Request a Demo Search

Your Top-Secret Fundraising Tool? Empathy.

empathy as a fundraising tool
Topics -

Easily Manage Your Donor & Fundraising Needs in Bloomerang!

Schedule a Demo

The other day I spoke with a major gift fundraiser who had quit her job with a large health care facility. Why? She couldn’t stand the focus on metrics as the reference point against which her work was evaluated. Everything was about numbers and, for her, this prevented her from focusing on truly building relationships with the donors to whom she was assigned.

I understood her perspective and immediately shared with her this similar take from another professional fundraising expert. Numbers and measurements have their place, but there is an administrative function to them. They are about order, not emotion.

Robots are about order. People are about emotion.

Unless your donors are AI-enabled (not yet!), you need to relate to them like the humans you both are.

And human beings have feelings galore. Emotive feelings connect us to others in strong, emotional ways (numbers only connect us to a spreadsheet).

And that emotional connection is the point.

What if we could come from a place of feelings in all we do? 

And not just any feelings, but connecting, understanding, and coming-from-a-place-of-love feelings? Wouldn’t our relationships, our work, our community, and the entire world benefit and become a better place?

That’s what philanthropy is all about

The word literally means the feeling of love (philos) towards humankind (anthropos).

When we forget to be philanthropic in our approach to major (or any) donors, we forget to place a value on our shared humanity.

Of course, the idea of loving all of humanity may seem too abstract. Or perhaps unattainable. If it’s too hard to summon up love (and sometimes it is), what if we could at least imagine stepping into another’s shoes?

Were we able to walk through the doors to greater understanding and compassion, we’d be able to avoid falling into the trap of othering and demonizing.

Just because people have money, or whatever privilege you ascribe to them, does not mean they don’t have problems.

If you can help them—especially by offering them opportunities to (1) be the change they want to see in the world, and (2) feel good about themselves—they’re more likely to help you.

The human tool to unlock philanthropy: empathy.

What if we could summon up a feeling that’s adjacent to love?

What if we could see what others have seen, do what they’ve done, fear what they’ve feared, feel what they’ve felt, and love what they love?

One of my favorite modern philosophers (at least that’s what I consider him to be) is Hugh MacLeod of The Gaping Void. In The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions he writes:

The word “empathy” comes from the Greek word “empatheia,” which is a combination of two words: “en,” meaning “in,” and “pathos,” meaning “feeling.”

Empathy, then, is “in-feeling:” the ability to step into someone else’s inner world and to see reality through their eyes.

It’s really hard to do any kind of business, any kind of meaningful work, without empathy.”

Empathy vs. love and sympathy

The thing about empathy, unlike love, is it doesn’t require any sort of attraction, affection, or intimacy.

Let’s get back to the powerful notion of philanthropy as love (a strong emotional feeling) of humankind. It turns out the emotional feelings of love and empathy have a lot in common, even though they’re different.

  • You can have empathy for a stranger across the world in crisis, even though you don’t love them. Just as you can have love for an estranged relative or past significant other, even though your empathy for them has long vanished.
  • Empathy and love both enable commitment to another being. Love implies ongoing dedication, while empathic action can take place on a single occasion.
  • Empathy and love both unleash powerful positive feelings. Research shows these involve our neurotransmitters and hormones such as serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine.

When you can unleash the veritable biological orchestra working in the background of activating the emotionally rich tool of empathy, why wouldn’t you do this in your work of attracting, building, and maintaining donor relationships?

Useful tool: The emotional pathway of empathy

Empathy, compared with love, is a more tactical way of connecting with others.

It begins with (1) becoming aware of and honoring another’s perspective, then (2) sitting with and thinking about that person’s feelings, and ultimately (3) taking supportive action.

Alas, it’s not something most of us are taught. 

It’s certainly not something most frontline fundraisers are taught. Though it’s arguable that donor-centered fundraising, as originally conceived by Penelope Burk, comes close. In recent years, however, there’s been a bit of a backlash against being “donor-centered,” so today I’d like to look at things through an empathy lens.

It turns out to be immensely powerful and personal.

FUNDRAISING EXAMPLE: Once I was engaged in an hour-plus phone conversation with a supporter who was a Holocaust survivor. She was telling me a harrowing story of escape from a concentration camp. I felt so much sympathy! So, I listened and listened and listened. Riveting for me; hopefully cathartic for her. Yet, in retrospect, I realize my connection to her was at a cognitive level. As demonstrated by the fact that, at a point where she was still in danger in the story, I thought I had to cut the call short to join a staff meeting. I said, “I’m so sorry.” Did I really have to attend that meeting? At the very least, I should have called her back. I didn’t. I hadn’t yet learned the empathy lesson of putting myself in her shoes. She passed away; I never learned the end of the story. I haven’t quite forgiven myself to this day.

To help your donor feel connected requires you to connect as well.

Empathy helps you connect. When you become curious and ask genuine, curious, engaging questions, you’re able to join your donor’s story. Research shows that when we enter into a story world, our thinking is altered.

By hearing, entering, and sharing each other’s stories, mere cognition becomes an emotional connection.

When you become an important part of your donor’s life, they’ll be inclined to reciprocate and become a part of the life of your organization. Aside from a benefit to your charity, this connection also enriches your own life.

Less useful tool: The cognitive blueprint of sympathy

Empathy is distinct from sympathy, which concerns the feelings of the listener rather than the person needing support. Empathy is more emotional; sympathy, more cognitive.

When you come from a place of sympathy, you don’t productively relate to the other person because you don’t validate their feelings. You merely pity them. It’s a more transactional stance, rather than a transformational one that makes the other person feel good. Nothing can really come of it, because it’s a one-time thing. “I am so sorry” makes you helpless, not helpful.

PERSONAL EXAMPLE: A friend of mine contracted long COVID before there were vaccines or treatments. He went from one bad symptom to the next. He said he was afraid he wouldn’t make it. My response was to sympathize and tell him he’d beat this because he was so healthy in every other way (vegan, weight lifter, avid walker, non-smoker). While this was meant to be comforting, this didn’t validate his fear. I was giving him magical thinking and a hopeful thumbs up when what he wanted was for me to understand he was afraid, join him in his feelings, and offer him a warm, embracing hug showing I felt connected to him, not sorry for him.

“Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection.”

– Brené Brown

How to activate a practice of empathy

Consider this: you must practice empathy not just with beneficiaries of your mission, but also with people who generously support your work. 

I’ve long been stunned how even human services organizations (with missions to relieve suffering and help people live their best lives possible), do not extend this helpful, generous stance to funders. In recent years, this has even morphed into a righteous position of not kowtowing to donors because of a perception they’re privileged and, therefore, non-deserving.

Doing important work requires solving problems for others. 

Donors included.

Don’t assume why donors give to you; find out!

To arrive at a place where you’re able to do this takes commitment, courage, active curiosity, and lots of practice using energetic listening skills.

If you don’t know your donors’ problems, you can’t help them solve them.

And if you can’t help donors solve their problems, why should they help you solve yours? You see, the most passionate philanthropy is based on a value-for-value exchange. You give, you get. They give, they get.

All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbors—in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.

– Mr. Rogers

If you help others, they’re more likely to help you

If you really think about it, giving benefits to donors (albeit mostly intangibles—but important ones!—like meaning, purpose, and joy) should be part and parcel of your “social benefit sector” mission. Stop defining yourself by what you’re not (i.e. nonprofit) and start identifying with who you existentially are.

It’s not “we’re giving to nonprofit because we think nonprofits are good.” Rather, it’s the values you enact and the things you do, because you fervently believe in their social benefit. And donors join you in this belief, because it makes them feel good to do so.

  • “We feed people, because no one should be hungry.”
  • “We rescue dogs, because no living being should be tortured or abandoned.”
  • “We plant trees, because they help heal our planet.”
  • “We train professional musicians, because music soothes the savage beast.”

All philanthropy is a value-for-value exchange.

TIP: Just because people have money, or are white, able-bodied, handsome, cisgender, or advantaged in whatever way you deem them to be privileged, does not mean they don’t have problems. If you can help them, they’re more likely to help you. Consider activating one of the psychological principles of influence heralded by Robert Cialdini: reciprocity. If you want gifts, give them.

Care about and honor your donors

Let’s face it: sometimes your donor doesn’t want to give what you asked them for. Or they don’t want to continue giving at all. Do you just give up? No! Obviously, they cared about what you do at some point, so what’s making them feel differently now? Maybe it’s something you can fix. Maybe not. You want to find out.

But you don’t want to do so in the context of what appears like arguing with your donor. You don’t even want to think in argumentative terms. Trust me; it will come out in the tone of your voice or your body language. “What do you mean you can’t afford to do this right now? I know you just took a very expensive vacation! You’ve clearly got the resources. You’re just being stingy.” Don’t set up your conversation as a finger-pointing session. Don’t make your donor feel bad. Come from a place of love and appreciation.

Your mission is to understand your donors.

Get inside your donor’s head

Use whatever understanding and imagination you can muster to connect to what your donor is feeling. This is a key to empathy. It’s also a key to cultivating loving awareness.

“As we struggle under the weight of global disease: physical, mental, and spiritual on both the personal and collective front, and ranging from societal collapses of all kinds to planetary crisis—it appears that every human system, from family to education to work to healthcare to social care to politics, is breaking down at a faster rate and on a larger scale than the world has ever before experienced. And more and more of us are re-teaching, remembering, reaching for the core knowledge and wisdom that many call the birthright of humanity: Love. Love as ethic; love as practice; love as the root of all we do. For if all we do is based in love for all, we can’t go wrong.”

– Sará King, Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine, winter 2023

When talking with supporters who offer reasons for not giving to you now (like “I didn’t like the position you took on that issue;” “I’m giving now to XYZ disaster;” or “I have to send my kids to college this year,”), ask generative, open-ended questions to show interest in their perspective. Precede these questions using the words “feel,” “felt,” and “found.” These words are all about demonstrating empathy.

  • I feel your pain.” What’s the most important part of what’s troubling you right now?
  • I’ve felt that way myself.” Tell me a bit about what you’re finding now.
  • I’ve found that… Is there anything that might shift your feeling? What would your dream be? Then, you can offer an alternative way to think about the situation.

In other words, whenever your donor raises an objection to giving at any particular point in time you join them where they are, show them empathy and understanding, and move on gently from there – slowly building a harmonious relationship. One which enables you and your donor to make beautiful music. Together.

Final thoughts: How empathy can save the world

Success in fundraising today—what I prefer to call philanthropy facilitation—relies on being able to forge meaningful, radical connections with supporters.

[T]o do meaningful, important work requires solving problems for others. And without empathy for others, it’s really hard to know what a real problem actually is.

Empathy makes you realize that everyone else’s inner life is just as complex as your own, and allows you to start working backwards from there, as opposed to just assuming you already have all the answers.

Not a bad way to spend a career.

Hugh MacLeod, The Gaping Void

Don’t just think about what you can or cannot get from another person. Think about what you can give.

How to Write a Fundraising Plan in 2 Steps!

Download the eBook

Exclusive Resources

Related Articles


Leave a reply