Why most of your marketing should appeal to donors in the WHY stage of the consideration continuum


When I first started helping nonprofits raise major gifts for less, I instinctively knew that the traditional planned giving web content most vendors supplied was not quite right.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. The content was not incorrect. In fact, it was (and still is) amazingly accurate… from a legal perspective.

However, I concluded that most of the supplied content was not necessarily only developed for the donors. Rather it seemed to be written for the people buying the content—the fundraisers (mostly planned gift fundraisers).

And that’s good marketing… if you want to sell a lot of stuff to a lot of fundraisers. In that context it makes perfect sense that the content appeals to those folks.

However, the content is not for the fundraisers. It’s for their donors.

In most cases, the fundraisers investing in those sites are not the same people making the planned gifts. Rather, it’s the supporters who do that. So the content should appeal to them first and foremost.

How vs. Why.

Of course, the content appeals to planned gift fundraisers because it is heavily focused on the HOW information such as HOW to make a will or how to make a planned gift with insurance or through a trust.

That’s the exciting work most planned gift officers enjoy because it gives them an opportunity to use their vast knowledge and experience to help donors give smarter.

The problem is…

Most of the time, most supporters surfing online viewing your web pages are not in that stage of the consideration process. Plus, that HOW stage is fleeting—usually lasting a fraction of the time a donor spends in the WHY stage. The HOW stage comes only when a decision is about to be made.

In fact, for instance, if you work for a university, your supporters’ probably began thinking about WHY they might leave a gift to your institution after their lifetime the minute they first received the acceptance letter to attend your institution.

Of course, they didn’t think about that specific gift at that time. But they did, in fact, begin to subconsciously consider whether or not their experience attending your institution added value to their life.

Never forget that giving requires motivation.

Motivation occurs when there is an intersection or alignment between a supporter’s life story and your cause.

No intersection or alignment = no motivation

With that in mind, you’ve really got to recognize that your supporters will spend most of their lives in the WHY stage.

When they make a donation (in the HOW stage) that decision only takes a minute or less. And when they make a decision to give a major gift or arrange a planned gift, that might take a little longer. But not much.

Then, even after making a donation, major gift or planning a gift, they’ll go right back to the WHY stage immediately. They’ll begin to wonder if they made the right decision.

They might feel donor remorse if you don’t provide the proper level of stewardship they expect. They’ll ask themselves, “WHY should I give again?” or “Why should I make an additional planned gift?”

Plus, with regard to a planned gift, they can usually easily change their mind and replace the gift they originally planned for your organization with another charity that treats them better. In that respect, they might wonder, “WHY should I keep this planned gift as is?”

WHY increases motivation but HOW increases gift amounts.

You need both! But the timing is what matters.

In other words, you can increase motivation to give if you focus your attention on each donor’s WHY. Again, that’s where most donors reside most of the time. But you can increase gift amounts if you swoop in when they are nearing the HOW stage. That’s when your counsel can really help them make smarter decisions.

The important thing is to know WHEN each supporter is at each stage.

That’s why the content and System MarketSmart supplies focuses mostly on helping supporters in the WHY stage.

Of course, some content focuses on the HOW stage. We do all we can with our automation and snazzy computer stuff to ensure that your supporters get the right messages at the right times—automatically. And we notify you (with email alerts) when donors move themselves forward in the consideration continuum. That way you know when to make outreach.

Optimizing your time and money.

This approach (and technology) saves you time. It ensures that you aren’t chasing false positives (leads that are not ready for your outreach). It optimizes your operation, thereby saving time and money. It warms up donors and builds trust.

Plus, it reduces turnover. Nothing frustrates fundraisers more than wild goose chases.

Fundraisers are skilled at helping donors. They are experts. They don’t want their time wasted. And they don’t want to be sent on fool’s errands—chasing after prospects who don’t want to be chased. That’s not fun for the fundraiser or the donor.

If you want to read more about this, you might want to check out this series of blog posts starting here or you can download the white paper on the topic here.

Dr. Russell James concurs. 

Until recently I figured my approach was simply common sense. But now Dr. James has brought forth science to back up my assertions.

Dr. James explains (thanks to his new research) that a heavy focus on the HOW stage in your communications creates something called rational error detection. That’s when supporters slam their feet on the brakes during the decision-making process. They stop moving forward! Logic gets in the way.

If your web content, newsletters and email marketing communications focus mostly on HOW content, you’ll likely be causing your supporters to turn away. That’s because it’s highly unlikely that the timing for those kinds of messages will be right.

Again, most people spend most of their time in the WHY stage. You should only offer HOW content when the timing is right. Otherwise it will seem irrelevant.

Emotion trumps logic.

Never forget that people give for emotional reasons. Consequently, most of your major gift marketing and one-to-one communications should focus on the WHY stage while they are thinking about why your organization aligns with their life in emotional ways.

Your messages should help them emotionally recount their autobiography and contemplate how they might want to be the hero in their own life story. Or how they might want to commemorate someone.

Most of it should not focus on how great your organization is or HOW they can give. That’s narcissistic and off putting to the majority of supporters who (again) are most likely only in the WHY stage and not ready for that.

Bringing logic into the process too early leads supporters to slam the brakes. It encourages them to begin using the rational part of their brain. Then they recoil.

All in due time.

Eventually, you do, in fact, want and need your supporters to move themselves to the temporary HOW stage and make a giving decision in your organization’s favor. For that you need to present opaque offers. I’d need to write another blog post to explain that further.  For now just understand that focusing most of your communications on that short-lived stage in the process can drive well-meaning supporters in the WHY stage away.

Your job is to continually take each donor’s pulse so you understand where they are in the process. If you do that you’ll be in a position to accommodate them.

If, instead, you keep sending them newsletters or other communications about HOW they can give, you’ll get a lead here and there. But mostly you’ll get very little engagement and response.

Like me, Dr. James recommends you avoid encouraging logical reasoning until the time is right. Instead, he recommends you help your supporters think about their lives.

Spend most of your time and money helping them visualize (through words and story) powerful emotional experiences. If you do that, a part of their brain called the lingual gyrus will get activated. This is what drives giving!

Then, monitor where they reside in the consideration continuum so you can help facilitate their giving at the right time.

Of course, if you have enough staff, you can go deeper into your list to meet with people who are just beginning the process in the WHY stage. But if you are short staffed and under-resourced, you’ll want to focus as much as possible on people who are ready now. Prioritization leads to optimization.

Thank you Dr. James! I feel vindicated.


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