I’m a huge fan of the Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley, and often apply their research to nonprofit fundraising and marketing. A recent article really struck me: How to Find Your Purpose in Life.
Over my 30 years of practice as an in-house development professional, the fundamental thing I learned is this:
You serve your donors every bit as much as they serve your organization’s mission.
Please allow that to sink in.
You have a mission. A purpose. Donors can help you get there.
Your donors are looking for purpose. You can help them find it.
It’s a symbiotic relationship. And you have a role in fostering that relationship. What is that role?
Your job is to facilitate your donor’s philanthropic journey. Their journey to discover their purpose.
So what’s this really all about?
It’s about the donors, stupid!
I hope I don’t offend. I borrowed this statement from the 1992 slogan James Carville coined to keep the Bill Clinton campaign focused. Carville hung a sign in Clinton’s Little Rock HQ that read: It’s the economy, stupid. This became the de facto slogan for the Bill Clinton election campaign. Let this be your de facto slogan for all your donor communications moving forward.
Fundraising is mostly about donors; then money.
Here’s a question that may sound weird to you:
Do you have “We exist because people need to give”, or “We exist to help donors find meaning” as part of your mission statement?
I’ve seen a few (very few) organizations that do include such a statement. But not enough.
Why should you consider this?
Philanthropy is a symbiotic relationship.
If you’re largely supported by contribution income this should be obvious:
- Without your donors, you cease to exist.
- WIthout you, your donors can’t be the change they’d like to see in the world.
This means one person is doing the loving and one is receiving the love. And often it shifts back and forth.
When your focus shifts to helping your donor make a difference, NOT on getting their money, everything gets easier.
That focus results in money. It follows naturally.
What’s this, you may ask?
It’s the highest level people can reach on Maslow’s pyramid. Remember Maslow?
He posited that once basic security needs are met (food, shelter, safety) we begin to look for other ways to satisfy our existence. We need a raison d’etre beyond mere survival. We seek family, community and belonging. We seek a greater purpose. We seek to identify with the highest version of ourselves. We want to love the person we look at in the mirror.
You have the power to give your donor the meaning s/he seeks.
Bottom line: You’re a philanthropy facilitator.
You help people who love channel that love in a meaningful direction.
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 important. But, it’s not why people – fundamentally – 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. Not just the needs of clients. 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.
You need to similarly empathize with your donors.
You’re in the happiness delivery business.
And when individuals within a community are happier, that’s also good for the health, welfare and survival of the community as a whole.
In the Greater Good article, by Jeremy Adam Smith, the author suggests people often seek purpose because they feel isolated from other people. The article goes on to suggest how people can overcome that feeling.
So much of it ties into how mission-focused, social benefit organizations can help people that I’m hoping these ideas will resonate with you.
And maybe even change how you approach your work.
- Reading. Because it connects you to people and experiences, enabling you to empathize. When you can walk in someone else’s shoes (be they your donor’s or someone helped by your organization) you can connect and feel a part of something larger than yourself.
- Turning hurts into healing for others. Giving back and paying forward are big philanthropic motivators. If people can help others as they were helped, or as they wished they had been helped, they have a meaningful purpose.
- Cultivating awe. The experience of awe makes us feel connected with something larger than ourselves and provides an emotional foundation for a sense of purpose.
- Adopting an attitude of gratitude. Research by William Damon, Robert Emmons, and others has found, children and adults who are able to count their blessings are much more likely to try to “contribute to the world beyond themselves.” Begin by keeping a gratitude journal.
- Cultivating altruism. When you ask folks to volunteer and/or donate, you give them a direct opportunity to help others and achieve a meaningful, purposeful life.
- Finding and building community. When you feel connected it’s easier to connect others to you and your cause.
- Telling your story. Connect to your organizational story, your personal story and how the two intersect. Find meaning in what you do, and you’ll be able to spread that meaning to others who share your values and purpose.
Begin with the greater good in mind.
When you think about it, if we can make people happier and healthier simply by facilitating philanthropic behavior, that’s got to be a win/win/win – for the philanthropist, your organization and the larger society. Right?
So why do so few nonprofits have donors at the heart of their mission, let alone incorporated as part and parcel of their mission?
How does it make you feel? Does it put a smile on your face? A lump in your throat? Are you feeling really good about your part in bringing about this outcome?
That’s what donor-centered fundraising is about!
What’s cool is that you can give donors greater purpose, and simultaneously achieve your own.
It all begins with the quest for meaning.
Existentialists say “existence precedes essence,” which I find to be a particularly useful framework when connecting with and engaging donors.
I ask myself: What essence do they seek?
Right now they’re a (soccer mom, business executive, retiree, student, grandparent, etc.), but what else can they be?
What else do your donors need to feel like their true purpose is being met?
And how can you help?
Match the greater good to the individual good
Too often folks think giving must be selfless. Why? There’s nothing wrong with getting something back. Especially if it gives people the meaning and sense of purpose they seek.
In fact, 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.
And the greater goals that foster a sense of purpose are ones that can potentially change the lives of other people, like launching an organization, researching disease, or teaching kids to read.
The most loving survive
Purpose may arise out of a need to survive, but it grows from our connection to others.
Darwin posited the notion of “survival of the kindest,” finding sympathy to be the strongest human instinct. Communities where members cared for each other survived; they were the “most fit.”
When we don’t have others to care for, we can feel isolated and lost.
When people suffer existential angst it’s due to a crisis of purpose. This is why people volunteer and join causes. To find connection. To find a new path.
Hope springs eternal, and we anticipate if we can just find the right path we’ll find others traveling along with us, hoping to reach the same destination.
Connect with your purpose
If you’re having trouble remembering your purpose, take a look at the people around you.
Look at your colleagues. Look at the people you’re helping. Look at your donors.
- What do you have in common with them?
- What are they trying to be?
- What impact do you see them having on the world?
- Is that impact a positive one?
- Can you join with them in making that impact?
- What do they need?
- Can you give it them?
If you’re not inspired by your story, and the stories of your tribe, then it may be time to discover a new community and a new purpose.
One with which you can connect — with awe, gratitude and altruism.
Want to get in the gratitude groove?
You may enjoy my Donor Retention and Gratitude Playbook. I promise you’ll find dozens of actionable tips to help you retain and upgrade more donors. The Playbook comes with a 30-day, no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee.
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