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Winning the Hearts and Minds of Donors

By Susan Carey Dempsey on November 1, 20102 Comments
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Image by cmpalmer via Flickr

With nonprofits looking at the crucial giving season in the last quarter of a very difficult year, fundraisers are keenly appraising what motivates donors, especially that top of the pyramid group responsible for 80% of the gifts. Several recent studies may be helpful in peering into the crystal ball.

From Russ Reid consultants, the Heart of the Donor Survey report looks at key motivators for the top givers, especially the boomers and seniors who populate those ranks. Does your nonprofit explain its mission well, describe how it gets results, and account carefully for its expenditures on overhead? 

Folks over 40, according to Russ Reid Senior Vice President Lisa McIntyre, look closely at whether an organization achieves what it says it does. And fundraising efforts, she stressed, should focus on delivering that information to this prime group.

The point is this: if the goal of a nonprofit is to effectively target today’s best donors, then they should focus significant and smart attention on the donors giving the most money – seniors and boomers. For example, the number of donors in the 18-24 group and 70-plus are comparable, but the 70-plus donor gives three times as much.

Fundraisers know that their best major gift prospects will come from the ranks of donors who already give, so I thought an interesting finding from the survey was the motivation for repeat giving, once a donor has chosen an organization to support: The most important factor, by a slim margin, is explaining to the donor the specific mission of the organization. Closely following this were making the donor feel that their gift really made a difference, and giving the donor information about exactly what their gift helped accomplish.

Interestingly, a study earlier this year conducted by the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs, the Metanoia Fund, and the Rockefeller and William and Flora Hewlett foundations found surprisingly low numbers of donors who really looked into how effectively an organization performed, according to their report:

What they found is that few people investigate the performance of nonprofit organizations. While 85 percent said that a charity’s performance is very important, only 35 percent conducted research on giving and just 2 percent gave based on a group’s relative performance.

In the study, surveying donors with incomes over $80,000, the researchers hoped to glean information on how charitable giving can be encouraged overall, and specifically, how more contributions could be channeled to the most effective nonprofits.

The Russ Reid Heart of the Donor study had some interesting findings about how younger donors vs. older donors would research organizations before giving them their support. With older donors, information is sought out from the organization being considered, but deeper research from various watchdog groups or centers that offer ratings, guidance etc. is less frequently sought, the study reported: 

In short, it appears that the oldest donors weren’t actually doing a lot of exploration when they were considering a new organization to support. People age 40 to 69 (especially those 40 to 54) were looking for information, while the youngest adults were doing things that will more easily lead to impressions than information – what do my friends think, what were my impressions of the organization when I visited, what did the employee say, etc.

Another recently released national survey, by Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, found that 55% of American donors plan to maintain their level of charitable giving in the fourth quarter of 2010, despite misgivings about the volatile market and economic environment. In addition, nearly one in 10 (8 percent) said they would actually give more than in past years because the need for help is more acute.

Where donors said they felt the need to cut back (slightly more than a third of survey respondents), most of those said they planned to find other ways to assist nonprofits in lieu of cash, the survey found:

Nearly 60 percent say they would give their time and skills, and one-in-five (21 percent) indicate they will give other assets, such as cars or antiques.

 The Gift Fund survey, of adults who said they’d donate $200 or more in 2010, also found that donors are forward-looking in terms of their giving, with two-thirds (66 percent) indicating that all or most of their charitable giving for this year was planned ahead of time. This increases to 81 percent among households with $100,000 or more in annual income.

The Fidelity Survey, like the Heart of the Donor, also looked at emergency giving, which obviously can’t be planned  for, but constitutes an important part of the overall philanthropic picture for the year:

Recent natural disasters such as the flood in Pakistan and the earthquake in Haiti had an impact on giving in 2010, with nearly one-quarter of Americans who said they gave reactively reporting that these events had changed their giving from years past.

In the Heart of the Donor survey, more than half of all respondents said they had given in support of the Haiti earthquake relief effort. Interestingly, more than a quarter of those who reported not making any charitable donations also said they’d contributed to support Haiti, explaining in interviews that they saw those funds as going to aid a country or its people, rather than supporting a nonprofit organization.

The bottom line, for any nonprofit seeking to maximize its support in the giving season, is that you must reach out to give donors the information they need through multiple forms of media, from your website to direct mail appeals to social networking – and make your case factual and persuasive. Clearly explain how you are achieving impact, and how your donors’ dollars – including those necessary for fundraising and overhead – can best make a difference by “investing” them in your cause.

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