrick Feldmann, donors first give because they want to belong. They desire to join their friends or be a part of a cause doing the good they wish to see in the world – this is before they understand what the cause or nonprofit is seeking to accomplish. As they gain that sense of belonging and begin believing in the cause, they can be motivated to continue to give when the nonprofit taps into their giving style.

The Seven Faces of Philanthropy was groundbreaking research published in 1994 that has been updated and is still relevant today. In summary, the researchers found that donors give for different reasons. Some donors give because they enjoy the act of giving, especially through events. More donors prefer to donate to local charities or make a long-lasting impact through their investments. Other donors desire to repay or pay forward in gratitude through their giving. Others give because of religious or altruistic reasons. Then, there are donors who see giving as a family tradition and, if applicable, to teach their children generosity. Understanding the donor’s motivations for giving guides a nonprofit in developing the right message, using the right fundraising methods and segmenting to the right group of donors.

How Can you Encourage Your Donors to Give?

Now that you understand the psychology behind making a philanthropic gift, you can implement this knowledge to customize your fundraising appeals

First, you will need to determine why your donors give. This is done through discussions with Board members, personal conversations with donors, and through donor surveys. It begins with a simple question, “Why do you give to…?” The answers will assist you in creating donor identities; that is, the types of identities or groups where donors wish to belong. Sample identities could be “community leader” or “survivor” or “change maker.” 

Next, based on what you learned from your current donors, pick the top two or three donor motivations and associated identities. Alter your current messaging and fundraising methods to these giving reasons. The messaging and methods that inspire your current donors will likely attract more donors. 

Begin testing your messaging for these two to three reasons: Which message has the highest engagement in response and donation? This will be your primary message that you will rotate with the secondary messages. As you further explore your donor’s psychology for giving, you can advance to segmenting your communications based on what will motivate groups of donors to give. 

Once you understand donor psychology, you will wonder how you missed the clues to why your donors give – and be ready to catch future donors by staying one step ahead of their giving habits.

Published: June 8, 2022

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