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Do you know your donors?

Apparently, philanthropy was simple 120 years ago. Get robber barons to use donations to buy their way into society. New research shows what it takes to attract donors today.

Have you seen any of the new HBO show, The Gilded Age? Did you see the episode about "the two functions of charity?" If you missed it, here's the clip:


Hopefully those days are past, but it is a great reminder that donors give for different, frequently very personal reasons. It goes without saying that understanding what makes donors tick is the life's blood of development.

What Motivates A Donor? It has been nearly 30 years since the landmark The Seven Faces of Philanthropy: A New Approach to Cultivating Major Donors was published, giving nonprofits a view into seven different personality types of philanthropists. To be honest, my own experience with the seven faces concept was that people don't fit into neat, consistent categories like that. Instead, it was an invaluable reminder that not everyone was motivated by the same things that cause me to give and I needed to focus on what resonated with them.

New Study On Engagement - Now another incredibly valuable study is out from the University of Indiana's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. In January, researchers released The Giving Environment, a comprehensive look at what drives donor engagement. The study looks at giving trends, how people make decisions about donating, and new models for engaging supporters.

The study was spurred by an alarming statistic. In 2000, two-thirds of American households gave to charities. By 2018, that number was down to 50%. While the pandemic spurred a wave of generosity, the longer term trend can't be ignored.

The findings are that:

  1. Donors want a personal connection with causes. They want relationships with nonprofits and familiarity based on their own sense of community and personal connections.

  2. They want to be able to evaluate where they give their funds to maximize impact, particularly local impact.

  3. They want are likely to prioritize giving to organizations that address root causes for systemic and social issues. That means funding cures, not Band-Aids.

  4. They want nonprofits to communicate the impact of their programs and services. They are particularly interested in video and images that convey impact.

These are not earthshattering insights, but too many nonprofits ignore them. I'm reminded of a comment that philanthropist and author Liz Greer made on a recent podcast. She said, "nonprofits treat donors like piggybanks," not partners.

So What Should You Do As A Nonprofit? Communicate. Communicate how you are using donor gifts to meet your mission. Communicate simply and clearly. Donors say they want to weigh impact and focus on solving problems. In reality, most people don't take the time to research different nonprofits. So the nonprofit that can effectively communicate what they are doing, how it ties into addressing root causes of problems, and demonstrates that through storytelling, pictures and video will engage donors on a personal level. That's what we tell our clients. Let us know if we can help you!


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