Up close and personal — that’s the nature of finding major gift donors. That may feel uncomfortable to you and your potential donor. That explains why donors can seem mysterious and elusive. You can break through the mystery by understanding some fairly universal principles that guide their actions.
To accomplish your major gift goals, you need to crack the “donor code” and understand what motivates their actions (as well as their inactions).
The Donor Code: 4 Guiding Principals
After nearly 20 years in the nonprofit sector, I’ve learned there are four key factors that guide just about every donor action.
1. Donors feed off of your energy.
People are wired to be helpful — especially those who are already your supporters and volunteers.
When you approach people to help with your important cause, keep a positive attitude. Assume they will want to help rather than assuming they won’t. I once worked with a woman named Nelly who always assumed the worst. We’ll call her Negative Nelly. How do you think she spent her time?
Nelly would waste time playing on the internet, and hang around the water cooler and complain that she didn’t have any good prospects. No wonder she didn’t raise any money. It was a self-fulfilling prophesy.
At another organization, I worked with Paula. We’ll caller her Positive Paula. Paula assumed everyone she met would want to give. “After all,” she said, “why wouldn’t they?”
So whenever Paula went to meet with a potential donor, this was her attitude: “I don’t know what they are going to give or how much, but I’m off to find out!” … while Negative Nelly said, “I know they won’t meet with me, so what’s the point?
Check your attitude. Do you assume the worst like Negative Nelly or the best like Positive Paula? Donors feed off your energy – positive or negative, they’ll respond accordingly.
2. Donors don’t like saying ‘no.’
Saying no is difficult to do when someone truly needs help. Everyone knows, at some level, they may need (or have needed) someone’s help.
Potential donors have shown enough interest in your organization that you’re pursuing them as a major gift donor. They want to help. And it’s hard to say no to a direct request.
Who can say no to a child selling lemonade when they ask, “Would you like to buy a glass of lemonade?”
Saying no is so difficult there have been recent books about how to say no on the bestseller list.
If you present a compelling story — a human story — they won’t say no, but will inevitably ask:
What they are able or willing to help with may not be exactly how you wanted them to help, but they are likely to do something.
If you don’t ask, you won’t get. Ask for what you need — you never know what you’ll get.
3. Donors want to feel inspired.
Helping and giving feel good. There’s plenty of studies and documentation supporting this.
If you can make giving feel good by demonstrating the impact a gift makes, then your donors will want to give again and again.
Laura donates to a literacy organization because she believes everyone should be able to read. She can’t help everyone — she doesn’t have the resources for that, but she wants to make a difference.
One day, she gets a shakily written letter from Kim, who is learning to read and write as an adult, thanks to the support Laura has provided. Kim tells of the frustration of not being able to read her children a bedtime story, or a note from their teacher, or even the label on her medication. Kim has been too embarrassed to apply for work, because she couldn’t fill out a basic job application. However, with lots of hard work and support from the literacy center, she is beginning to read and write.
Thanks to Laura’s support, Kim now reads with her kids every night and has gotten a job at a local store. Laura has changed Kim’s life in profound ways. And thanks to Kim’s letter, Laura knows she made a real difference.
4. The first gift will not be the largest gift your donors give.
This might be the most important takeaway. The first gift you receive from a donor is not likely to be the largest gift they give. When getting started with raising major gifts, this is very important.
Most development directors stress over how much to ask for, but the specific amount is really not that important. Ask them to double, triple, or even give ten times their average prior gift amount. Unless you have lots of experience and a team of researchers to back you up, it’s unlikely you’ll know exactly how much to ask for.
Remember, a donor’s first gift, or even their first “major” gift is rarely their largest, so just practice asking for more. This will also get your donors accustomed to giving more to your organization.
If they truly understand how they’ve made a difference with their past giving, as well as how grateful you are, the first gift will not be their largest, nor their last. So don’t worry about pinning down the “right” ask amount.
Think about it this way … if your ten largest donors double their gifts this year, wouldn’t that be incredible?
Could they potentially give more? Yes. But have they been? No!
So stop worrying about woulda, coulda, shoulda. Just ask. And keep your eye on the prize … their 5th and 10th gifts, and ultimately even a planned gift.
Donors Are People, Too
Here’s the thing: Donors are just people.
A mentor once told me that the richest people in the world put on their pants one leg at a time, just like you and I do. They have hopes and dreams, heartache, loneliness, and a desire for human connection. Treat them like you would like to be treated with kindness and respect and they will respond in kind.
One of the wealthiest donors I ever worked with lost a child to cancer. All the money in the world couldn’t stop that heartache. Remember — your donors are people with real problems, too.
One key difference about extremely wealthy people is that many other people are likely trying to ask them for money as well. Try to get to know them first. That will make you stand out from all the others who are only after one thing.
You can learn even more factors to crack the donor code in my online course, Mastering Major Gifts. In the course, you’ll learn how to motivate and inspire people to give, as well as how to ask for major gifts in a powerful way. Register today!