The billboard in Boston’s Logan Airport caught my eye and got me thinking:

“Can you design an experience your customers really want to have?”

Modified for Nonprofit Land the question became: How many nonprofits can truly claim to know their donors well enough that they can deliver experiences their donors really want to have?

Not many. In fact, I suspect there are very, very few indeed.

Why do our donors give? Seems like a question worth knowing the answer to, since many of us claim to be in the business of trying to affect giving behavior.

One answer is certain: donors seldom give for any of the reasons organizations and their fundraisers think they do. And no amount of demographic, psychographic or attitudinal data can provide the answer.

The answer can come only from the individual donor herself or himself. So why don’t organizations take the time and trouble — right up front with that first gift — to ask their donors ‘why’ and learn more about them?

restartWhen it comes to first-time givers, why do we talk in terms of  ‘Thank you’ and ‘Welcome’ programs? Given the potentially large lifetime value of a donor, why aren’t we investing time and money in ‘Thank You’ and ‘Getting to Know You’ efforts?

Sure, doing that costs extra. Perhaps a phone call or two. Maybe a note or letter requesting some personal information and preferences. Why go to the expense and work?

Here’s why. Only if we we understand the identity and motivation of the individual donor can we deliver a truly great donor experience, as opposed to a mélange and barrage of ‘best practice’ appeals and communications hoping the donor will respond.

Don’t get me wrong. This is hard and slow work. A lot harder than signing a purchase order for a mass appeal. Or commissioning a telemarketing firm to recover lapsed donors.

And certainly, you can’t ‘know’ the motivation of every donor, because you can’t reach everyone on the phone or get them respond to questions regarding motivation and preferences.

BUT … you can change your mindset and simply START! If you have a grand vision of knowing the motivations and preferences of 100% of your donors, a humble pilot that garners this information from only 15% of your donors will put you miles ahead of other organizations.

A couple of years ago in a post titled Milkshake Mistakes I wrote, “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that an organization connect with its donors’ values and beliefs. The path to poor performance is paved with trying to force your organization’s perception of itself onto donors.

A principal reason that often motivates nonprofits to re-brand is their sense that ‘donors don’t get us’. As a result, a brand consultant is hired, and countless dollars and loads of time are wasted. In The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications, Jeff Brooks accurately describes the effort:

“So, a brand is cooked up that will set those donors straight: Touché´ you ignorant persons! This is what we are about! Love us now! That’s the kind of brand that is deeply in trouble from the start. It’s going to cost you dearly to educate those donors. And you’ll fail to educate them.”

The ‘milkshake mistake’ most organizations make lies in the mistaken notion that they can win people over by trying to change their core beliefs and values. Try that and they’ll leave you.

Conversely, match the description of your organization — and the donor experiences you provide them — with what they believe and what motivates them, and you’ll keep them.

Tom Ahern responded to that post quite succinctly: “Being a lazy researcher, I have only my own giving behavior to observe. But here’s what I’ve seen: my giving seldom has much to do with my interest in a cause (I have a thousand fleeting interests). I give because someone asked and gave me an opportunity to feel like a better person that day. Like the Micky D’s milkshake example, it’s not the product’s attributes that drive my purchase decision, it’s my personal need. If more charities grasped this and gave it full weight in their fundraising, the sky would indeed be the limit.”

In short, it’s time we stop second-guessing the donor. Time to stop applying assembly-line techniques and so-called ‘best practices’ across a wide range of donors with wide-ranging interests and motivations.

The wise fundraiser, concerned about her or his organization’s future, will spend far less time worrying about the volume of appeals they send, or fancy and expensive segmentation of transactional data, and instead begin offering good donor experiences based on understanding and knowing the true identities of its donors.

What steps are you taking to better know your donors?


P.S. In my next ‘Starting Over’ post I’ll deal with understanding donor identity and why it’s critical to providing good donor experiences.

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This article was posted in: Breaking Out of the Status Quo, Donor acquisition, Donor retention / loyalty / commitment, Fundraising philosophy/profession, Nonprofit branding, Starting Over.
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