Donors want more than ever to tell “their” story. Understanding “the story they want to tell” or what they want to achieve, is key to building a long-term beneficial relationship.
Letting donors tell their stories
The time, when we as fundraising organisations could ignore our donor’s ambitions is past. Understanding what the donor is trying to achieve through the relationship with a not-for-profit, is now key to building engagement and long-term support.
It may seem harsh to say that “fundraising organisations ignored donor ambitions”, but I think it is fair to say that too many organisations have focussed on their mission and if they carried a good group of donors along with them, then that was enough. There was far too much focus on the organisation, and their mission, and not enough on the donor.
It was possible to focus on an organisation mission when dealing with donors in the past. We still had lots of donors from the “responsible generation” (Those born between 1926 and 1946. See below). Such an approach fails today. The failure to listen to the donor and to understand the changing psychology of the donor has caused long-valued fundraising programmes to decline unnecessarily.
Figure 1: Missing the Point
Figure:1’s traditional representation of the “failure to communicate” is still a worthwhile “reality check” for Fundraisers and Communications Specialists in not-for-profits. Because of my current job, I receive dozens of communications from not-for-profits every week and I am sorry to say that most are still in the BLUE circle and not PURPLE.
Good traditional database-driven fundraising involves the maintenance of mutually beneficial relationships with thousands of people. It is fundamentally numbers-driven, in that the recency-frequency and amount model is good at predicting who will respond to any appeal. Good fundraisers know this. However, so many things have changed that we can no longer rely just on a purely mathematical model to describe our relationships.
- A Time of Change
The first and most profound change is in the psychology of the donor. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta https://www.cdc.gov describes 5 groups in its communication guidelines, tweens, teens, GEN-X, baby boomers and the “Responsible Generation”.
The change in psychology from the Responsible Generation who built wealth and passed it to the Baby Boomers is important. This change has continued and gained momentum in GEN-X and Millennials. So according to CDC, the Responsible Generation are characterised as people who;
They value discipline, self-denial, and hard work. They demonstrate obedience to authority, commitment, responsibility, and financial/social conformity.
They generally prefer face-to-face or written communication.”
We can see the responsible generation still in our databases, giving small reliable amounts often by cheque and giving an occasional bequest. For some organisations, these donors still represent their core support.
- The Baby Boomers (born 1946 and 1962) on the other hand;
Baby boomers’ first impressions are usually emotionally based, more durable, and more difficult to reverse than those of younger generations.
Baby boomers like to tell their stories, and the Internet has facilitated their "get it all out there and share it with the world" tendencies.”
This trend towards “telling my story” has continued and gathered pace in the children of Baby Boomers, who we dub GEN-X and the cohort that followed dubbed Millennials are further along this continuum.
The Baby Boomer generation started a trend towards “me”. It is vital to understand this trend towards me as “actor in my life” and me “telling my story”. The change is not dramatic but gradual. When ignored, change becomes a fundamental shift. Baby Boomers have been enthusiastic supporters of not-for-profits. GEN-X and Millennials can be as well.
GEN-X are a further development of the “me” focus. They are more powerful and self-confident than their parents and Millennials are a development again. It is very important we understand and respond to this. The “me” focus is not an expression of selfishness or self-absorption, it is an expression of individuality and personal power. In all surveys, GEN-X and Millennials respond as every bit as “value-driven” as their parents or grandparents. They are just more sceptical and want more involvement, transparency and accountability. This is an opportunity, not a threat. It becomes a threat if you ignore it.
These trends, towards personal empowerment and fulfilment, are facilitated by social media and mobile telecommunications. Who would have imagined 20 years ago a world in which everyone is a publisher? A world where sharing images of everything, from what we are eating (food porn) to disasters we are victims of, has become an intrinsic part of everyday life. That gives the individual donor the power to help you.
- Modelling the donor market
It is also worthwhile to think for a moment about the life journey of a donor, not in your organisation (that is a separate journey) but in their own life.
The biggest single factor influencing willingness to give is “ability to give” or income. The biggest factor influencing income is age. See this simple graphic.
Figure 2: A model of our changing attitude to charity giving as we age.
Although it is good to realise that not everyone follows a scripted life, many of us still move seamlessly through phases such as education, relationship, house purchase, children, middle age and retirement. Many do not and decisions around these issues are influenced by a range of social factors. However, everyone ages and for most, our income increases through our twenties and into our thirties or forties before plateauing in our 50s and then declining in our sixties.
Thus, in our teens and early twenties, we are faced with low incomes and probably student debt. Student debt and rising house prices have postponed house purchase and the stabilisation that brings. People in their twenties who are open to supporting not-for-profits are usually event supporters.
For most, we are in our thirties before the combination of income and life-choices allow us to express our values through philanthropy. The age of active and consistent philanthropy has probably moved due to student loans, with “classic” donors paying down student debt before giving regularly to charities. The age at which we first decide to have children (if we do) has moved and so to the age at which we express our values in a consistent way through philanthropy.
- Modelling the not-for-profit market
Another factor facing modern not-for-profit is the number of new entrants or start-up not-for-profits that provide a competitive voice in the market place. There are few cost barriers to establishing a not-for-profit and this leads to market splintering and multiple messages. The smart, nimble and innovative not-for-profits will win out in this battle for market attention.
So not-for-profits face a world that has profoundly changed. Many have only recognised the change recently. Because we must raise funds, not-for-profits have responded to this change in large part with event-driven fundraising which places the donor at the centre of the action in a tangible way. This works well and responds to the desire to “tell my story”.
The problem lies in that putting all their resources into creating events many not-for-profits have neglected or abandoned traditional or appeal-based fundraising. I am arguing that just like a reliance on Government Contracts or Trust Applications, reliance on Events is a loss of an opportunity. That opportunity is surely to raise funds. It is also to engage with, be accountable to and thank donors and supporters.
- Artificial Intelligence and Behavioural Economics
We are on the cusp of another technological revolution. With advances in technology particularly in Artificial Intelligence, but also in Behavioural Economics and Survey Technology we can get so much closer to the donor and what they are trying to achieve. We can truly be a pathway for their ambitions, while still actively fulfilling our mission, with their support.
The market we now face and communicate to is filled with sceptical, self-focussed, powerful people. They demand professional service, accountability and a feeling of involvement. Of course, events give a lot of that but so can Electronic Direct Mail (eDMs), SMS/Text and even direct mail (which still works to Baby Boomers and the Responsible Generation). Digitally smart means eDMs and SMS/Text reach donors where they are now, on their phones.
Many larger organisations overseas have turned heavily to social media to recruit new donors. This is because that is where the donors are getting their news from and that is where their peer group is. Every one of our donors is a potential recruiter. Do you run at least one annual promotion of your social media presence, asking all supporters to engage with and “Friend” your pages? Do you run targeted boosts and advertising for important posts to your social media? Do you link posts back to your web site? Artificial Intelligence is coming to your social media pages and will give you another way of engaging with donors. AI is just another engagement channel for digitally smart non-profits.
Where Behavioural Economics contributes is in understanding how people approach the world, how we all make decisions and how we respond to messages.
Behavioural Economics says (amongst many other things) that humans;
That they rely on a collection of anecdotes and stereotypes that make up the mental-emotional filters to understand and respond to events;
That humans have a semi-consistent world-view which is reflected in the decisions they make. Thus, we will tend to support not-for-profits in a consistent pattern that expresses our values.
For instance, if I support an international aid organisation or an international environmental organisation, then I am open to supporting similar missions in other organisations. Asking me what other organisations I support, is a good way to start framing an understanding of what I am trying to achieve.
At the simplest example, “If I support an organisation to “Save the Whales!” and the first thing they do is contact me about toxic pollution then they have started to alienate me. If, however they contacted me knowing my ambitions, and said “Toxic Chemical run-off from the land impacts the marine environment” then I am informed and supportive. We can use Behavioural Economics with AI to really get close to individuals, their motivations and ambitions and of course the commercial world is doing just that now.
- Moving forward
Post-gift or post-contact surveys are ubiquitous in commerce and commercial marketing. Asking someone to describe the interaction and how they felt about the organisation that supplied a service, is both commonplace and accepted. We as not-for-profit Fundraisers must do the same. Serving a short survey after every gift or interaction with a donor is both easy and important. It must be linked to the donor record and there must be a follow-up.
You are looking to thank a donor multiple times. You want to continue an engagement process to deepen a relationship. What better way to do that, then with some simple post-gift questions that inform you, empower the donor and give you an opportunity to say thank you again.
For example, if you ask someone “Will you Friend our Facebook Page?”, this gives you a wonderful opportunity to email them the next day perhaps, thank them again and offer a hyperlink to the organisations Facebook page. If you have a rules-based workflow automation platform (whether informed by AI or not) then the technology will take care of the follow-up and start interacting with and responding to the donor.
But of course, there is more to it than that. If your post-gift survey allows you to serve “context-sensitive” surveys and links to your donor record, then you can enrich your profile data every time you interact with the donor. By “context-sensitive” I mean a survey platform that only asks relevant questions, that is aware of the donor’s current relationship with you, if they have one. It is silly to ask a long-term volunteer if they would like to join the Volunteer programme or ask someone if they interested in your Bequest Programme if they are already registered (or too young).
Now comes the techie bit. For surveys, what Artificial Intelligence promises is the interpretation of the words of the donor, while providing in some cases an appropriate response to the donor. It is possible to elicit the true sentiment behind the words a donor chooses, and those words and sentiments help you understand how the donor really feels. Thus, Microsoft, Google and others are investing heavily in Artificial Intelligence technology and we will shortly see its use in the not-for-profit sector. If you are dealing with pop-up help systems in online service centres like your Electricity Company, there is a distinct possibility you will be interacting in the first instance with a robot.
So, AI driven (or not) surveys that are context-sensitive allow you to interact with your donors, understand them and then importantly, serve them responses that acknowledge their motivations and ambitions. If you combine this technology with a workflow engine that serves appropriate responses, then your engagement with the donor is enriched.
- Making it useful
All this may seem a long way from “getting the next appeal out”. Fundraisers and Communications people in not-for-profits are generally overworked and the planning for the next appeal starts as soon as the current appeal is dispatched. So what hope for post-gift surveys and rules-based follow-up? The answer has to be in your technology platform and how it helps you deliver this “Engagement Suite”. There are options out there, like Vega. But there are others. We at Vega have just started our Artificial Intelligence journey. We are excited about the possibilities for the not-for-profit sector. Surveys and workflows are our “bread and butter”. They should be part of the armoury of any successful not-for-profits whether running appeals or events.
Importantly you don’t have to adopt all this technology now. The best and largest not-for-profits are already doing some or all of this. But you can start with surveys linked to your database and simple workflows that respond to and service donor responses. Ask for professional help when designing questions that explore a donor’s world view and ambitions. These are non-trivial subjects. But you can be confident in asking people “why do you support …..?” or “Will you Friend….?”. Any of these questions give you a chance to respond to the donor, thank them again and engage them on another simple action.
Very importantly, if you run surveys, either post-gift or generally, it is vital you are committed to accounting back to the person who went to the trouble of completing the survey. Again, this gives you a chance to say thank you. I have worked with organisations who run mass surveys and where the participants never hear what was the result of the survey? You must account back. The information the donor gives you can contain vital clues about they wish you to engage with them.
As a donor, I am always trying to achieve something. Personally, I am currently trying to protect children affected by war, promote services for women who suffer violence from men, protect the global and local environment, support people living with long-term chronic illness, to name a few.
These organisations are my proxies. I am expressing my values and achieving my ambitions. Knowing they understand me and that they help me achieve my ambitions is important. All the newsletters and social media posts are good, but I really want to know what I did through my support. Convincing me, or any donor of that is the challenge facing the fundraisers of today. It is no small challenge.
Tony is the co-author of "Paradise Saved" the story of the New Zealand Conservation Sector. Published by Random House NZ in August 2014, and the founder of vega works limited.
He has spent his life working in the non-profit sector in New Zealand and overseas. In a long career, Tony has worked as technologist, consultant and fundraise in a diverse range of New Zealand and overseas based organisations.
Tony's first successful fundraising and political campaign was opposing the construction of a Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ireland in 1971. Today, Tony is still a practising fundraiser on behalf of vega clients.