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What Are Donors Looking for Before They Give?
Donors from coast to coast want the same dozen things from the ministries, schools and mission organizations they support.

"What's the most satisfying gift you ever made?" I asked the question while interviewing a person who has made many donations to numerous Christian schools, ministries and mission organizations. Several of those gifts have involved very large sums of money. My host was generous with his time and insights, and so I asked.

The willingness of donors to grapple with complex issues and dynamics is often underestimated.

Learning insights about giving is actually part of my job. My colleagues and I have interviewed many hundreds of people, exploring the likelihood that current supporters of our clients might endorse and support some proposed initiative. The interviews are confidential—we don't report what individuals say—but their comments strongly influence the advice we give.

Some topics come up repeatedly in these interviews, even though issues vary, theological convictions span the Christian spectrum, and the visions range from the timid to the seemingly impossible. Donors from coast to coast want the same dozen things from the ministries, schools and mission organizations they support. We often debate which are most important, but here at least are what my colleagues and I have identified as the dozen desires of the thoughtful donor.

1. Clarity—"Show me why you exist and what your work will accomplish." Mission and vision are paramount. During one study several long-time donors told us, "I don't know what they do anymore. … I don't have any idea what their vision is." Their financial support is on the verge of evaporating, whether either party recognizes it now.

2. Passion—"Show me something to care about." Everyone responds to passion. It's contagious, it's convincing and it energizes people. A passion for Christ, for mission and for this specific ministry is vital. If the person displaying the passion is credible, people are drawn to the cause and are much more open to joining in.

3. Goals—"Describe concrete results of your work and our gifts." Most donors increasingly want to support efforts to reach goals that can be measured. Christians still show some willingness to fund noble striving for which no immediate outcome can be measured or even described, but only if the trust between donors and the organization is exceptionally strong. More and more, however, people ask Christian ministries to describe the discernible, measurable outcomes of the activity.

4. Accountability—"Please don't make me ask you to report." Accountability is the heartbeat of lasting donor relationships. Simply put, asking for accountability is asking for transparency: "Tell me what you'll do with my gift; use my gift the way you said you would; tell me the results; and give me the information and tools to evaluate that result."

Concerns over accountability are behind the puzzlement of many organizations who struggle in their efforts to endow their operating budgets. Donors tell us, "Why would I give to an endowment? That's money now for unspecified purposes later—there's no accountability." (Endowments for academic chairs may be something of an exception. They are still challenging, but the practice is well established and the activity being funded is clearly defined.)

5. Leadership—"Show us how you are helping to set the pace for everyone in your field." If your organization demonstrates leadership in its field your supporters will believe they are getting greater impact from their gift and making a contribution to the whole field.

6. Strategy—"Show me a credible plan." Donors want to know administrators are thinking strategically about needs and issues and are able to make critical adjustments as circumstances warrant. Good analysis and planning, carefully communicated, create confidence and bolster enthusiasm.

7. Authenticity—"Tell me the truth about the work you do." Thoughtful donors expect that what you promote is real and reflects the true priorities and convictions of the organization and its leadership. The willingness of donors to grapple with complex issues and dynamics is often underestimated. If they sense you are truly opening the doors to them, they'll rise to the task.

8. Relationship—"Show me that I am known." We interviewed a person who had supported our client very generously for more than a decade and had served as chair of the board for much of that time. The individual showed us appeal letters from the organization addressed "Dear friend." He asked: "Who am I to these people?" To him, the generic appeal letter simply negated what he thought was a two-way relationship.

9. Stewardship—"Be reasonable about costs." Definitions of what is "reasonable" vary, but everyone looks for evidence that the organization is efficiently managing its operations so that the costs of fundraising, communications and administration are acceptable.

Intelligent donors (most people) don't expect things to be done for free, nor do they expect ministry staff to live in poverty or work without resources. At the same time, none will accept a cavalier attitude towards expenses.

10. Respect—"I accept that you should ask me. You should accept that I may say 'No.'" Respect is central to a genuine relationship between a supporter and an organization. People's circumstances change. So do their priorities. Yet many donors think that organizations act presumptuously towards them, as though support in the past creates an obligation for support in the future. If they are confident that a "no" will be received in good faith and respected as a responsible choice, donors will be wide open to a new request or proposal, or an appeal for emergencies, or simply to renew past support.

11. Significance—"Show me how to do something important." Nothing motivates people more than the desire to make a difference in the world. Dozens of fundraising texts tell us that "People give to people" and that "People give to mission and vision." Behind those truisms is the deep desire to be part of changing things for the better. A direct connection between the donor and people being helped is very valuable.

12. Joy—"I need something to celebrate in my heart, not just affirm in my head." I deliberately use "joy" here instead of "pleasure." Donors experience "joy" when they can connect their gift with an individual and know they are making a difference—and when making that difference feels like fulfilling their personal calling. In those moments, giving is elevated from a Christian duty to a joyful experience. Most organizations cannot provide that experience all the time. But giving donors opportunities for such occasions is a true gift to the donor that greatly enhances their sense of being in a mutual relationship.

… what appeals to them are a dozen qualities that help them be sure they are being good stewards …

That's our list. Maybe there are more than a dozen desires, and donors are affected by other factors and have a variety of motives. But by and large, it's not gifts and premiums, and it's not even recognition and applause that attract people—what appeals to them are a dozen qualities that help them be sure they are being good stewards and making that crucial difference in the world.

Meanwhile, back in the comfortable living room of my genial host. "What's the most satisfying gift you ever made?" The briefest pause, then he told me about a gifted young man unable to afford the advanced education that would make the most of his gifts. "I paid for his education," my host said. I know of the person in question, who has made an enormous contribution in his profession and has himself been a very generous supporter of Christian ministries and charities.

I saw the light in the eyes of the man whose gift made it possible. Now, 20 years and hundreds of donations later, the satisfaction remains—because many of the dozen desires were fulfilled through that single event.

Larry Matthews, a former journalist and former editor of Faith Today, is vice-president of KMA Consultants in Toronto.

Related article

Tips from Fundraisers

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2004.




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