Donor needs vary and evolve, depending on where they are in their own life cycle and their life cycle with your nonprofit. Do you ever wonder how you might help them meet their needs? How you might reward them for giving? You should — if you want to keep them as donors.
You may be familiar with Maslow’s “Theory of Human Motivation” where he breaks needs for human development and contentment down into steps that form a pyramid. Maslow suggests the basic human needs such as food, shelter, and sleep are required before you can pursue higher needs such as security, love and belonging, esteem and the need for self-actualization.
Sadly, just giving to charity doesn’t necessarily meet these higher-level needs. Donors may give out of guilt, fear, peer pressure (which doesn’t feel so good). Some give to be praised (meets esteem need, but only if you praise them). Some give to be accepted by peers (meets love & belonging need, but only if you offer opportunities to connect and feel loved)… and so forth. You see, giving is not always it’s own reward.
To create life-long donors imposes on your charity the obligation to do something proactive to fulfill your donor’s highest level needs.
Donors, like all human beings, are on a continual quest for meaning. It’s the existential search to be all that one can be. To feel self-actualized.
In non-psychological or theoretical terms, at the self-actualization pinnacle donors just feel darn good. They carry around a warm glow, representing the realization of their potential and inner peace.
This feeling is very powerful – and we human beings naturally seek it out. It’s one of reasons why even very poor give outsized proportions of their income to charity.
Another way to describe this is the search for meaning in 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. Humans want to feel a sense of connection and a sense of purpose to life. Giving (time, money, and energy) is a central way that we strive to find meaning.
If your nonprofit doesn’t complete the exchange circuit for donors, their search for meaning gets cut short.
When your donor gives you value (money) and you don’t return value (usually something intangible that makes them feel good), they get gypped. You don’t fulfill your part of the bargain. You don’t deliver on your promise. You short-circuit the process.
There’s a reason short-circuiting happens.
Too often, charities (well, the people in them) don’t think very highly of their donors. They ascribe all sorts of selfish motives to donors’ giving. Have you ever heard:
- They just want their name in lights
- They’re just a social climber
- They just want to assuage their conscience
- They were born with a silver spoon; they don’t understand the value of money
- It’s easy for them; it’s not really a sacrifice or noble act
- They just want to look good to their friends
Sure, maybe some of this happens. But it’s a very shallow, mean-spirited way of looking at donors. I’ve never met a donor where this was all that motivated their giving. Human drives are much more complex.
Maslow posited that once the basic “physiological needs” are met, people are wired to move on to fulfill the unmet “deficiency needs” such as love, belonging and esteem. The ultimate need, however, is not so much a deficiency as an imperative. Maslow stated about the self-actualization stage:
“What a man can be, he must be.”
This is the level at which transformation occurs. And it’s so important for nonprofits to hold this close as their end goal whenever someone makes a donation. The gift is simply a one-time transaction. If you consider that your end game, it will be. Simply put, you’re unlikely to get a second donation.
Getting a second gift requires something transformative.
You must take donors on a transformative journey that gets them to self-actualization. Maslow describes this level as the desire to accomplish everything one can, to become the most one can be. And this is where nonprofits can really make a difference. You, yes you, have the power to give your donor the meaning s/he seeks.
PERSONAL STORY: Years ago I worked at a social services agency with a slew of direct service volunteer programs. But the volunteer coordinators were the opposite of volunteer-centered. They looked at volunteers as a means to their ends – getting people to help their clients. Sure, this was going on. However, it’s not why people volunteer. They do so to feel good about themselves (to be of service, give their lives meaning, have a place to belong, and so forth). By treating volunteers merely as tools, the coordinators were short-changing them. As a result, we never had as many volunteers as we needed. They simply weren’t finding the experience joyful. So… I facilitated a series of retreats where we talked about the needs of volunteers. After a while, the coordinators came to understand that volunteer needs were not unlike client needs. They were able to empathize with volunteers, and channel their feelings to better identify with and relate to these wonderful supporters.
ACTION STEP: Helping your donor find meaning should be a central part of every nonprofit’s mission statement. If it’s not in yours, it’s time to remedy this. You need to do with your donors what I and my nonprofit did, years ago, with our volunteers. Commit to their happiness. Because when individuals within a community are happier, that’s also good for the health, welfare and survival of the community.
Donor-centered organizations, before doing anything else, put themselves inside their donor’s head.
Recently, much research has focused on how our brains are hardwired to chemically reward us for acts of giving. In other words, we don’t just do it for others. We do it, much like eating and breathing, to survive and thrive.
Even Darwin posited the theory of “survival of the most loving.” Because it turns out that communities that care for their members have the greatest chance to endure and flourish.
So, what can you do on a practical level to care for your donor?
- What does my donor expect?
- Why do they need a thank you?
- Why do they need an annual report?
- Why do they need a phone call?
At the most basic level, these are accountability tools. At a deeper level, these are emotional feel good tools. Make sure your communications do both; forget about using them to puff yourself up or make your E.D. or board feel good.
A commitment to making your donors happy should really be your end goal with cultivation and stewardship — because if donors are happy they’ll give again! And then, guess what? They’ll be flooded with oxytocin and feel even better.
Giving is not always it’s own reward. Sometimes you have to help it along.
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Thanks for this great reminder Claire—good thing to start the day out pondering.
Thanks Elaine. If you come up with any great ways you reward your donors, please let us know!
Very thoughtful article. While talking about fundraising techniques, you’re actually raising the issue of maintaining an authentic relationship with donors, where you give them the dignity of being whole people. I think you need to force yourself to talk personally with as many donors as possible. At one organization, I set aside the last two hours of every Friday to call all the donors from that week to say thanks and ask why they support us. I took notes and set a reminder to send something that reflected their interest and our impact in that area four months later. My rule was that I had to refer back to the phone call in a hand-written note (often on my business card). When possible, I’d invite donors to meet a speaker, attend a training session with me, help give out certificates, bring their children to a feeding program, or some other personally gratifying participation in the charity’s work. One man told me, “If you give me an excuse to do something with my kids and grandkids, you have given me the best gift of all.”
Your last sentence captures the essence of donor relationship building. If you want gifts, you must give them. Thank you so much Nancy.
When we receive a gift (not a major gift), we send the donor a thank you letter within 48 hours. Then we call every donor, every week. So every donor receives a thank you call as well, within 10 days of their gift. If they have needs, we offer to pray for them…..over the phone, and in daily staff meetings. In addition, each donor receives a newsletter every month showing them how their gift is being used. And they are thanked in the newsletter too. Each month each donor receives a personal letter from the CEO, showing how their gifts are being used to accomplish our goals and encouraging them to consider an additional gift. At the same time, we encourage each donor to volunteer to help on site, if possible. And once a year, we have an appreciation banquet to thank donors for their compassion and sacrifice.
It seems to keep them involved. What else could we be doing? Thanks.
Sounds like you are doing a great job. Is it yielding results for you? Do your donors tend to stay with you over the long haul? Do they give more each year? Do they invite their friends to join them? If so, stick with the plan. 🙂
If you want more creative thank you ideas, look at my Creative Ways to Thank Your Donors under “How I Help” at the top of my home page. Thank you for doing your important work. – Claire
The work of Abraham Maslow has enormous current application; especially as it applies to “our” kids, who will become future leaders and donors. We have to get them started in the right directions, and keep them going that way — seeking the elusive “self-actualization.”
At the least, we have to make sure we feed our kids. Note in the Maslow material which Claire posts: “…consciousness is almost completely preempted by hunger.”
None of “our” kids should be hungry — ever. If we allow them to be, we thwart their ability to move up the Maslow Hierarchy towards self-actualization. That’s clearly not good for them — nor for our society in general.
Thank you for running this superbly helpful post again, Claire. I hope readers will take a special look at the “self-actualized” link/article.
To me, one of its suggestions is that we foster creativity in all “our” kids. Kids, more or less, are as inherently creative as they are inherently kind. Creative kids are more likely to grow into self-actualized adults.
We must help them get there with FUN lessons which build their creativity, compassion-ability, and capability.
Beyond my current comment, I “second” the reply I made on 1-26-21. As you’d posted, “…consciousness is almost completely pre-empted by hunger.”
We must never “permit” our kids to suffer either of the twin scourges of hunger and food insecurity — never ever.