How to Read the Minds of Your Donors

This article was originally published in Nonprofit Hub Magazine.

Whenever I’m asked to choose an icebreaker question at a networking event, I fall back on an old favorite: If you could have any superpower, what would it be? There are always a few crowd favorites—super strength, time travel, the ability to fly. But among the go-to’s, there’s one answer that draws “oohs” and “aahs” from the group: telepathy. The ability to read minds. It’s sort of the ultimate power, isn’t it? To know what everyone is thinking at all times? No, you’re not about to read an article about how to develop telepathic powers, but this is probably the next best thing.

What if I told you that you can enter the minds of your donors without even meeting them? By using data, case studies and a bit of basic psychology, you can gain valuable insight about your supporters that can lead to an improved fundraising strategy.

If you’ve been at it for a while, there are probably a handful of things you already know about your donors. Maybe they’re predominantly over forty, 65 percent female and give more around the holidays. That’s great—these are important characteristics. But let’s dig a little deeper. Do you know how your donors feel when they give? Do you know why they gave in the first place, and why they continue to do so? Questions like these are what lie at the heart of donor psychology and donor behavior, and if you know the answers to them, the sky’s the limit.

It’s not really about you

First off, your donors’ giving has less to do with you and your organization than you probably think. Yes: your marketing efforts and the impact you have on your community are important, but your donors give because they feel they’ve been called to do so. Why else would they part ways with their hard-earned cash? So instead of listing features of your organization worthy of their money, try to make their financial contribution feel meaningful and fulfilling. Tell them what their donation has specifically allowed you to do.

Hot take: donors are selfish. We all are. Giving to nonprofits—and philanthropy in general—might seem to be a selfless act, but it still relies on humanity’s natural selfishness. We do things because we get enjoyment out of them—even donating to charity. As a fundraiser, you need to take advantage of that selfishness and make donors feel extra good about themselves. There are a few ways to do that.

Thank them right away, then ask questions

After any donation, you need to provide an immediate and sincere thank you, usually in the form of an email. Not only does this serve as a receipt for the donor, but it shows them that their donation was important. You can send a handwritten note, too, but make sure you’re sending something right away first.

It’s important not to overwhelm your donors with messages and asks, but it’s also important to gather information from them. Give them some time after they make a donation, but then reach back out. Ask them what prompted them to give, and, if it was their first time giving, ask them why they those your organization over others. The answers to these questions should inform how you build your fundraising and donor retention strategies.

Tell stories

It’s been proven that stories are an effective fundraising tool. But what’s more is that stories actually cause more neuron firings and stimulation in the brain, as opposed to statistics and data. So instead of saying to a donor, “Your contribution helped three children receive school supplies,” tell them a little bit about the children, or how happy they were, or what they’ll be able to do now that they have those supplies. Crafting narratives to accompany your donor thank-yous takes practice, but it pays dividends in the long run.

Stories also generate empathy. Literary scholars have found that reading personal narratives increases one’s overall empathy, and the same paradigm applies with your donors. Even if they haven’t personally been in the same situation as your organization’s beneficiaries, telling a story will increase their relatability and ultimately drive them to give in the future.

Make them feel like one of a kind (even if they aren’t)

It’s inevitable that many of your donors will fall under the same demographic umbrellas. But even if half of your donors are women over fifty, or 75 percent of your donors make over $100,000, you still need to treat them as individuals. Find out what makes each of them unique, and use those traits in your messaging. Interact with stakeholders at your fundraisers and other community events. Ask them questions, and remember their answers. These personal touches make all the difference.

It’s important to remember that these donor connections don’t happen overnight. They take time, energy and a whole lot of practice to develop. But, if you’re willing to put in the work and attempt to enter their minds, it will pay off in ways you wouldn’t believe.


Spencer Creal

Spencer is Nonprofit Hub's managing editor. He writes long- and short-form copy and edits all of the publication's written content. When he can get away from the computer screen, Spencer likes reading, creative writing, camping and trying not to ruin every new dish he cooks.

October 31, 2018

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