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Are you wondering what your donors are thinking? Here are five highlights from conversations with donors.

What does my donor want?

Successful fundraisers often find themselves asking this question. If only they would just tell us!

Well, the best way to get answers to questions about donors is to ask donors.

Happily, the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently ran piece outlining what matters to major donors. They asked donors the questions that you may not be able to and shared the responses.

Here are a few takeaways from the thoughts of these donors, which can confirm some things we already knew and further shape our understanding of these principles to better help us approach particular individual donors.

ONE: The Donor is the Hero

It is fundamental to remember that the role of the nonprofit is to fulfill the mission of the donor. Jennifer Risher told the Chronicle, “When fundraisers approach donors with the idea that they’re going to help the donor do what the donor wants to do, that’s what works.”

This is a good reminder about the perils of peacock fundraising. Don’t talk too much about yourself; focus on the donor and what they want to do and achieve. Rather than saying “look at what we did.” Say things like, “look at what you did with your gift.”

You are not the only one with a mission in this relationship. The donor has their own philanthropic mission, and it is your job to find donors whose mission aligns with your organization’s mission. Then allow them to be the hero of your story.

TWO: Invite donors into the life of the organization

Your donors want to be a part of what you are doing. George and Carol Bauer said that donors want to get to know the organizations they are being asked to support. The best way to do this is to bring donors into the life of your organization.

How do you do this? You could, as the Chronicle suggests, give them hard and specific data and leave behind the knickknacks. That might work . . . but it might miss the point somewhat.

Bringing someone into the life of an organization is not about showing them spreadsheets and impact metrics. These things can be helpful, but a donor wants to be a part of what you are doing, not an analytic observer. To really know the organization is to know the people who make up the organization. So instead of bombarding donors with statistics, try regular and consistent communication: cultivation meetings, phone calls, text messages, short emails. Meet with your donors, engage them, solicit their opinions on occasion, share things that they might find interesting—and don’t make them feel like you are always asking for money. Your donor is liable feel like an ATM rather than a part of the organization if the only time they hear from you is when you arrive at their door palm out, asking for cash.

THREE: Have a clear vision and strategic priorities

Andrew Bosworth noted that he likes “charities with leaders who possess a strong and clear vision that is solely focused on the nonprofit’s mission.” Interestingly, Bosworth was not the only donor to mention leadership. Anne Welsh McNulty noted that she “puts a big emphasis on strong leadership when making her giving decisions because, she says, good leaders have continued influence even after the gift is spent.”

Donors want to know that a nonprofit leader has a clear vision and strategic priorities for the future. Most nonprofits, of course, are confident that they have such priorities—and typically they do, though somewhat inchoately. But it is important to make sure that these priorities are explicit, well known across the organization, and clearly communicated to donors. A good leader might have a strong vision and clear priorities—but these need to be known outside the mind of the president.

Here’s an easy way to find out if you are communicating your strategic priorities well. Ask a few members of your staff, within development and across the organization what your mission is, who your peer organizations are, and what success looks like the in the short- and the long-term. Then ask a few board members the same questions. How much overlap is there across the answers you get? How much do they align with how you (as a leader) would answer those questions? Oftentimes you’ll find a lot of variety in these answers, and it might be worth clarifying mission, vision, and strategic priorities internally. 

FOUR: Get specific but don’t dehumanize the relationship

Multiple donors in the Chronicle piece noted that they wanted specific data. They wanted to be able to see the impact. The Chronicle thus encourages readers to “get specific” and show donors that their money is being “put to good use.” I agree, with a caveat: nonprofit leaders should remember that numbers aren’t everything. Even donors who think numbers are everything need to hear more from you.

First of all, donors shouldn’t be fooled by numbers. Big numbers don’t always mean good programs, and small numbers don’t always mean ineffective programs. In either case, it’s not hard to spin whatever story you want out of the numbers. Smart donors know this, but still can get sucked into the vortex of demanding “data.”

Second, fundraisers should remember that numbers aren’t that compelling—even when donors say it’s what they care about. Do donors want to know that you are actually doing things and doing them well? Of course! But do they also want to hear why you are doing them and about the people you are helping? Absolutely! So, tell stories and blend in data to help donors understand your programs and their impact. Don’t let the data and metrics replace the story.

FIVE: You have to spend money to make money

I’ll end with this. One donor, Andrew Bosworth, said the following: “I fully respect that nonprofits have to spend money to raise money; I have no problem with that… But I worry about these ones that seem to raise enough money just to put on the next [fundraiser]. When a charity becomes more about the spectacle of charity as opposed to the work of the charity, that’s certainly a turn-off for me.”

Bosworth brings up a good point. Savvy philanthropists are turned off by fundraising expenses, but they can be turned off by too much—or too frequent—flash and "spectacle." This is a good reason to keep the majority of your development costs on staff who can forge relationships with donors (and then bypass concerns about "overhead"), rather than on things like events.

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