Understanding Donors — The Old Fashioned Way

February 05, 2015 - by Amy Sukol


As direct response fundraisers, we spend a great deal of time trying to understand our donors and potential donors. We study retention rates and website abandonment stats. We do donor surveys and run focus groups. We model and append.

And then there is my favorite form of donor research: a visit with my dad.

You see, my dad is a pretty typical direct mail donor. He is 77 years old and mostly retired. His kids (me and my brother) are grown and self-supporting with families of our own. He is at the point in his life when he has the disposable income to support causes about which he is passionate – and there are many.

As a result, my dad receives (and responds to) a lot of direct mail.

So a few years back I asked him to start keeping it for me. Then, when I visit, we go through the mail and he shares his experiences as a donor. He tells me about organizations that have treated him well – and those that haven’t. He tells me what motivates him to call an organization and complain, and what causes him to stop giving altogether. It’s an incredible glimpse into the life of a donor. And it provides some valuable insights into the people most likely to respond to our campaigns.

Lesson #1: Being a donor is serious business.

My dad is no Rockefeller, but he takes his philanthropy pretty seriously. So when he gets a renewal notice, he responds. On the other hand, if he’s paid that bill and keeps getting renewal notices, he gets upset. To him it’s like being called a deadbeat.

What’s the takeaway for us fundraisers? If you plan to leverage your data by referencing a donor’s giving status (which is a good practice), make sure your data is accurate. Be as serious about your donors’ records as they are.

Lesson #2: Donors want to know that you are using their money effectively.

My dad is a scientist, so numbers matter to him. He wants to know that the money he is giving to organizations is being used to make a difference in the world. So if he doesn’t get that information, he will go to charity watchdog sites and make decisions based on efficiency measures like fundraising ratios.

What’s the lesson for fundraisers and anyone working in the non-profit world? Donors really are looking for information about how you use their money. Make sure they get it from you. Make your efficiency measures easy to find and understand so that people like my dad need not go to a third party to figure out whether you are putting his philanthropy to good use.

Lesson #3: Many donors (still) believe what we say.

So honor that trust by telling the truth. My dad related the story of an organization he had given to based on the promise that they would never ask him for money again. Unfortunately he didn’t see the little box on the reply form that he had to check to get them to keep that promise. After receiving a number of mailings and complaining numerous times, he finally got them to keep their word. But let me tell you, he never made another gift.

Now, I’m not saying this technique didn’t work for this group. Nor am I suggesting that we eliminate a strategy based on the complaints of one donor. But it sure does pay to ask yourself how you would feel if someone duped your mom or dad like that. Not a conclusion … just a thought.

Lesson #4: Remember why your donors support you.

Every time my dad tells me about a group he supports, he reminds me what they do. How does he know all this? It’s simple: this is what the organizations told him! And they did a good job because he has clearly made their messaging his own.

But I have never once heard my dad say that he is bored that a group is still doing the same old work. He’s never told me that one of his charities needs to mix up the messaging a little.

What’s the take home? You might be bored with your story but your loyal direct response donors probably aren’t. By all means, find new ways to illustrate how you are fulfilling your core mission. Tell new stories about the lives you have touched. But don’t forget the elevator speech that first motivated that donor, because repeating that is what keeps them giving.

Lesson #5: We impact the donors as well as the causes we serve.

This is perhaps the most valuable reminder I get from my dad: donors are more than an ID number in a database. They are thinking, feeling human beings who are truly impacted by the work we do.

When we do our jobs well and with sensitivity, we have the ability to empower, to educate and to inspire. We give people the opportunity to be a part of something that can change the world. What a beautiful opportunity — what a great responsibility. Thanks Dad!

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