'Thoughtful' vs. 'Thoughtless' Giving

'Thoughtful' vs. 'Thoughtless' Giving

Are you a thoughtful giver? A simple question, right?  But think about it. How much thought do you really put into your charitable giving? And what about other donors? Would you say the majority of donors are "thoughtful" givers? Or are they "thoughtless" when it comes to their giving?

Okay, let's back up a bit. When I say "thoughtless,"  I don't mean that they're boorish, rude, or insensitive. On the contrary, if they're giving to a charitable cause, it's a pretty good indication that they are more than willing to think about and empathize with others. In other words, they are thoughtful people. But how much thought does the typical donor put into his or her giving?

Let me tell you a story. A friend of mine recently received a nice raise. Feeling like she wanted to share some of her good fortune with others, she decided to add a couple of new charities to the list of organizations she regularly supports. But she wanted to be methodical about it. So, she made a list of the five causes she cared most about — not just nonprofit or charitable causes, but any cause — and then researched two or three organizations, local and national, that were active in each. At the end of the process, she had between ten and fifteen organizations that she felt were good candidates for a donation. After narrowing the list down further based on things like the difference each organization claimed to make, their communication efforts, and their transparency and stewardship practices, she selected two nonprofit organizations that she hadn't previously donated to and decided to become a supporter of their work.

Any strategic philanthropy professional or donor advisor who looked at my friend's process would immediately consider her a dream client; she should be the poster child for any conference with strategic philanthropy or highly engaged grantmaking on its agenda.

Which brings me back to my original point. There are two types of donors:

Thoughtful Donor – The "thoughtful" donor makes gifts that match her interests and often has a personal connection to a cause or the recipient organization.

Thoughtful donors identify the causes they're most passionate about (e.g., education, human rights, environmental sustainability, global health, local economic development, cancer research, etc.). They research and learn about local, national, and global organizations that operate in those areas before deciding on the organizations they truly want to support. Typically, these are the donors that use filters based on their own experience when making gifts.

Thoughtless Donor – The "thoughtless" donor often makes a gift on the spur of the moment or in response to peer pressure or influence.

Thoughtless donors give in the checkout line when asked to donate $5 to a specific charity. They buy and donate when the boss's daughter comes by selling trash bags for a school fundraiser. They often give out of emotion. They are the donors organizations try to target through point-of-sale campaigns, cause marketing efforts, and other types of broad messaging designed to generate general awareness of a cause.

I’m sure you've all heard about the Internet phenomenon known as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. In a single month, the campaign rasied nearly $95 million for the ALS Association in what is probably the most viral, inspirational example of "thoughtless" giving I have ever seen. Again, "thoughtless" doesn't mean people who participated in the challenge were apathetic or unconcerned. Indeed, many had a direct personal connection to the disease. However, the vast majority of the millions of people who participated in the challenge had never considered donating to ALS research before. Their donations weren't the result of long-term planning but the direct result of peer influence.

Okay, based on the above definitions and examples, which are you, a thoughtless or thoughtful giver?

If you're like most people, you're probably both.

As professional fundraisers, we have to be careful not to lose touch with who our donors are. They are full of good intentions and care deeply about their communities, their family, and helping individuals in need. In a very real sense, they are us, right? Like our donors, our emotions are triggered when we hear or see a message that conveys hurt, pain or need, and we act when we see opportunities to address those needs and improve someone's life.

Because the desire to help others appears to be hard-wired into humans, we will always be drawn to nonprofits and NGOs that provide an outlet for us to do good. And creative marketing and fundraising strategies can, and routinely do, leverage that human desire to help.

Is that wrong? No. In a perfect world, perhaps, all actions, including our personal giving, would be informed by rational thought. Donors would let logic and lots of research guide their giving, as opposed to emotion and impulse. But in reality, not everyone is going to give thoughtfully all the time. And we shouldn't blame or judge them. We all act on impulse. We all like to do favors for our friends. We act when our emotions push us to act. After all, we're human.

And so we need to make sure that own fundraising efforts leverage both kinds of donors, the "thoughtless" and the "thoughtful" — as well as everyone in between.

How does one do that?

First, identify your "thoughtful" givers and then figure out what you need to do to inform them about all your good work. This is where all your efforts to track and quantify your impact come in handy. You should design the collateral materials based on those metrics — your reports and infographics and issue briefs — with the thoughtful donor in mind. You want to demonstrate to them, as clearly and persuasively as possible, the difference your organization is making. At the end of the day, you want them to think one thing and one thing only: "Absolutely, you are the cause I want to support."

Conversely, to reach "thoughtless" donors, focus on emotion-driven, in-the-moment opportunities to give and be sure to put your networks and all the peer influence you can muster to work. In fact, peer-to-peer fundraising initiatives tend to be the most effective form of thoughtless fundraising. These kinds of initiatives also will help you attract new donors, some of whom will turn out to be "thoughtful" and willing to support your organization over the long term.

So there you have it. Two kinds of donors and two different strategies with which to appeal to them. The next time you sit down to review or revise your fundraising strategy, think about what you are doing to appeal to the "thoughtless" givers who may not be that familiar with your organization but can be persuaded by an appeal to emotion, a compelling point-of-sale pitch, or a cause-marketing campaign with the potential to go viral. And think about that smaller group of "thoughtful" givers that really want your organization to succeed and will support it to the hilt if you show them that it really is making a difference in the world.

Good luck and happy fundraising!