Ah, the perfect world: When we have plenty of money to do research and make decisions based on those well-education findings that provide a deep level of confidence. But most of us don’t live in the perfect world. In fact, we may only have money for the very basics—and donor research hardly fits that category in the minds of many non-fundraising decision-makers.
While “winning the lottery” and “find that pot of gold” are nice strategies to dream about, there are some more practical things you can do to get a better understanding of who your donors are—and they won’t require any more expenditure of your already stretched budget. Of course, none of these suggestions applies to every donor, which is why you need to use them all to get the best—albeit unscientific—representation possible.
Stop Looking in the Mirror
There is a good chance that your typical donor does not look (think or act) like you, especially if you are younger than 50 years of age. Yes, you’re heard and read this repeatedly, but the majority of donors do skew older. That’s not an indictment of younger people’s spending priorities or philanthropic tendencies; rather, it’s reality. When you are worrying about college loans, buying a house, putting braces on the kids and starting a college fund and a 401(k), making significant gifts to charity often is postponed. Once you have accomplished all those things and more, it’s easier to find disposable income that you can use any way you wish—and often, or at least some of that, goes to charity. Even if you are older, the mirror is still not an accurate reflection of your donors because the very fact that you are working at a nonprofit means that you have a different philanthropic understanding than others. This isn’t to say that you are better (or worse), but simply that you have an inside-out view of your cause rather than the view one gets when looking in from the outside.
What are your donors writing to you in letters and emails? Yes, some of them are angry rants and some are pure fluff, but if you make it a habit to read a random selection of written comments regularly, you can glean ideas that help you get a picture of a portion of your audience. What are they complaining about? While you don’t want to make a wholesale change based on three comments, if you start seeing something repeatedly, you may have found a place where a possibly quite simple change can pay off in terms of donor retention and giving. What are they praising? What makes them cry? What makes them feel proud? Those are the things you want to do more of.
Stop Catering to Insiders
In addition to not looking like you, your typical donor probably doesn’t look much like your leadership team of board members, either. After all, there’s a level of insider knowledge that few donors have—or want. While your appeal copy or e-newsletter may seem to your organization’s management team like “dumbing down” your amazing work, they are not the audience you need to communicate with. Your donors quite often don’t know what the acronyms mean or where a region where you work is located (if you aren’t local). Most of them won’t take the time to check online for the definition of “food insecurity,” “income eligible” or other terms we use that are accurate, but not donor-focused. Yes, we have to be true to the work we do and honoring to those we serve through our programs, but we also have to use appropriate terminology that a donor understands and can visualize in his or her head.
Answer calls from donors when you can. Call a few every week just to thank them for their donation and ask them what they love about your organization. It goes without saying that it is vital to talk to major donors and others who come to events. But call some of those who will never be at the gala or invited to an insider’s conference. These average donors can give you a window into the larger pool of donors who faithfully give. What do they enjoy reading about? What project especially speaks to them? What would they like to know more about? What makes them proud to be your donor?
You may have read about the recent study Temkin Group did to explore emotions consumers experience after taking a specific action. While this research related to consumers, Jeff Brooks noted that feeling excited, appreciated and happy leads to the greatest loyalty—and that certainly is applicable in fundraising, as well as consumer marketing. A thoughtful phone call that doesn’t ask for money, but strives to engage the donor and hear his or her thoughts about the organization is a great way to learn more about your donor—and to positively influence their excitement about the mission, their sense of being appreciated and their happiness about being a donor.
While this Stop-Start-Stop-Start plan makes no claim to be a replacement for scientific research, don’t give up when there is no budget for scientifically analyzing your donors and what makes them tic. Instead, pick up the phone or the written communication, put down the mirror and learn. No one donor represents the entirety of your donor file (well, I hope not!), but bit by bit, this old dog believes you will come to see what makes your donors special and how you can help them fall in love again and again with your cause.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.