legacy gift intent

Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants advice on whether or not it’s a good idea to announce and share a financial goal for their fundraising campaign. 

Dear Charity Clairity,

My supervisor and I are disagreeing about whether or not to announce a financial goal for our fundraising campaign and, if so, when to share it. He’s worried we may not reach the goal; I’m worried we may exceed it. What happens then? 

I’m also wondering if using a fundraising thermometer to track progress toward the goal makes sense. I have some board members who want to try that, but I worry it’s a little cheesy. What do you think?

— Goal Averse

Dear Goal Averse,

Before I share some data about how donors respond to publicly-stated fundraising goals, I want to be clear: It’s not as simple as saying “stating a goal is more effective than not stating a goal” or vice versa. Some donors might respond well to “just” announcing the goal while others might respond positively to watching a dynamic thermometer change as donations come in. 

For example: 

  • A nonprofit may simply announce a fundraising goal. This gives the donor an idea of how they could meaningfully contribute and how they could move the nonprofit closer to the goal.
  • A nonprofit may use a dynamic fundraising thermometer. This makes it possible for donors to see the impact of their giving in real time. 

There are other factors involved too. A blue thermometer might do better than a red one for one nonprofit but not another. A thermometer placed above the fold might outperform one placed below the fold. 

In other words, what works depends on multiple variables—some of which you can’t control or simply don’t know right now.

Here’s how you can figure out some of those variables: Test for them. This means if someone says, “We tried that once; it didn’t work,” don’t take that to mean that it will never work. After all, there are multiple ways to implement one strategy. 

So, let’s begin with what we know about publicly establishing fundraising goals and what tends to work. As you’ll see, sharing a goal can motivate people to give and might be a compelling enough reason to try it out for your campaign.  

1. People are motivated to give when a nonprofit’s fundraising goal is close to being reached.

Evidence points to the fact that people are motivated to give when there’s a specific target—provided you’re close to reaching it. This is the reason many capital campaigns don’t go to the “public phase” until they’ve raised the lion’s share of their goal through individual major gifts. 

Once you approach the 65-80% of your goal, two things kick in:

  1. The amount being asked (what’s left to raise) seems reasonable because it’s within reach. Donors who can only contribute a small amount (compared to the major donors) feel their gift is more than a mere drop in the bucket, which might be the case if they’d been presented with the larger goal before any funds were raised.
  2. The fact that so many others have already given triggers the psychological persuasion principle of social proof. When people see others have given you a thumbs up (in the form of donations), they’re more likely to follow suit. People prefer to give when you’re close to your goal and success is assured, so they can be part of a winning team.

2. Using a fundraising thermometer can create a sense of urgency and motivate donors to give. 

Research shows fundraising thermometers can create a sense of urgency that drives more donations. Being able to view the thermometer provides instant feedback of which people are more likely to take note and remember. 

With that in mind, the more dynamic you can make the thermometers, the better. People love the instant gratification of making a gift and seeing the thermometer inch closer to its goal. 

Plus there’s the added benefit of feeling like you’re a part of a larger community, all pulling together to make something good happen. 

You can download a free thermometer template here. You can read about some variations on a traditional thermometer here.

By the way, if you blow past your goal, you can let people know that and say you’re increasing the amount you want to raise. Again, people like being on the success train, so raising more money—and doing more good—is a win/win.  

Just be sure to be up front about what you’re doing so donors know where that “extra” money is going. 

3. People give more money when they know the impact of their giving. 

This likely won’t surprise you: Research shows people give more generously when they know the precise impact of their giving. One study asked half the donors to give $10 generally to UNICEF (no project goal); the other asked them to give to purchase mosquito nets ($10 per net goal). Donors giving to purchase the nets reported greater happiness and were more likely to give again.

So, when choosing if or how to display your goal, consider how you talk about what reaching that goal will mean for the people you serve. Be as specific as possible and those impacts to specific donation amounts. 

I hope that inspires you to test something new (stating your goal and/or using a thermometer) and that you have a successful fundraising campaign!

– Charity Clairity

Have a question for our Fundraising Coach?

Please submit your question here. Remember, there are no stupid questions! If you need an answer, it’s likely someone else does too. So help your colleagues by asking away. Please use a pseudonym, like “Goal Averse” did, if you prefer to be anonymous.

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.