Ten things I’ve learned from people who make donations to charity

  1. People like giving, and often feel awkward about  being thanked for it. But secretly, they appreciate it.
  2. How a donor responds to direct mail is often different from what they say they want. Why do you think so many charities use frills (like mailing labels)? They make a lot more money than they cost. I don’t love frills personally, but there is a lot of hard data to suggest that they work. And that’s just one example.
  3. Giving is emotional, not rational. We might rationalize it, we might want to see evidence, but the impulse that triggers the gift is an emotion.
  4. Older ladies and gentlemen who have time to talk can be enlightening. I spoke with a woman who grew up in war-torn Eastern Europe. She learned how to cook and feed her family in an extremely difficult situation. She hated cooking, but she was an expert at preparing and storing the most food possible. She wanted to make donations because she understood, on a very personal level, what it means to go hungry.
  5. Different charities very often have different groups of people who donate to them, meaning there is less competition than you would think. The kind of person who might want to donate to Lincoln Centre is often very different from someone who may donate to a hunger relief organization. Is there cross-over? Of course! But understanding motivations for different types of gifts is critical.
  6. Arts organizations walk a fine line between providing professional productions and selling out houses (which are important for grants, publicity, revenue, and reviews) and also clearly demonstrating need. Simply put, a person who walks into a beautiful theatre to see a sold out show will have a hard time understanding why that theatre needs support. They might still donate out of principle, or for prestige, or for naming rights, or through a personal or Board connection…but it doesn’t have the same perceived urgency. Arts fundraising is tough.
  7. People are more generous than we give them credit for. And while we celebrate the wealthy 5% who give large sums of money to build programs/schools/theatres/hospital wings, we should also celebrate the senior who gives $5, $10, or $25 every year on a fixed income. Because that money is incredibly hard to part with when you’re just making ends meet.
  8. Rich people are, surprisingly, just like not-rich people, and often like to be treated like they aren’t walking money bags! Imagine that?!?
  9. Donors want to be respected and listened to. If somebody asks to be taken off a mailing list, they get pissed (rightfully) when they get mail the next year. All you can do is apologize and do your best to fix it for the future.
  10. The only way to learn what people want is by asking them, by testing, and by taking risks. We can make all the assumptions we want, but the reality is you can’t know anything if you don’t test. People like being asked for their opinions.

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