Why your donor prospects lie to you and won’t accept your outreach

If you’re like me, you hate being sold.

You can sense when a salesperson is trying to get you to do something you’re not quite sure you want to do, at least not yet. It’s a terribly uncomfortable feeling, isn’t it?

When I’m at a store or a car dealership (or something like that) and the super-friendly, perky salesperson asks me if I need any help, I almost always say, “No.” Even when I DO need help, I sometimes reject their outreach for no good reason. It’s just a knee-jerk reaction! Weird, right?

From the salesperson’s perspective… I’m there, I brought myself into the store, I have questions, and I’d like to know more. So why on earth would I reject their outreach to help me learn and make a decision?

The answer is simple: I’m scared I’ll be sold.

I don’t want to be manipulated or coerced. That’s what has happened to me before, leading to buyer remorse. So, I thwart their attempt to facilitate the buying process and continue thinking on my own, gathering information and weighing my options, with no pressure or discomfort whatsoever.

Your major gift and legacy gift donor prospects feel the same way.

Here’s how many fundraisers make the same mistake as the sales clerk at the store. They call the donor prospect and say something like, “I just wanted to thank you” or “I just wanted to update you.” What do you think is going through their mind at that instant?

They’re thinking, “They just want me to make a donation! I’ll say I don’t want to talk right now. I’m busy. Or, I’m not interested.”

Here at MarketSmart, we’ve even had tons of donors say they left an organization in their legacy plans or that they were interested in making a major gift. But when the fundraisers reach out to them, they say, “I must have clicked the wrong answer on the survey. I didn’t leave a gift in my estate plan.” Or, “I’m not interested in making a major gift.”

Our customers (the fundraisers) hang up the phone shaking their heads thinking to themselves, “But they DID click the button on the survey. They must be interested! Why won’t they talk to me?”

What’s going on here?

The leads aren’t bad. In fact, they are awesome!

Similarly, when I visit a store or a car dealership, I’m a great lead too. I’m clearly interested. Just think about how much effort it required for me to go into the store or dealership. I had to physically bring myself there. So of course, I AM INTERESTED.

But I’m interested in self-navigating the decision-making process. I’m not interested in getting ‘assistance’ (and being sold). At least, not yet. I’ll want that kind of help once my interest turns to desire. And the person I trust most to help me move through the consideration process is me! Not them. Plus, in most cases the person asking if I need assistance has not proven themselves to be trust worthy. If I don’t clearly understand the value they can provide and trust that they can truly provide it, I won’t accept their advance.

The point here is that salespeople and fundraisers need to recognize customers/donors feel and have empathy for them. It is their job to find ways to help people move themselves from interest to desire. Then, when a customer or donor prospect reaches the desire stage of the consideration process, they’ll be most accepting of one-to-one outreach.

So how can you help your donors move themselves from interest to desire?

1. You must give to your donor prospects with no expectation of getting anything in return. That will actuate the law of reciprocity, making those that accept what you give exponentially more likely to want to give back to you (and your organization) in return.

2. What you give them must reduce the friction involved in the engagement and decision-making process. Mostly that friction is related to fear. And, fear is related to consequences. So give them something that makes their life better, informs, educates, and lessens their fear. Something that is valuable. And remember, value is in the eye of the beholder. So, what you give must be in line with their needs, interests and where they reside in the consideration process.

3. What you say to them in the first words you utter makes a big difference too. Unfortunately, too many fundraisers make their outreach about them and their organization. They ask questions about giving. Meanwhile, your supporters want the outreach to focus on them. They want you to ask them why they care, why did they first become involved, who inspired them, and so on. If you make the first words you say all about them and you are genuinely interested in them (not just interested in their money), they will accept your outreach and move themselves forward in the process. After all, your job is often called advancement.

Having said all that, one key to your giving is opaqueness.

In other words, what you offer to give them must not only deliver value, reduce friction, and be absent expectations of reciprocity and so on but it also should have very little or nothing whatsoever to do with donating. At least not now (since major gifts are not transactional or impulse decisions). That’s what I mean by making it opaque.

Instead, your offer should have everything to do with helping them feel good or helping them find meaning in their lives. Here’s what works especially well: Asking them questions about their life story and how it intersects with your cause. That’s usually the best way to go to achieve that objective. Don’t focus on their giving. Focus on them and the intersection of their life story and your cause.

Here’s an example of a powerful opaque offer that you can use.

Imagine you work for a college or university and you have digitized versions of every yearbook going back over the past 50 years. You could offer a link (URL) to your high-value donor prospects so they can access the repository, download images, and share them easily with old friends.

Since the offer provides value and is opaque (it’s not about donating or meeting with you at all), your supporters will be much more likely to accept it. When they do, they’ll be thankful that you gave it to them and their trust in you (and your organization/institution) will grow. Plus, they might feel that they owe you. That’s the law of reciprocity at work! Then, you’ll be in a better position to talk to them about their past. Ask them to tell you stories. Encourage them to tell you who their friends were. Ask them if they have friends who might like a copy of the yearbook too.

Contrast that kind of engagement with what many fundraisers often offer instead such as:

(1) an opportunity get an an update;

(2) a free cup of coffee;

(3) a wills kit to help with estate planning.

None of those offers provide real value if they do not fall in line with the donor’s needs at the time.

(1) an opportunity get an an update: Donor prospect is not yet in the desire stage of the consideration continuum for making a gift. Therefore, she’s likely to think to herself, “They just want me to donate. I’m afraid. I did that once before. It wasn’t fun. What’s in it for me? Can I trust this person?”

(2) a free cup of coffee; Donor prospect is not yet in the desire stage of the consideration continuum for making a gift. So she’ll think to herself, “I don’t drink coffee! They just want me to donate. I’m afraid. I did that once before. It wasn’t fun. What’s in it for me? Can I trust this person?”

(3) a wills kit/workbook to help with estate planning. Donor prospect not yet in the desire stage of the consideration continuum for making a gift. So she’s likely to think to herself, “Ugh! I’m old and I’m gonna’ die! No fun! I don’t want to think about that. Plus, they just want me to leave a gift in my will… and then they’ll probably hope I die soon! I’m afraid. I don’t want to think about that right now. ”

Don’t believe me?

Test it. If you work in higher education, call up 100 supporters asking them if they’d like a wills kit so they can think about their impending doom and how they can overstep their kids to give their money to your institution. Then try calling up 100 more asking them if they’d like a digitized version of their yearbook. I bet you’ll get a lot more engagement with the later offer… the opaque one!

There is one caveat to everything I just explained here.

If you are aiming solely for super, highly qualified leads — supporters already in the desire stage who are ready and likely to take action — and you do not want to widen the funnel to build relationships with a lot more donor prospects, then you can use hard offers like a wills kit/workbook. Just be prepared for very, VERY low response rates.

Never forget, this is a relational business. It’s not transactional. If you make outreach with the objective of gaining a transaction, you’ll need to make A LOT of calls until you finally reach someone whose timing aligns with yours. And when it comes to major gifts, it’s unlikely that will ever happen.

Bottom line:

Make outreach knowing that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Earn trust by reducing friction and giving something of true value that resonates.

Build relationships by making it about them, not you.


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Laura / Jonathan Waller / Westrich

Love this post! It’s about being a go-giver and adding (true) value to others. People like those who give them a great experience of living and being alive . . . Thank you for adding value to my world!

5 years ago

My pleasure Laura!

Laura Waller
5 years ago

Love this post!! It’s about being a go-giver and adding (true) value to others’ lives. Thank you for adding value to me today!

Carolyn Lowery
Carolyn Lowery
5 years ago

I agree with Laura … I love this post! We spend so much time and money trying to think of the right selection of free-be tools that will benefit a donor’s giving to US, that we fail to think about what we can give to THEM that they would simply enjoy. You are always creatively on target, Greg! Thank you.

5 years ago
Reply to  Carolyn Lowery

Thanks for your comment Carolyn. Much appreciated.

5 years ago

It’s so refreshing to read this. Give to receive. And you have to have buy in from your executive to give you the time to develop relationships to the point where you never have to ask.

5 years ago
Reply to  Philip

Thanks for posting this comment Phil. Please share my blog post!! 🙂

Russell James
5 years ago

Really thoughtful and insightful commentary here. Thanks so much for sharing!

5 years ago
Reply to  Russell James

Thanks so much Russell!

Scott Talbot
2 years ago

True wisdom, Greg. Thank you!

Carrie Green
2 years ago

These are great points Greg–spot on. I understand the opaqueness of the university example, but I’m having trouble finding one for my organization, Meals on Wheels. Lately I’ve been giving updates 🙁 on how we are handling feeding seniors during COVID. Or if I’m familiar enough with them, what do they want to do with their philanthropy. Can you think of an opaque offer for Meals on Wheels? Thanks for your help and insight!

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