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Finding New Donors Requires Creating a New Market

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finding new donors

Think of your organization’s cause as a product.

Where do businesses go when they’ve got a product to sell? They go to one of three places:

  1. Existing customers (e.g., renewals)
  2. Customers who’ve purchased similar products (e.g., cross sales or upgrades)
  3. Brand new prospects (e.g., first-time sales)

Each type of sale requires a different strategy, with first-time sales being the trickiest.

The always provocative thinker, Seth Godin, has written about buying something for the first time. He notes there are only three kinds of sales, and the third is akin to a revolutionary act.

  1. Buying a refill, another unit of a service or product you’ve purchased before
  2. Switching to a new model/brand/style
  3. Buying something for the first time

Did you know one-third of people in the world have never made a true first-time purchase? They simply do what their parents/grandparents did. “My dad always bought Gillette razors, and so do I.” “My parents always bought Kenmore appliances from Sears, and so do I.” “My parents always donated to the Red Cross, and so do I.”

Here’s what the three types of sales look like for donors:

Renewing your donation is like buying a refill or replacement product. You know you like this charity. Targeted marketing works here, because the donor already trusts you. This is a ‘safe’ decision, and easy to make.

Giving to a different charity in the same category is like switching to a new brand when you’ve already given to a (hunger/AIDS/cancer) charity. It’s something you’ve already decided you value. You don’t have to be sold on the cause; just the service delivery model.

Making a first-time donation is like buying something for the first time, perhaps to the little arts organization in the neighborhood that you’d never heard of before last week. Mass marketing usually doesn’t work well to stimulate this purchase, because it’s hard to know who to target.

What if you’re a start-up organization that doesn’t have many donors?

How to Inspire the Revolutionary Act of Giving to Your Cause

If no one’s parents or friends have given to you… If no one knows you exist… If people are unclear about what you do… If people are making a decision from scratch, with no previous history with you or knowledge about your vision, mission and values…

Are you totally up the proverbial creek without a paddle?

Or is there a way to navigate towards your goal – getting new donors to support your mission?

Don’t worry. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. But…

Getting first-time donations is tricky, because you’ll need to create a new market.

The Classic Marketing Matrix Applied to Donor Acquisition

finding new donors

If you’re familiar with the marketing matrix, you’ll recognize these four modes of growing your reach and market share:

  1. The easiest and most cost-effective strategy is market penetration. In terms of donor development, you reach out with existing “products” (e.g., using better or more frequent messaging) to existing donors and try to raise additional and/or upgraded gifts.
  2. The next most cost-effective strategy is product development. You roll out a new strategy (e.g., monthly giving; P2P fundraising; event fundraising) for your existing markets.
  3. An equally cost-effective strategy is market development. You apply existing strategies to untapped markets.
  4. The least cost-effective, and riskiest, strategy is diversification. You develop a brand new “product” and attempt to sell it to a brand new market. This is a revolutionary act!

If your only choice is to go after first-time donors, you need to look at market development and diversification.

New Donor Market Development: Adopt a Revolutionary Mindset!

Let’s review the definition of revolutionary: “radically new or innovative; outside or beyond established procedure, principles…”

Here are five ways to reach out beyond your current markets to find new donors:

1. Leverage in-house lists

Take a look at non-donors who are affiliated with you in other ways (e.g., clients, volunteers, members, vendors, family members of affiliates and even social media followers). Consider how you might reach out by sending them one or more of your current fundraising appeals.

2. Exchange mailing lists

Could you trade names with other charities sharing similar constituent bases? Or would another organization be willing to send an appeal on your behalf? Sometimes business supporters are willing to send a “chaperoned” email to their employees, for example.

3. Rent direct mail lists

Consider working with a direct mail broker to purchase lists of folks who give to similar causes. Understand this is an expensive strategy that likely won’t pay off until you’ve retained the donors you acquire for approximately 18 months, so be sure you’ve got a donor acknowledgement and stewardship strategy in place to maximize the value of your investment.

4. Ask for personal referrals

Consider a “Let Your Friends Be Our Friends” campaign. Ask current supporters to refer new names of folks they believe may have an interest in your work. Begin by asking those closest to you (e.g., board, staff, volunteers and donors) for names from their networks. Don’t forget to ask folks if they’d be willing to add a personal note to the appeals sent to their contacts. Personalization makes a huge difference in rates of response!

5. Engage in online list-building

One productive strategy is to offer a benefit in exchange for signing up for your email list. It could be a white paper, “how-to” video, tip list or recommendations (e.g., favorite books related to your cause; recipes; things to do on the week-end, etc.). You can also acquire new names by implementing a social media strategy (e.g., by running an online quiz that requires players to give you their contact info in exchange for the opportunity to play, to share the results, or be eligible for other benefits).

Successful revolutions require planned harnessing of energy.

Doing anything new fruitfully necessitates a written plan with goals, measurable objectives and clearly defined tactics. For example, you might decide: (1) Goal: to raise an additional $20,000; (2) Objective: to increase the size of your snail mail or email mailing lists by 10%, and (3) Strategies: to use one or more of the list-building strategies suggested above.

Diversification: Find Your Revolutionaries!

Who’s leading the charge forward at your organization? Is it your board? Your founders? Your program staff? Other community leaders and volunteers? Grass roots activists? Current donors? Passion is contagious, so it absolutely makes sense to tap into the passions of those who already love what you do.

The best way to find passionate new supporters is to talk to passionate current supporters.

When you’re in diversification mode you’re looking for both new prospects and new strategies. Get people to give you names of people like them who might be interested in joining you. While you’re at it, ask you current supporters what they think would persuade new folks to support you. Sometimes you’ll get some really great suggestions.

TRUE STORY: When I worked at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, one donor told me she thought if she invited folks to her home to hear student musicians play she could get all her friends to attend and give.  We tried it… and it worked like gangbusters!  After that, in-home get-togethers with musicians became a “go-to” new donor acquisition strategy. A new strategy begat new donors.

TRUE STORY: When I worked at the San Francisco Food Bank, one donor suggested inviting her entire book group to come together in support of adopting a food pantry. As a result, one donor turned into a whole group of donors. And those donors suggested that the “Adopt a Pantry” program become a new “product.” New donors begat a new strategy.

Make it Tribal: Get Other Compatible Folks to Join the Revolution!

Human beings want to belong.  We want to be ‘members’ of something. We feel safe within a community of like-minded folks. It’s just human nature. True revolutionaries are rare, but we all want to join in movements that connect with our beliefs and enable us to be part of something larger than ourselves.

Identify compatible folks you can develop into active donors

The universe is big. Not everyone in it is a prospective supporter for your organization. The more narrowly you cast your net, the more likely you’ll capture those who want to join your tribe.

Begin with ABC.

“A” is for ability to give at the level you seek. “B” is for existing or potential belief in your cause. “C” is for connection between your organization and the prospect. These are important in reverse order, beginning with “C.”


When people have some sort of existing connection to you (e.g., they themselves or someone they know benefited from what you do or believes strongly in your mission), then you have a natural “in.”  So begin by mapping the networks of those closest to you, employees and volunteers. An established personal relationship with someone already affiliated with you increases the likelihood that a new donor prospect will give.


Of course, new prospects must be approached regarding a mission in which they believe. There are certain causes to which I’ll never give. Belief does not, however, equate with fanaticism. There are causes I may not be deeply passionate about, but I can connect with the mission enough to want to join in. For example, I may not have a child with a disability; I’m a parent, however, so I can empathize with what this might be like. Our human instinct towards empathy goes way, way back. In fact, Darwin posited the theory of “survival of the most empathic” because communities that banded together and relied on each other were, ultimately, the most “fit.” They survived. It’s useful to play into natural human instincts when you’re trying to develop a new market.


When you’re looking for major gifts, you don’t want to waste your energies on those who’ve little philanthropic capacity. At the same time, wealth alone is no reason to assume someone will be philanthropic. And it’s an even bigger leap to think they’ll make a gift to your cause.

The Power of Social Proof in Donor Acquisition

Aside from our instinct towards banding together as a community, when everybody is talking about something others want to get in on it. In fact, this is one of Cialdini’s principles of influence: social proof. And it’s one of the best ways to create a new market and grow your donor base.

Three great ways to invoke the power of social proof:

1. Testimonials

When you show you’ve got a large community behind you, you attract a crowd. You also demonstrate your trustworthiness. Use testimonials everywhere. On your website. In your annual report. In your newsletter. In your appeals. In your thank you letters. When you can tell a prospective new donor the option they’re considering is a good one, this short-cuts their decision-making process

2. Social Media

Social media can be really useful here, as you can demonstrate numbers through shares, follows and comments. Don’t forget LinkedIn groups and Facebook Live to begin and join in discussions. It’s a great way to demonstrate thought leadership and get your message across. So find your influencers and empower your peeps to share their passion for your cause with their online networks by giving them great visuals and fun/interesting messages to share!

3. Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Fundraising

Once you’ve built your tribe of satisfied stakeholders, let them do the talking for you. P2P fundraising puts your organization in touch with new donors at little to no cost. It’s an awesome donor acquisition tool. Volunteer fundraisers expand your army of askers and broaden your circle of influence. You’re suddenly able to find donors you’d never otherwise have had access to. I can’t endorse P2P as a new donor identification strategy strongly enough, especially in our digital age. If you ignore it, your base of support won’t build anywhere near as fast as it could.

The Critical Importance of Your Case for Support

Any article about new donor acquisition would be deficient without a fierce nod towards the importance of demonstrating the relevance of your case for support. You can’t acquire new donors unless you can quickly answer the questions: Why should I give to you? Why to you, and not someone else? Why now?

The path towards new donor acquisition follows these three steps:

  1. Demonstrate you have something to offer, and you’re meeting a pressing need.
  2. Show how you address the need differently, and more effectively, than anyone else.
  3. Be patient.

This is the same pathway businesses follow to acquire new customers. To paraphrase Seth Godin:

It’s not going to happen tomorrow, or the next time. It will happen because we show up. We settle in. We become part of the fabric of the community. Ideas spread within the community. When we consistently over deliver, then drip by drip, day by day, that’s how we change the world.

Think of it this way: No one knew they needed fidget spinners — until they did. A new market was created, and suddenly everyone wanted to become a part of it. Similarly, many people did not know they needed lawyers to protect the foundations of democracy they’d previously taken for granted — until the 2016 election came along and threw everyone for a loop. A new market was created for “rage donations,” and suddenly the ACLU was generating $24 million over a single week-end (when their previous annual total for online giving was just $4 million).

What problems do you solve that people may not know are in need of solutions?

Begin by taking a look at your best opportunity to attract support.

It’s always knocking; you just need to open the door! What do you do that aligns with what is in the news today? What will people likely consider relevant? What stories can you tell that will break people’s hearts, and restore their hope?

You’ve got to show a need people agree is an important issue, and one they’d like to see addressed. Then you’ve got to show why your organization is the best one to solve the problem. Then you’ve got to show this again. And again. And again. Often it takes seven impressions or more for folks who’ve never heard of you before to take notice.

Your “case” must be combined with strategic, consistent messaging. You can’t just make promises to folks who don’t yet know you; you must show you deliver on them.

In the case of the ACLU, they found a way to demonstrate their relevance in the current zeitgeist by consistently, and frequently, using social media to increase their reach and exposure. Through online marketing they were able to present their ongoing work alongside their responses to crises quickly and effectively, without the burden of postage or printing. They not only attracted new donors; they reinforced the commitment of existing members.

This requires perseverance, because folks must be brought along a continuum (sometimes called a “marketing funnel“) to get them to the point where they feel comfortable making a philanthropic gift. You’re not just educating your prospective supporter; you’re earning their trust with gifts of useful content.

When you give people something, they’re predisposed to want to give back.

The Bottom Line:

Everyone wants to make a difference. If you operate from the premise that people want to be engaged, then you can figure out who to best engage, how to best engage them and how to plan to persevere in so doing.  Equally important, be sure to have a plan in place to steward your new donors so that in the future they’ll become even easier to sell to — and spread their decision-making to their friends and relatives.

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