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Unearthing “The Why” in Major Giving

Think about the best and worst relationships in your life. Why do you consider one relationship the “best” and the other “the worst?” I bet your response probably includes the word “feel.” You may say: “That person makes me feel like a rock star.” Or “I feel valued and understood by him/her.” On the other hand, your response may be “That person makes me feel inadequate.”

What does this have to do with fundraising? At the end of the day, the core of our work is building relationships between our organizations and our donors. And relationships have a lot to do with feelings. Donors want to feel like they are making a difference and that their gifts are valuable. Enabling donors to have those feelings is the essence of being “donor-centric.” But in our race to meet budget goals, we often lapse into pitching and asking (and repeating) because we think that’s what will raise money quickly.

There’s research behind this focus on feelings in fundraising. Studies have consistently shown that people who gave money to nonprofits said they were “very happy” compared to non-giving individuals. There are similar statistics related to volunteering as well. So, how do you harness the power of relationships?  Focus on “The Why,” the part of our brains that drives emotional connection. Here are four questions you can ask current (and potential) donor to get to the heart (pun intended) of this issue:

  1. Why are you interested in our cause? You want to understand the values and philanthropic priorities that are important to your donors. They don’t really care about you. They care about the issue(s) you’re addressing.
  2. Why are you supporting our organization? Once you know what interests them most, ask what it was about your organization that made them feel comfortable to contribute. A follow-on question might be “What’s important when you’re choosing an organization to support?”
  3. Why are you philanthropic? Put a different way, “What do you want to accomplish with your giving?” When you are building relationships with donors who may make large gifts, it’s critical to know what’s most important to that donor. I often like to ask “What’s the best gift (note: not largest) you ever made and what made it the best?” That can tell a lot about what’s important to a donor.
  4. Why should the donor care about your work, and why is their support needed now?

Relationships are a two-way street. Once you understand your donor, you can position your mission in the context of their desired vision, impact, and results.  But start with why (not the what) you are doing the work you are.

Putting “The Why” Into Practice

This strategy of “The Why” applies to your general annual donor and your major donor. You might send an online survey to your current donors once or twice a year that asks questions along these lines. These questions will help you identify what issues intrigue your donors, why they support you, how they feel about their donor experience with you. You may also consider sending a similar survey to lapsed donors to unearth the reasons you’ve lost their support.  Another way to learn about your donors en masse is to include a short (three or four questions, max) survey that pops up or is emailed after every online contribution that asks questions like:

  • What inspired your gift?
  • How would you like to hear from us?
  • What’s the best way to contact you?

For major donors, you have more time and more opportunities to meet and learn about what makes them tick as a philanthropist. This gives you a better sense of what funding needs will most closely align with their giving priorities. By the time you’re ready to make the solicitation, it’s the natural progression in conversations you’ve already been having.

Don’t Be “That” Friend

We all have “friends” whose favorite topic is themselves. Dealing with them can be exhausting, right? Make sure your fundraising approaching isn’t “that friend’s style.” The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently featured an article entitled, “What Donors Want to Hear Before a Fundraiser Seeks a Big Gift.”  The author found that time and again, major donors felt that fundraisers didn’t stop to learn about them. Learn from these fundraisers’ mistakes. Become more curious about your donor’s stories. From their philanthropic dreams to the factors that influence their giving patterns (like income and family responsibilities), just think of the aspirational conversations you can start to have!

Guest Author: Barbara O’Reilly, CFRE

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