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As you look ahead to the new year—sure to be another exciting one, it seems—you might take a few minutes to consider where you can hone your messaging to better engage your donors.

This is an excerpt from The Forgotten Foundations of Fundraising: Practical Advice and Contrarian Wisdom for Nonprofit Leaders, written by Jeremy Beer and Jeffrey Cain, cofounders of American PhilanthropicYou can order a copy here or read the first chapter for free here.

This excerpt from chapter two considers why people support nonprofits and how that should inform your messaging and communications. As you look ahead to the new year—sure to be another exciting one, it seems—you might take a few minutes to consider where you can hone your messaging to better engage your donors.

Why do people give money to nonprofits? This may not be one of the eternal mysteries that preoccupy mankind, but ask a roomful of fundraisers and you’ll get a roomful of answers: to cadge a seat on the board of directors; to be recognized; to feel good about themselves; to outsource their ideological goals; to score a plaque; because their spouse told them to; because the CEO is kinda foxy; just because.

There is no data-driven reason why a development officer or a nonprofit leader should buy the hype about impact giving. It’s smoke-and-mirrors, a delusion passed off as fact by people who have a professional self-interest in perpetuating this specious bunk.

“Heart giving”—charity motivated by love and empathy and the Golden Rule—will continue. It will never be driven out by statistical formulas, no matter how loudly the Effective Altruists bray. Heart giving is consistent with everything we know about human nature from modern psychology and sociology, from history, and from the Christian and Judaic theological traditions.

What do we know about human beings that relates to charitable giving? For one thing, belongingness may be the most fundamental psychological need of all. No man is an island, nor, except in rare cases, does he or she wish to be rootless, unattached, a free-floating particle in a sea of humanity. We need to belong, to be a part of something larger than just ourselves. Contributing to an organization can nurture this sense of belonging—especially if the contributor has the feeling that she is doing something more substantial than merely scribbling out a check and mailing it to a remote 501(c)(3) with which she has no tangible connection. (Generosity with one’s money and time also conduces to good health and happiness, as Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson of the University of Notre Dame document in their 2014 book, The Paradox of Generosity.)

Related to this, identity and participation are also fundamental human psychological needs that can be fed by charitable giving. In the act of giving, the giver defines, or refines, his identity, and achieves a closer connection with others. This is true whether the recipient of the gift is a neighborhood parochial school, a literacy campaign, a community symphony orchestra, or a think-tank dedicated to a particular philosophy of government.

Americans crave community. One of the brilliant thinkers of the twentieth century, the sociologist Robert Nisbet, titled his landmark book The Quest for Community, and one manifestation of this quest is charity.

People give in order to experience belongingness, to shape an identity, and to become more closely connected with others, and not, in the vast majority of cases, to solve social problems or change the world. To the dismay and disgust of the Effective Altruists, Americans prefer to donate to the local hospital or historical society, to public policy nonprofits or social and cultural organizations whose views they find congenial, or to men and women—neighbors, brothers and sisters.

They give for localist reasons, for religious reasons, for philosophical reasons; they give to foster relationships and to build community. Never forget this. If you start talking metrics and results and outcomes to potential givers—at least those givers whose identities are not already wrapped up in such concepts—their eyes will glaze, their thoughts will wander, and you will fail as a fundraiser.

Credentialed fundraisers, like credentialed people everywhere, love acronyms: They create an air of mystery, of opacity, as if only a select group of initiates can understand the abstruse and recondite concepts they are peddling. They natter on about ROI so reverently one might think they’re actually talking about royalty. But no, it’s only Return on Investment, a term borrowed from business to measure profitability ratio. Very few donors care inordinately about ROI, even if they feign interest during a somniferous discussion thereof.

In fact, acronyms act to obscure what ought to be simple truths—or untruths. So in a spirit of subversive fun, we at American Philanthropic coined our own acronym, the aptly earthy DIRT, or Donor Response Theory. (Yes, we conjured up a vowel out of thin air. There is no I, but we needed one to make DIRT.)

The fundamental premise of DIRT is that to be successful, we must approach donors as they are, and not as we wish them to be. DIRT is a framework to organize our thinking about fundraising. It asks several basic questions:

  1. What kinds of requests or asks can we make of our donors?
  2. Where does each type of ask put the focus?
  3. What response does each type of ask tend to generate?
  4. What type of relationship does each kind of ask tend to foster?
  5. How strong are the resulting donor relationships?

Essentially, there are four requests a charitable organization might make of its donors:

  1. Save us! SOS! We’re going down! We can’t pay the heating bill or the hefty consultant fees—please send money now!
  2. Lend a hand! We’re not on life support, but we could really use your help. Please? Pretty please?
  3. Invest in our work. We are an efficient and cost-effective entity that is pursuing ends that you, too, favor. It is in your self-interest to send us money.
  4. Be part of our community or movement. Work with us toward a common goal, whether that is supporting a school, a cultural organization, or a political cause. Stand with us. Join us.

While the focus of the earlier requests (Save us! Lend a hand!) is on the organization itself, the focus of the latter two is on the mission. There is a cold, clinical feel to the third request (Invest in our work), which may have all the intellectual force of a trenchant argument but lacks any emotional appeal. The fourth request (Be part of our community or movement) is the most potent of all, since it invites participation in, and identification with, the organization.

A Save us! request appeals to feelings of guilt—I don’t want to let these guys drown in red ink—and Lend a hand! to empathy, or shared feelings. Invest in our work appeals to the donor’s self-interest. These three are transactional relationships. Be part of our community or movement, by contrast, encourages a sense of identification by the donor: It is a relational connection, which is deeper and more durable than the relationship formed by a mere transaction. The donor–donee nexus is much stronger, as the donor draws a sense of identification, belonging, and connection from the link. It’s a tie that truly binds.

Our experience with hundreds of nonprofit clients has shown that these weaker, transactional relationships are characteristic of the least successful organizations; stronger, relational connections characterize the most successful organizations. Or to borrow from the Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen, we misserve our donors if “we have not given them an opportunity to participate in the spirit of what we are about. We may have completed a successful transaction, but we have not entered into a successful relationship.”

In practice, we have found that direct-mail appeals that ask prospective donors to join in a community dedicated to a common, external mission fare significantly better than do emergency, organization-centric, or self-interest appeals—at least over the long haul.

Moreover, as we shall explore in more detail in Chapter 6, donor clubs encourage increased giving because they provide an opportunity for greater participation and contribute to identity-building. Along the same lines, organizations that invest in relationship-building via meetings with donors and donor prospects grow faster and are seen as more effective by their peers.

So your goal as a fundraiser should be to make your organization a part of your supporters’ identities: to become part of who they are, or conversely to bring them into the life of your organization.

The data back us up. When American Philanthropic surveyed over 100 nonprofits about their fundraising practices and outcomes, we found that:

  • Highly effective organizations annually conducted twice as many donor meetings per development staffer than did other organizations.
  • A higher percentage of donor meetings centered on an ask was negatively correlated with organizational effectiveness. In other words, the fewer asks and the more relationship-building meetings, the better.
  • Organizations that more frequently communicated with donors via house-file mailings experienced higher donor retention rates. Donors like to hear from you—and they should view you as a friend and comrade, not a supplicant whose hat is always in hand and whose favorite mantra is “gimme, gimme, gimme.”

The fastest-growing, most highly admired nonprofits invest proportionally more resources into cultivating real relationships with their supporters. They understand that donors are living, breathing people with hopes and dreams and fears, not biped ATMs.

DIRT urges us to approach donors as collaborators in a community jointly working toward some common good rather than as mere investors in a social technology. It urges us to think in terms of what Catholics call communio, the essence of which is sharing, fellowship, and mutual participation. DIRT is very much in the Christian tradition. Whereas secular philanthropy has, since its inception, been thought of primarily as a tool for social change, Christian charity is different: It is an act of witnessing to God’s superintending love and our relationship as brothers and sisters. Social change flows downstream from that. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, those “who carry out the Church’s charitable activity on the practical level . . . must not be inspired by ideologies aimed at changing the world, but should rather be guided by the faith which works through love.”16

Whatever your own beliefs, donors respond best when you act as if the premise of Christian charity—that we were made by, in, and for love—were true. . . 

Editorial disclaimer: American Philanthropic is the publisher of Philanthropy Daily.

This excerpt from The Forgotten Foundations of Fundraising was republished here with permission. You can order a copy of the book today.

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