Understanding Donors — The Old Fashioned Way

February 05, 2015 - by Amy Sukol


As direct response fundraisers, we spend a great deal of time trying to understand our donors and potential donors. We study retention rates and website abandonment stats. We do donor surveys and run focus groups. We model and append.

And then there is my favorite form of donor research: a visit with my dad.

You see, my dad is a pretty typical direct mail donor. He is 77 years old and mostly retired. His kids (me and my brother) are grown and self-supporting with families of our own. He is at the point in his life when he has the disposable income to support causes about which he is passionate – and there are many.

As a result, my dad receives (and responds to) a lot of direct mail.

So a few years back I asked him to start keeping it for me. Then, when I visit, we go through the mail and he shares his experiences as a donor. He tells me about organizations that have treated him well – and those that haven’t. He tells me what motivates him to call an organization and complain, and what causes him to stop giving altogether. It’s an incredible glimpse into the life of a donor. And it provides some valuable insights into the people most likely to respond to our campaigns.

Lesson #1: Being a donor is serious business.

My dad is no Rockefeller, but he takes his philanthropy pretty seriously. So when he gets a renewal notice, he responds. On the other hand, if he’s paid that bill and keeps getting renewal notices, he gets upset. To him it’s like being called a deadbeat.

What’s the takeaway for us fundraisers? If you plan to leverage your data by referencing a donor’s giving status (which is a good practice), make sure your data is accurate. Be as serious about your donors’ records as they are.

Lesson #2: Donors want to know that you are using their money effectively.

My dad is a scientist, so numbers matter to him. He wants to know that the money he is giving to organizations is being used to make a difference in the world. So if he doesn’t get that information, he will go to charity watchdog sites and make decisions based on efficiency measures like fundraising ratios.

What’s the lesson for fundraisers and anyone working in the non-profit world? Donors really are looking for information about how you use their money. Make sure they get it from you. Make your efficiency measures easy to find and understand so that people like my dad need not go to a third party to figure out whether you are putting his philanthropy to good use.

Lesson #3: Many donors (still) believe what we say.

So honor that trust by telling the truth. My dad related the story of an organization he had given to based on the promise that they would never ask him for money again. Unfortunately he didn’t see the little box on the reply form that he had to check to get them to keep that promise. After receiving a number of mailings and complaining numerous times, he finally got them to keep their word. But let me tell you, he never made another gift.

Now, I’m not saying this technique didn’t work for this group. Nor am I suggesting that we eliminate a strategy based on the complaints of one donor. But it sure does pay to ask yourself how you would feel if someone duped your mom or dad like that. Not a conclusion … just a thought.

Lesson #4: Remember why your donors support you.

Every time my dad tells me about a group he supports, he reminds me what they do. How does he know all this? It’s simple: this is what the organizations told him! And they did a good job because he has clearly made their messaging his own.

But I have never once heard my dad say that he is bored that a group is still doing the same old work. He’s never told me that one of his charities needs to mix up the messaging a little.

What’s the take home? You might be bored with your story but your loyal direct response donors probably aren’t. By all means, find new ways to illustrate how you are fulfilling your core mission. Tell new stories about the lives you have touched. But don’t forget the elevator speech that first motivated that donor, because repeating that is what keeps them giving.

Lesson #5: We impact the donors as well as the causes we serve.

This is perhaps the most valuable reminder I get from my dad: donors are more than an ID number in a database. They are thinking, feeling human beings who are truly impacted by the work we do.

When we do our jobs well and with sensitivity, we have the ability to empower, to educate and to inspire. We give people the opportunity to be a part of something that can change the world. What a beautiful opportunity — what a great responsibility. Thanks Dad!

eNews Signup

If you enjoyed this article and would like to be alerted when the next one is published, please enter your email address

Enews Articles

August 2017

Case Study: Using SMS to Get Donations at Year-End

May 2017

#17NTC 17 Tips for YOU!

February 2017

What (and Who) We Should Be Asking About State Laws

January 2017

2016 Digital Year-End: An Inbox Audit

September 2016

Production Blog

December 2015

An Ode to Sharing

October 2015

The Great Pumpkin and the Myth of the Unsolicited Donation

July 2015

Paradox of Choice

July 2015

#Bridge15 Take-aways

June 2015

Lady Gaga and the Importance of Relationships

May 2015

Back to the (Digital) Drawing Board

January 2015

My Four Fundraising Resolutions for 2015

November 2014

The Importance of Being Earnest

October 2014

AMMC Conference Teaches This Old Dog New Tricks

October 2014

Too Hot to Handle … How to Turn Warm Prospects into Donors

September 2014

Keeping Cross-channel Communications Consistent

August 2014

5 Tips for Better Fundraising Copy

June 2014

Keep Boredom out of the Boardroom

May 2014

Functional Creativity

April 2014

How to Raise Money from Baby Boomers

February 2014

Five Take Aways from the February DMA-NF Conference

January 2014

What Kind of Friend are You? Building Relationships That Last

December 2013

#GivingTuesday – Worth the Fuss?

November 2013

Donor Cultivation on a Budget

October 2013

1,500,050 Charities Making a Difference — A Statistic Donors Need To See

October 2013

The USPS Proposed Rate Hike — What Does It All Mean?

June 2013

Investing in Acquisition: How to Get Your Board on Board

May 2013

Redefining Charity Efficiency

May 2013

How Do You Measure Success in Acquisition?