The Secret to Motivating Donors

The Secret to Motivating Donors

With year-end fundraising season fast approaching, it's easy for development professionals to fall into the trap of focusing on a single project for which their organization really needs funding. Other nonprofit leaders are frantically crafting year-end appeals, checking and re-checking their donor lists, and trying to come up with creative new ways to engage donors.

No surprise, then, that this is the time of year when we're approached by nonprofits who want to know how they can develop a strategy for new donor acquisition and turn their one-time donors into loyal supporters.

The secret, we tell them, lies in connecting donors to the specific and general — in the same appeal.

Let me give you an example. Assume your organization is working to address a really big problem — say, eliminating hunger in the United States. Such a goal, and the language used to articulate it, can be hard for people to process. In our years of testing fundraising appeals, we've found that potential supporters often don’t understand or respond to messages asking them to support such an ambitious goal. Why? It's too big. What's the point of making a donation if you don't believe your donation will make a dent in the problem it's meant to address?

For a lot of nonprofits, a not atypical scenario looks like this:

  1. A donor — let's call her Margaret — receives a direct-mail appeal asking her to support Organization X, which is working to eliminate hunger in the United States: "Won't you help us end hunger?"
  2. Because she's a compassionate person, Margaret is a little overwhelmed. She isn't a celebrity activist or a deep-pocketed philanthropist, and she only has a couple of hundred dollars set aside for charitable giving. So many people in America struggle with hunger and food insecurity — how can her small donation possibly help?
  3. Margaret decides not to make a donation because she doesn't think it will make a difference.

Instead, we counsel our clients to tell the story of one individual who has been helped by their organization, in the belief that it's easier for a donor to grasp the specific rather than the general. Here's what that might look like:

  1. Margaret receives a direct-mail appeal asking her to support Organization X, which is working to eliminate hunger in the United States. The appeal tells the story of a woman in Margaret's community who was helped a few months ago by donors like Margaret. "The support of generous donors like you makes it possible for a single mom like Donna to feed her family. Will you help us feed another neighbor in need?"
  2. Being a compassionate person, Margaret is moved. As a mother, she knows how hard it can be to provide for one's family, and she's pleased to think her donation can help others like Donna.
  3. Margaret decides to make to donation to Organization X because she truly believes her support will make a difference for someone else in need.

Problem solved? Well, not quite. Communicating need in terms of a single individual or family and appealing to a donor's empathetic nature is only the first piece of the puzzle.

Donations often are made on impulse, meaning when Margaret read the direct-mail letter, she could relate to Donna's plight and wanted to do what she could to help another person in need. What she likely didn't feel, however, was a deep connection to Organization X. She might not even have been aware of its mission.

So while Margaret made a donation — something that made her feel good and that also supported the work of the organization — there's no guarantee she'll do it again in the future.

If Margaret is to become a loyal supporter who is willing to take regular actions on the organization's behalf, she needs to be convinced it is effecting change in small but tangible ways. She also needs to be told how those small actions build on each other — and the actions of other people like her — to effect change on a much larger scale.

In most cases, the failure to do so starts and ends with the organization. If you and your colleagues don't understand or can't articulate how smaller actions by your supporters lead to bigger change, how do you expect your donors to figure it out? Regardless of the action you'd like individual supporters to take, the key is to show how taking this action serves a greater goal.

Let's go back to our example:

  1. Margaret receives a direct-mail appeal asking her to support Organization X, which is working to eliminate hunger in the United States. The appeal tells the story of a woman in Margaret's community who was helped a few months ago by donors like Margaret. "The support of generous donors like you makes it possible for a single mom like Donna to feed her family. And your support today will bring us one step closer to eliminating hunger in the United States. Will you help us feed another neighbor in need like Donna?"
  2. Margaret is moved. As a mother, she knows how difficult it can be to provide for one's family, and she's pleased to think her donation can help someone else in need.
  3. Margaret decides to make a donation to Organization X because she truly believes her support will make a difference for someone else in need.
  4. A few weeks later, upon receiving a thank-you letter from Organization X, she decides to become a monthly supporter of the organization — knowing that every person it is able to help brings it one step closer to its goal of eliminating hunger.

For someone to feel a sense of ownership in a cause, she needs to believe her actions on its behalf — whether it's signing a petition, sharing a post on social media, or making a donation — will make, when combined with the actions of others, a tangible difference.

Remember: Every time you ask a potential supporter to act on behalf of your organization, it should be in the context of how that action will advance the problem or issue your organization is working to address. Keep that in mind as you gear up for the fundraising season ahead (and all the fundraising seasons to come), and best of luck!

Derrick Feldmann is the president of Achieve, a research and marketing agency for causes, and the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble