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A New Nonprofit Donor Paradigm: Thoughtful And Passionate Gifts

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For years we’ve talked about donors from the perspective of moving them up a “pyramid” or “ladder.” In Part 1 of this two-part series, we discussed the fact it doesn’t really work that way. Especially not in our digitally revolutionized marketplace where you must actively pull supporters towards your magnetic center rather than pushing out energy likely to dissipate before it does your cause any good. Outbound (push) marketing no longer rules. Today’s most effective marketers engage in inbound (pull) marketing

Which is why I advocate retiring the old donor pyramid in favor of a dynamic energy vortex. And I also prefer a new donor paradigm that doesn’t look at donors from top to bottom based simply on the size of their gift. Let’s look, instead, at the energy their gift represents.

A new donor paradigm for nonprofits

In Part 1 I suggested some different categories for gifts. We looked at the first two; today we’ll cover the latter two.

  1. First-time
  2. Habitual
  3. Thoughtful
  4. Passionate

3. Thoughtful

Thoughtful donors put some energy into determining the specific amount and purpose of their gift. They don’t act on a whim, but engage in planning. These gifts tend to be larger in size than new and habitual gifts, but even a first-time $100 gift generally takes some thought for most folks. Thoughtful gifts are not the largest gift these donors can give. 

GENERAL RULE: Treat thoughtful donors with special attention. Assign someone to connect with them on a scheduled basis, just to show you care about them for more than their money. They’ve put thought into the giving; you should reciprocate by putting thought into the giving back.

ACTION STRATEGIES to pull thoughtful donors towards the vortex center:

  1. Reciprocate. If you want gifts, you must give them. Think about what you have to offer that donors may want; give it to them. The gifts don’t need to be tangible. Often folks are looking simply for gratitude, personal connection, attachment to community, feeling of belonging, greater purpose and a sense of identity. This is something you can give.
  2. Flatter deliberately and sincerely. We all respond to compliments. Take the time to consider what you’re grateful to each donor for. If you’re a small organization you can do this for each donor individually. Let them know with a handwritten thank you note, or a personalized email, text, or video. If you are larger, think about what these thoughtful donors, collectively, make possible. Thank them for the purposeful thing they’ve done. “Your giving to our hospital is appreciated” is not the same as “Your giving to cure cancer makes you a visionary leader.”
  3. Develop a donor love and loyalty plan. In addition to delivering gratitude and sending an engagement survey, it’s a good idea to reach out and touch thoughtful donors more than once throughout the year. I strive for every other month. Grab some ideas in this Donor Love and Loyalty Worksheet.

4. Passionate

Passionate donors make gifts that are both thoughtful and stretch. They represent the pinnacle of philanthropy, and can be found at the core of your donor vortex. 

GENERAL RULE: Sustaining this level of energetic investment takes proactive work on your part. You won’t always be able to keep donors here, depending on what else is going on in the world and their lives, but they definitely won’t stay here on their own. The magnetic force ebbs unless you refresh it.

ACTION STRATEGIES to keep passionate donors at the vortex center:

  1. Do everything you do with thoughtful donors, but on steroids. You can spend a little more to offer meaningful gifts of gratitude (the guideline I’ve always used is don’t spend more than 1 – 3% of the value of the donation.) That’s actually a lot more money than you probably need to spend to offer something meaningful. The old adage “It’s the thought that counts” definitely applies. What about just delivering a bouquet of balloons for a special occasion? Or you could call the donor up and have several of your staff join in a “Happy Birthday to You” serenade. You can find 72 creative thank you ideas here.
  2. As you engage, make a concerted effort to “qualify” donors to be included in your major gift portfolio. Not all donors want the “on steroids” treatment, so it’s good to assess this through some gentle qualification steps.
  3. Develop an individualized plan to nurture qualified major donors towards a more passionate annual, capital, or legacy gift. Major individual gifts generally account for 80 to 95% of total contribution income, so it’s well worth spending the lion’s share of your time nurturing these folks’ support. And that means driving real engagement. Don’t just do things to donors, but with them. Donors increasingly want to take an active role in how their money is spent.
  4. Tell more stories. Human beings are wired for storytelling. Reading or hearing a story, or watching a video, tends to release oxytocin (one of a trifecta of “feel good” chemicals” that encourage philanthropy). As it begins to flow, bonding increases, trust and empathy are enhanced, and this releases serotonin. Serotonin is associated with many pleasant things, such as good sleep, positive memories, and increased passion – leading to folks wanting to jump into your story and even make a passionate gift to give the story a happy ending. 

Think about the energy

Look at the forces drawing donors to you, and use the energy that most resonates with them to be the strongest magnet you can be.

For example, as we saw in Part 1 with the case of “Bill Generous,” a first-time gift – even one small in size — can be even more passionate than a larger gift from “Bill Gates.” You’ll only be able to discern this once you get to know Bill better, but don’t ignore the possibility. Expend some energy, using the recommended action steps in this two-part series, to find out.

Just because you’re no longer labelling folks by the “level” of their gift doesn’t mean you can’t use gift size as a clue to better inform your cultivation efforts moving forward. When a donor raises their hand with a first-time gift of $100, $500, or $1,000, they’re usually saying they can do more.

The energy vortex model focuses not just on the strength of dollars given, but on love and engagement freely offered. There’s no fixed entry or end point. As long as you keep the energy flowing, you will sustain the magnetic power that fuels philanthropy.

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