nonprofit fundraisers

Giving makes people happy! I want all nonprofit fundraisers to get this straight, once and for all. 

Never, ever feel bad about asking people for a charitable gift. Especially those who are already affiliated with your organization so you know they have a positive association with you. People are always free to say “no.” But by now, it’s well established through MRI studies that even contemplating giving gives people a dopamine rush that brings joy. 

In our society we’ve become conditioned to believe money brings happiness. In fact, Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, social psychologist at the University of British Columbia, suggests being generous with others is a more effective way to feel joy than saving the money for oneself. Believe it or not, research shows to match the benefit of giving money away you’d have to earn twice as much money as you do now. And this was true for study participants in every income bracket. That’s a lot of ‘feel good.’

As nonprofit fundraisers, it is incumbent on you to proactively take actions to bring your constituents joy. I often say we’re in the “happiness delivery business.” 

If you reframe your work this way, everyone will win. Fundraising becomes a noble pursuit rather than an evil one. Please, I implore you, believe this fundamental truth about the merits of philanthropy. IT’S ALL GOOD. It’s good for the community, for your organization, for your donors and for you. 

Now… on to the ways you can, and must, deliver happiness. 

This is the essence of your job!

9 Strategies to Create Happier, More Generous Donors

1. Help—don’t sell.

Do you know what motto is channeled by the most effective businesses? It’s a powerful concept coined by Jay Baer of Convince and Convert, and it’s known as “youtility”— being useful and customer-centered. It extends to your fundraising.

Think from your prospective donor’s perspective: How will giving benefit them? Whenever human beings are faced with a decision, it’s natural for them to ask the WIFM question: “What’s in it for me?” Dismiss this natural instinct at your peril.

If you want gifts you must give them. For some useful ways to be helpful to your supporters, see 5 Action Tips for Nonprofits to Develop and Share Helpful Content.

2. Wrap rewards for giving into your appeal.

People have many, many options when it comes to spending their limited resources. So why should they choose to spend it on philanthropy? And why, specifically, should they give to you?

One of the keys to effective fundraising is confronting the donor with the bad things that would occur should your nonprofit cease to be able to fulfill on your mission. When you persuade them your mission is necessary, they’ll feel rewarded for helping you continue to exist.

I was struck by a Seth Godin post on the topic of cutting through the clutter:

“You’re trying to get through all the noise and the distraction and the clutter with your message.

Here’s the thing: You are the noise and the distraction and the clutter.

Just because it’s important to you doesn’t mean it’s important to us.

It is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

Instead of creating a campaign that somehow cuts and invades, consider creating a product, a service and a story that we’d miss if we couldn’t find it.”

You cut through the clutter by telling a compelling story the donor wants to embrace; one they’ll be rewarded for entering into. Make what you say relevant to people’s experiences. Help your donor associate your appeal with, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Help your donor connect with the value of, “Doing unto others as I would wish others would do unto me.”

I may not have a daughter with a disability, but as a parent, I can relate to wanting my daughter to have all the best life has to offer. I may not have been a hurricane victim, but as someone living in earthquake country, I can relate to how it must feel when disaster strikes. I may not be an immigrant fearing imminent deportation, but my parents were immigrants so I can relate. 

3. Help your donor feel connected to the impact of their giving.

In Elizabeth Dunne’s TED Talk, Helping Others Makes Us Happier, but it Matters How We Do It she notes there is a bit of a disconnect between some of the giving opportunities we face today and the kinds of helping behaviors that human beings evolved to enjoy. She notes: 

“Back in the day, in our evolutionary past, we were living in relatively small groups where everyone would have known each other. It would have been so vastly far removed from me entering my credit card into a website to help somebody on the other side of the world.” 

Your donors will get more benefit out of giving if they feel a sense of emotional connection, both to the beneficiaries of their philanthropy and to the outcomes their gifts make possible. It’s not that difficult to give folks the emotional return on investment they seek. Just show and tell! This means descriptive prose, stories, images and videos. Consider the following:

  • Send thank you letters from beneficiaries.
  • Share behind-the-scenes videos.
  • Send outcome reports. 
  • Add a “story of the month” to your e-newsletter or blog. 
  • Send a quick 15-second thank you video you record on your smart phone. 
  • Create special volunteer activities just for donors.
  • Take donors on field trips when things open up again.
  • Invite clients/beneficiaries to talk at meetings and events.

Make sure to add these “ways to connect” strategies to your donor love and loyalty plan, and get them calendared so they become more than good intentions. Donors will find this much more rewarding than receiving a pen, magnet or sticker.

4. Give your donor choice. 

No one feels good if they feel coerced or limited. So retire phrases like “I’m going to twist your arm” or “It’s time for me to hit you up.” Violence does not feel good! When you strong arm donors they don’t feel joy. And they won’t be likely to want to give to you again.

Similarly, don’t lecture donors or make them feel bad if they choose to earmark their gift for a particular purpose. Too often nonprofits get fixated on the notion the ‘best’ gifts are unrestricted. Not true! The best gifts are passionate gifts. And you’re more likely to engage your donor’s passions if you offer them giving options.

5. Offer your donor empathy.

Listening is one of the keys to effective fundraising. You’ll get nowhere unless you begin by taking stock of what is likely running through the minds of your supporters and those who rely on you

Right now, especially, people want you to check in with them. Treat your donors as people first. It’s not just about money. Donors want to be cared for and comforted. And you can do that! Ask them how they’re doing. See what’s keeping them up at night, and what’s bringing them sanity. Find out what they’re grateful for. And see how these things align with what you do.

6. Help your donor achieve meaning in their life.

For most people, meaning is deeply intertwined with community connections. Victor Frankl in his famous chronicle on the search for meaning wrote, “Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.” Remember, “philanthropy” means love of humankind.

Humans want to feel a sense of connection and a purpose to life. Giving (time, money, and energy) is a central way we strive to find meaning. If you’re familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you know that once people’s basic needs have been provided for, they begin to look to fulfill higher level needs. There’s a parallel Donor Hierarchy of Needs. It’s up to you to meet donor needs if you hope to succeed in facilitating philanthropy.

7. Give your donor a shot of dopamine.

The old adage, “It’s better to give than to receive,” may have a biological basis. As noted above, there’s a body of work in neuroscience and psychology showing the human brain is wired for generosity. Giving lights up the brain’s pleasure centers and brings joy!

Consider your fundraising appeals as ways to help your donors find true pleasure, then consider how to make the experience a true feel good.

Rather than filling your appeal with a litany of facts or an egocentric broadcasting of your nonprofit’s merits, tell a story that shows the donor how they can become a hero. And by ‘hero’ I mean a person who is admired. A person the donor can admire when they view their own reflection in the mirror. That’s what will capture their attention. That’s what will make them feel interested and energized.

8. Flatter your donor.

People respond to compliments; in fact, they crave them. Flattery is a gift. Sadly, criticism can be more free-flowing than praise in our society. When you help people feel appreciated and loved, you help them attain the highest goal to which most people aspire in their search for meaning.

  • If your donor gave previously, remind them of the good thing they did. People will tend to repeat good behaviors because they want to be consistent (see “Influence” by Robert Cialdini).
  • If they’ve yet to give, assume their best intentions. Encourage them by saying things like, “Because you care; I know you want to prevent this from happening;” “Your support means so much.” When you expect the best in people, you’ll often get it.

9. Help your donor feel good about giving.

Remember, there’s science underlying why people give. Brady Josephson wrote a wonderful article for the Huffington Post outlining how you can use this science to help donors feel good about giving. In a nutshell, he suggests you can maximize your donor’s happiness by suggesting:

  • Giving to specific projects. When gifts go to something concrete and tangible, it combats a sense of futility: Will my donation even make a difference? It makes donors feel they’re making a direct impact.
  • Giving more frequently in smaller amounts. Giving more often gives your donor a more frequent pleasure high. This is a great argument for a monthly giving program as a way to offer donors greater rewards.
  • Giving with no strings attached. When you offer tangible incentives, such as gifts (tote bags, mugs, t-shirts) in exchange for giving, this diminishes the pleasure high.
  • Giving when the donor knows who their donation will help. Studies on the “identifiable victim effect” prove people care more when you tell a story of one person they can help rather than offer data about countless people in peril.
  • Giving in public ways. It’s human nature to want to be recognized and appreciated for good deeds (even if a part of you feels this is braggadocios). Positive reinforcement works, so encourage donors to let their giving be made public. It has the side benefit of inspiring others to follow their lead, which leverages the value of their gift.

Final thoughts: Match individual good to greater good.

What’s good for your donors turns out to be good for your organization’s mission too. Your vision, mission and values — the greater goals that foster a sense of purpose — are ones that can potentially change the lives of others. Just check out this infographic about the science of happiness and the impact of finding purpose and being generous on our psyches. Think of ways to facilitate philanthropy, so donors can feel the joy of giving and feel happier. Fundraising is actually a demonstrated, concrete way to give to your supporters.  

I don’t believe I’ve ever honored a philanthropist (donor and/or volunteer) at an event or within a publication who hasn’t told me: “Claire, I get so much more out of this than what I put in.” This is no surprise to psychologists, who have long studied how the importance of fostering a sense of purpose in human beings leads to better physical and mental health. Indeed, a sense of purpose appears to have evolved in humans so we can accomplish big things together. Purpose is adaptive, in an evolutionary sense. It helps both individuals and the species to survive.

Convinced yet? I hope so.

Build a ‘happiness delivery plan.’ Now… go forth and facilitate some philanthropy!

donor love and loyalty

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.
Claire Axelrad