The Secret to Why Donors Give

By Laurence Pagnoni

There are many reasons we in the fundraising industry tell one another about why donors give.  They are moved by your mission, they know a board or staff member, they’ve given for years, to name a few.  I doubt that all of them are true, and I especially doubt that they are all true at the same point in the giving calculus for each donor.

Actually, the number one reason why donors give may sound overly simplistic, but it’s true.  The vast majority of time, donors give because they’re asked!  Showing up to ask counts for everything in fundraising.

Rene Bekkers and Pamala Wiepking drew from 500 papers on this topic to identify the key factors that drive giving.  What they found is that for more than 85% of charitable donations, people gave because someone asked them to.

If you don’t ask for support, you’re not going to get it.  Understanding that will help you win the day.

Since most nonprofits don’t ask often enough–generally just once or twice a year, here are a few guidelines you should follow to correct that problem:

Frequency and Other Guidelines

  • In general, I recommend at least four appeals per year via direct mail (January, June, November, and December), at least one email per month, and a weekly social media post of an emotional picture, story, or 90-second video.  For your monthly emails, I recommend a strong story about a single person or cause on which your donor’s philanthropy has had an impact.
  • When someone donates, you must follow-up fast to say thank you.  Some fundraisers strive for a 48-hour reply.  I’m comfortable with sending the note of thanks within five business days.  Online donors may be thanked by email immediately following their donation.  Check-in-the-mail donors should receive a thank-you letter or card.  To learn more about your donors, I suggest inserting a five-question survey along with a postage paid reply envelope.  You can find some helpful hints on donor surveys here.
  • Most importantly, the next time you appeal to donors, you should ask for a donation at an increased giving level!  This last point may be the hardest pill to swallow.  I know that many of you resist asking for increased gifts because you don’t want to offend your donors.  I get that.  But let me explain a little more about this process, which is called “moves management” and is fundamental to securing increased giving.

Moves Management

  • A “move” is a contact with a donor that builds his or her loyalty and engagement.  Each move is a cultivation step that increases the donor’s awareness of your vital work.  Consider a move a mini strategic plan for each donor.
  • For example, if a donor makes a $15  gift, you would then ask for a renewal of $25 to $30 the next time you solicit this person.  You should keep increasing that request generally by 50% each time.  Both your direct mail house and online platforms can insert algorithms into your correspondence that automatically calculate the increase. 
  • Moves management is not an attempt to manipulate donors, but an effort to influence them to give more in accordance with their interests.  The goal of moves management is that your donors ultimately make a major gift in line with their giving capacity.

Transformational Donors

It’s crucial that you communicate frequently with your donors and survey them.  As a rule of thumb, the more donors are engaged, the more significant their giving will be.  Deeper involvement moves a major donor to become a transformational donor.  Larger donors want engagement and partnership within your organization and should therefore be invited into your governance and future planning.

What’s your experience of managing donor contacts?  We welcome your comments and questions.

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