This news can be shocking to hear and might even make some fundraisers and nonprofit administrators fall out of their seats. But it’s true.
Donors don’t care about the same things you do.
Even more shocking is some experimental fundraising data you’re about to see.
It’s a very simple truth to understand, and yet so much fundraising presumes that whatever matters to some fundraisers and most nonprofit administrators must also matter to donors. After all, why else would they support us? This is what we do. We’re doing important work.
This is why so many board meetings involve discussions about educating donors. “If only we could educate them so they understand, then they’ll give more,” they lament. Yet, more education initiatives never seem to translate into more dollars.
So why don’t donors’ interests and the interests of your organization align more often?
Because you live in two different worlds!
You live in the world of implementation. You have a mission. It’s a good mission. And it takes money to make it happen. You get money from donors, and then you use it. You could call this commerce world, as Hall of Fame charitable giving researcher Dr. Russell James describes in his Fundraising Myth & Science book series.
Your donors, on the other hand, live in a world where they get to make a profound difference in people’s lives and their own. They want to save kids, protect rainforests, help disadvantaged youth get into college, or help the local museum stay open. Dr. James calls this story world.
In story world, your nonprofit isn’t the hero. The donor is.
So let’s look at six things your donors don’t care about that you thought they did, because they live in story world but you live in commerce world.
So much print gets dedicated to evaluating charities and using sites like Charity Navigator. The reasoning behind these articles and sites is to make sure your nonprofit of choice uses its dollars wisely.
But who writes that print? Journalists, financial advisors, finance magazines. In other words, people who live in commerce world and have little interest in donating to your specific nonprofit.
One fundraising experiment in the Journal of Accounting and Public Policy gave one group of donors positive financial reports documenting a charity’s efficiency while another group of donors did not receive this information.
The study found that this information “did not translate into increased actual giving.”
In another experiment in the same journal, donors were offered the chance to give to a variety of charities, but the charities were unknown to them. They had to give based on other information, and one piece of information available to them was the financial efficiency of each charity.
The study found that the “majority of actual donors were unwilling to obtain this information.” And this observation held true even if the information was easy to obtain, they were trained in business management, and they were told the information was important so they could ‘donate their resources more efficiently.’
In short, they just didn’t care.
There are tons of other studies backing up this idea.
This one’s a real shocker:
One experiment informed certain donors that their charity of choice had better-than-expected overhead expense ratios. After learning this, a third of these donors actually reduced their giving!
Their rationale? They believed they could still have the same charitable impact by giving less money.
In other words, you did your job too well, and the donors figured you didn’t need as much money to keep doing it.
When you speak to donors as if they are in commerce world, they will behave that way, treating giving like a transaction instead of an emotional, relational decision.
I know it, and you know it. Your nonprofit is, well, incredible. The work you’re doing is epic, world-changing stuff that produces hope for everyone who benefits.
Okay, perhaps that’s a bit over the top. But it is true that most nonprofits are, in fact, doing amazing work.
The thing is, your donors don’t care about that. They care about the impact they can have through your nonprofit. It’s a subtle difference, but a very important one, because it plays a big role in shaping the direction of your fundraising.
If you focus your fundraising efforts around how great you are and the “amazing work we’re doing,” “our great team,” “our commitment,” and all the rest, it puts a barrier between you and your donor. It sometimes even sounds like bragging. And no one donates to braggarts.
Again, all of those statements might be true. Don’t misunderstand. The point is, that’s not the sort of thing that motivates donors to give, especially major donors.
What they’re looking for is the role they can play so they can find their own sense of self-worth and fulfillment. Or, as Dr. James puts it, they want to advance their own hero story through giving.
Your fundraising needs to empower donors to make a difference that is meaningful to them. You need to give them the experience and the feeling that they have done something amazing.
When you do that, you deliver value. Value is what drives giving, not bragging.
Always remember this: No exchange of money occurs without an exchange of value — and value is in the eye of the beholder.
There is a place for sharing budget information with donors. Transparency has a role because credibility matters. It builds trust, which is a subcomponent of value.
But that’s not why donors give. Ultimately, they don’t care about your accounting.
Dr. James reminds us that in commerce world, one dollar equals one dollar. But in story world (where your donors live), what matters to them is where their dollars go in relation to what they accomplish.
So back to the overhead thing. If a donor cares about helping a charity cover overhead expenses so other donors can be told truthfully that 100% of their donations go to the impactful work, then that donor might give specifically to cover your nonprofit’s administration expenses. Charity: Water uses this approach with great effectiveness, so low dollar donors feel good about their gifts while major donors cover the overhead costs.
The point is, it’s not where the money goes that matters. It’s where the donor wants the money to go that matters. It’s the story they want to be able to tell to themselves and their loved ones. It’s their path to significance and personal meaning.
This is why restricted gifts need to remain on the table, especially for major donors. Because when you give the donor some control over where the money goes, it greatly increases the perceived value of their donation. This is true even though technically, a dollar is a dollar.
In one fundraising experiment, it was the word ‘overhead’ itself that mattered. When the language was changed from “overhead” to “overhead to build long-term organizational capacity,” giving increased.
Makes sense, right?
Of course not! It’s absurd. It’s the same gift: same amount of money to the same organization. And yet for some reason, more donors gave when it was phrased differently.
Words change the stories your supporters tell themselves, especially when it comes to accounting.
Sometimes the details of a nonprofit’s work can be very interesting. And very complex. This is especially true with capital campaigns; there are so many moving parts in play.
So it’s tempting to want to share all these complex details with donors. Maybe it will increase the credibility of our project. Maybe they’ll get so into it that they’ll want to help.
Donors hate complexity. They aren’t coming to you to learn. Bombarding them with facts, figures, and details actually works against you because it triggers a brain response called ‘rational error detection.’
When presented with a bunch of statistics, our brains immediately begin to evaluate the numbers. If a donor starts thinking things like, “So is that a 30% increase, or 30% rate increase? Because, you know, there’s a big difference between those”—you’ve lost them.
They are now operating rationally, not emotionally. And people give much less, or not at all, when driven by rationalism and reason. Giving is inherently illogical from a financial perspective. You give money away, and you get nothing back. The tax benefits don’t come close to what you’d have if you just kept the money.
So if you get your donors thinking about the complexity of a project or a campaign (especially in the early stages of the relationship), you are inviting them to use their brains and start evaluating, comparing, thinking, synthesizing, analyzing, and reasoning.
That’s everything but feeling. And without feeling, a gift is hard to come by.
Many experiments have backed this up, finding that adding complexity to fundraising almost always reduces giving.
And in contrast, brain imaging experiments have found a strong correlation between the arousal of the brain region that values social-emotional outcomes and greater charitable giving.
Make them feel something by helping them connect their life story (including their values, their history, their people, or community), and they give more. Complexity does the opposite of that.
Pleading and begging for donations doesn’t work. It makes donors feel guilty for not giving. It makes them feel sorry for you, but not emotionally moved to give and participate. Why?
Because they aren’t interested in rescuing your nonprofit. They’re interested in rescuing the people and communities you serve from whatever villain or malignant force is trying to destroy them.
Suppose an art museum’s budget is in the red again, and if they can’t make budget next year, they might have to close. What will happen if the museum disappears?
You could hit up donors with desperation fundraising. Our staff will lose their jobs. We can’t stay open without your help. We’re going to lose so many good connections.
Or you could channel that desperation elsewhere.
One way is to find a villain. Will the (evil) developer move in and smash the building to put up apartments? Will the (diabolical) government annex the land? Will the (vile) bank foreclose on their loan?
See, if you just beg for donations because otherwise “our doors will close forever,” and put out ‘woe is me’ fundraising appeals, you will get some gifts. But if you connect the loss of the museum to a villain, an evil, malignant entity that will swoop in and mercilessly destroy something that has stood as a beacon of joy in a community for decades, now you have a story to tell that will motivate major donors and align with their donor hero story.
Donors don’t give because you need the money. They give because the story outlines what the money will do. If you’re in a desperate situation, find an enemy you can insert into your fundraising campaign.
Because in the story world of your donors, now their money is fighting for something against a ruthless villain.
Some nonprofit leaders have incredible life stories that have shaped their careers and led them to pursue the work they now do. Their experiences can inspire and motivate staff and volunteers in profound ways.
But not donors. And especially not major donors.
While telling a story that makes the founder or the administrator the hero might be interesting, it can make everyone else feel like a spectator. A donor will think, “That’s a great story. I’m glad they’re doing that work and are so committed to it. They seem like a great leader.”
The key word in that last sentence is “think.” You need them to feel, not think. Telling an administrator’s hero story usually doesn’t produce the emotions that lead to giving.
The hero needs to be the donor, not the people on your team or your leaders.
How can the donor be inserted into the story you are telling? That’s what will get their attention and produce the emotions that lead to major gifts.
Learn How to Connect with What Donors DO Care About
MarketSmart offers a fundraising course called Donor Story: Epic Fundraising with Dr. Russell James, which includes tons of research, data, and investigations, some of which you read about in this article.
This course, worth 20.5 CFREs, will teach you how to reframe your fundraising stories around the donor. Once you do that, and once you’re armed with research-backed questions to ask your major gifts and planned-giving prospects, you’ll be able to help them see their role in changing the world and advancing their hero story through your nonprofit.
When you can do that, major gifts will follow.
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