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Michigan Women's Foundation
Women's Road Map
A Technical Assistance Newsletter
April/May 1999

Thinking Like a Donor by Karla Williams
The Mail Sack by Stephan Hitchcock
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Thinking Like a Donor
by Karla Williams

Human nature has us thinking about the world around us as if we were only its observers. We perceive things based on who we are -- shaped by our upbringing, values, experiences, and unique interests. Hence the famous quote from Anais Nin: "We don't see things as they are; we see them as we are." But when we're trying to determine how someone else will respond, we're encumbered by these same perceptions. It is hard work to "get outside ourselves" and "stand in someone else's shoes."

Given the shift in recent years from organizational-centered fund raising toward donor-centered relationship building, we must be mindful of the importance of putting aside our views, and attempt to think like our donors. Not as easy as it seems -- thinking like a donor is a demanding, difficult process.

Many a time, an enthusiastic young development professional has walked into my office with an innovative proposal for raising more money. Hearing the ideas and agreeing with the project's merit, I would ask her to take off her shoes and walk around the room.

Embarrassed by such an outrageous response to her carefully crafted concept, she would humor me and agree to "walk in the donor's shoes." I might ask: What kind of donors is this project designed for? How would you describe them, demographically and psychologically? Why would they be interested in this effort? Precisely how would they benefit? What indicators do you have to suggest they will participate? What are the external motivators necessary to elicit a response?

Often, with amazement, my visitor would begin to adjust her thinking, revisit each aspect, and with nodding agreement make changes to meet the needs and interests of the targeted donors. The process of thinking like a donor (becoming donor-centered) can be compared to the three-staged theory of marketing:

  1. Find out what the donor wants and needs (customer research),
  2. Determine how to meet those needs (product development and segmentation) and
  3. Present the right offer at the right time and right price (targeted product delivery and customer purchase).
Development professionals who design their programs based on donor research, donor segmentation, and donor targeting are light-years ahead of their counterparts who utilize methods that are solely based on the fund raiser's need to raise money.

Of course, for a comprehensive understanding of our donors, extensive research is required. But as a starting point we can begin to walk in their shoes by understanding basic human needs.

One elementary premise is that donors have feelings, thoughts, wants, and expectations. Another is, when those needs are met, donors are quite willing to give more (proven by the number of stories of donors who were so satisfied, they gave before they were asked-or more than asked for).

What do donors want?

Like us, donors want to support charitable ventures they're interested in. The old axiom, "they won't give unless asked," remains true, but to ask for something outside the donors realm of interest causes a negative effect -- not a neutral one.

Just as business has the right to generate, donors too have the right to exhibit special interests. No amount of begging or selling will alter their core interests, although a gift may come from such guilt or pressure.

Today's educated donors are quick to criticize our over-zealousness, and are easily annoyed by mass marketing. From their side of the street, the donors say: "They sure aren't doing their homework." Let us remember, gifts made with resistance have a long memory.

Donors also want the same kind of response we want -- thanks, thoughtfulness, respect, reminders, information, appreciation, and insider news. My custom is to give the donor as much, or more, in return. If the gift was $100, give $100 "worth" of appreciation. That, in my mind, translates to a thank you letter within 24 hours from the executive director; a personal note from a board member; a personalized invitation to the next donor event; and a report on how the gift was used six months hence.

With this kind of donor-attentiveness, comes an enhanced degree of self-esteem, a feeling of achievement, and a sense of belonging. The donor's shoes are beginning to fit.

What do donors feel?

Like us, donors feel they should get something in return for what they give. That is, a gift is an investment in something good, not a handout. If we think of the donor as an investor, we can relate.

As an investor, the donor feels attached to his gift, feels entitled to information about its use, and feels good when there is a return on the investment. And like all good investors, donors feel a sense of ownership for the organization and its purpose.

As an investor, the donor has the right to know how his stock is doing (how does the organization measure up)? Is it competitive with other stocks (are the services focused and/or diversified)? Who is investing the money, and are there gains (what are staff competencies)? Is there a good return, and is it being spent wisely (what is different as a result)?

Further, as an investor the donor is keenly interested in whether the stock splits (the service expands) or if the company is sold (who's in charge here)? Was the investment a wise one, and is it time to reinvest (did it do what it was expected)? What are the costs associated with the management of the investment; how much is allocated to overhead?

Some would say donors are particularly attached to their shoes; especially the ones broken in with use. So it is with donor relationships that result in charitable attachments and special interest partnerships. A lot has gone on between them.

What do donors think?

Like use, donors think twice about their purchasing decisions. Once, when they make it, and later when they question its merit -- "Did the organization really appreciate or need my gift?" This latest need for reassurance (characteristic of consumer behavior) requires that the fund raiser encourage the donor to think about making another gift -- soon. By doing so, we send a message that both the need is critical and the response has impact. In the absence of reassurance, a contrary message obscures the intent.

Having made a thoughtful gift, the donor thinks that everyone in the organization knows about it. Hardly practical on the surface, but we can accept that the right people ought to know -- for several reasons. First when a board member is aware of or acknowledges a donor gift, their own commitment grows. Second, when a donor is informally thanked by an organizational representative, the donor's commitment grows.

Needless to say, this kind of relationship-building depends upon shared information as well as shared responsibility for fundraising -- negating the notion of one person as a fund raiser.

When the donor is reassured and recognized, the donor believes they are important, and are valued. Not just another pair of shoes, disregarded with time.

What do donors expect?

Like good friends, donors expect to be invited back over and over again. As time and involvement pass, donors become more dedicated, conscientious, and adamant about the cause. They expect to be asked for their opinion on matters of importance. (Don't make the mistake of asking for advice, and not using it.) They expect to give more time and money.

Donors who are sufficiently inspired will serve as the organization's ambassadors, without an official appointment. If we are to fulfill their expectations, and meet our own, we best invite them to do the following: work at an event; join a committee; become a program volunteer; fill out a survey; offer expert advice and counsel; participate in a focus group; bring a friend to an event; make or secure an in-kind gift; identify people needing service; introduce prospects to the organization; host an event at home or work; and solicit others.

Understanding what our donors want and need isn't a new idea, but it is one requiring constant reinforcement and reflection. Donor motivations are complex and varied. The more fund raisers know about what donors want, feel, think and expect, the more the process of philanthropic fund raising will be improved, donor fatigue will be tempered, and precious resources will not be wasted.

These shoes were made for walking.

Reprinted with permission from Contributions, March/April 1998. Karla A Williams is the author of the book, Donor Focused Strategies for Annual Giving, and Principal of The Williams Group.

The Mail Sack
by Stephan Hitchcock

So that I avoid any major miscues, please provide what in you opinion are "The Seven Deadly Sins of Fund Raising Letter Writing?"

The first and most crippling flaw I see in so many letters is the tendency to write essays, rather than personal letters. When I'm drafting a letter, I'm always imagining a single donor, often someone I actually know. I try to "talk" with that person-carry on, if you will, an imaginary conversation-about why they might want to make a gift.

The second quality that deadens many fund raising letters is a style that's too stiff and formal. Fund raising letters should be chatty and friendly. To be sure, you can cross the line and presume a degree of intimacy that is inappropriate. But at the very least strive to use first and second person (I and you) and informal language (contractions and shorter words).

A third mistake many writers make is to forget to ask for a gift in a specific amount for a specific purpose by a specific date. For example, many letters are missing something like the following: "Please send a gift of $100 in the in the next 10 days so that we'll be able to provide a summer camp scholarship for a deserving student."

A fourth and very sad shortcoming in many fund raising letters is that they are unreadable. The cause is an important one and the letter is well written, but it turns out that it will take too much work in the part of the reader. Remember, even your best donors spend very little time glancing at your letters, and your best prospects are older persons -- many of whom no longer have the visual acuity of that 25-year-old staff person who designs your fund raising mail. Indented paragraphs, a serif type-face, 12-point type size, and paragraphs no more than seven lines long-all of these are essential to readability. In addition to being readable, a fund raising letter should also look like a letter.

A fifth mistake I see is foregoing a salutation, even if it's only "Dear Friend." (And don't say "Dear Friend," because then it's no longer a personal letter to an individual donor.) And be sure to have a traditional closing and signature -- "Sincerely, (signature), typed name, title." If you're able to personalize your letters, then be sure to include a date, an inside address, and a personal salutation ("Dear Mr. Murphy").

A sixth "sin" I've noticed in lots of letters is that, paradoxically, the letters are too short but the sentences and the words are too long. Remember, almost all of your donors aren't staff members and only a few of them are dedicated volunteers. You need to use some paper (preferably recycled paper) to provide some background, give some examples, and explain why a contribution is needed now. However, the story you tell will be more comprehensible and persuasive if most of your sentences are 12 to 14 words long. And don't trip up your readers with too many big words.

The seventh sin is in many ways the most deadly -- the lack of gratitude. Perhaps fund raisers feel they work so hard they forget their donors are extraordinary individuals in their own right. If you're writing to your current donors, use the second or third paragraph to thank them for their past support. And be sure to express appreciation and gratitude again before you close the letter. If you're writing prospective donors, communicate respect and appreciation for their civic-mindedness, their leadership in the community, or their understanding of urgent issues. P.S. Don't forget to include a P.S. in almost all of your fund raising letters. Use the postscript to suggest a dead-line, offer a premium, or add an extra reason to respond quickly to your appeal for funds.

This article is reprinted with permission from Contributions, May/June 1998.

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