Your donor’s philanthropic journey begins with you. Your job is to steer them down the pathway to passionate philanthropy, making them feel joy and fulfillment every step of the way. When the gift is finally made, they should experience a true sense of victory in a job well done.
The cherished philanthropic outcome generally will only happen if you do your job well.
One of my favorite fundraising experts, who specializes in major and legacy giving, is Dr. Russell James. He knows everything there is to know about what the industry calls “planned giving,” but he knows so much more than most. Because Dr. James, while a skilled technician, is also a thoughtful and strategic fundraiser. And he knows the best practitioners guide towards a goal. I recently listened to a webinar where Dr. James spoke extensively about the universal hero’s journey and how this comes into play in fundraising. It dovetails so nicely with my fundraising philosophy I thought I’d write about it!
You see, once you know where you’re going with any particular donor (be sure to pick a goal!), your job is to advance their journey towards that goal with every step you both take. You’re like a “Donor Engagement Sherpa,” who supports your donor up their trek towards the mountain’s peak. Sometimes there will be more than one way to get there. Be open to your donor’s needs, not just yours. Lead with vulnerability, but lead.
Advance the Universal Hero’s Journey
A guiding sage kicks off the hero’s journey, challenging them with a choice. The would-be hero can sit quietly on the sidelines, or they can go beyond their self-focused, personal world to become a valiant character impacting a larger world. Choosing the path of the hero, their journey empowers their becoming a transformed (internal) and honored (external) victor, bringing a benefit back to their original world.
In the donor’s world, the fundraiser is the sage guide. What I like to call the “philanthropy facilitator.” The philanthropy facilitator challenges the donor with a choice whenever they make an ask. The donor can either say “yes, I’ll help” or “no, I won’t help.” However they answer, this will connect with their identity – how they view themselves or would like to view themselves. A compelling fundraising challenge connects to the donor’s identity in such a way they can clearly see a path towards connecting to someone or something larger than themselves. When they make this choice, they develop enhanced identity that delivers personal meaning (internal) and public reputation or recognition (external).
When you include each step of the hero’s journey in your philanthropic ask, you gracefully advance the donor’s story. You support them, guide them, and enable them to become their best selves. Because above all else people want to believe in themselves. The donor’s metaphorical hero’s journey looks like this:
- Original Identity based on values…
- Is confronted by a Challenge…
- Which enables a Victory…
- Which leads to an Enhanced Identity…
This journey, thoughtfully facilitated by you, is filled with meaning, purpose, connection and joy. When you arrive at your goal destination, you can turn this journey into a perpetual cycle of transformative acts. Simply fan the flames and reinforce the donor’s enhanced identity. Thank them, praise them, recognize them and report back to them on outcomes they made possible. I call this your “Donor Love and Loyalty Plan.”
Before you get to love and loyalty, you must identify and nurture donor values.
4 Integrated Strategies to Advance Your Donor’s Story
Let’s explore the best way to advance your donor’s story every step of the way — through your lead up to your ask, your ask, and your follow-up after your ask. Whether you ask through a mailed or emailed appeal, on the phone or in person, the strategies to guide your donor towards a goal that meets both your needs are similar. The more you can create a win/win, the more likely you are to sustain loyalty and commitment over the long term.
1. Begin by Connecting with the Donor’s Original Identity
What do you know about how your donor identifies currently? Do they give because they’re an alum? A grateful patient? A former member? A religious person? A self-proclaimed activist? A community leader? There are all sorts of things people who are philanthropic say to themselves, largely based on personal values.
- I give because I’m generous.
- I give because my parents taught me the value of charity.
- I give because it’s a religious/moral obligation.
- I give because I believe in paying it backwards/forwards.
- I give because this charity’s work matches my values.
- I give because this charity’s work resonates with my history and life story.
- I give because philanthropy is my people’s tradition.
ACTION TIP: Create a survey to learn more about how your donors self-identify. It’s fine to use a free tool like Hubspot, Survey Monkey, Google Forms or others. Consider offering a prize for participation so you increase participation and gather more valuable insight. [e.g, (1) you will be entered into a raffle to win… (This can be logo swag; a gift donated by a sponsor, etc., or (2) you will receive a free beverage coupon at… (This can be your on-site café; a local vendor, etc.), or (3) the first 10 respondents will be invited to lunch with the E.D., or (4) everyone who responds will be invited to a special online event/performance/behind-the-scenes, etc. Keep the survey brief (ideally tell people it will take one minute to complete, or it is just three questions), so you don’t depress response.
ACTION TIP: Ask donors to indicate why they give on your remit piece or thank you landing page. Make this optional, but you’d be amazed at the valuable feedback you can receive if you’re willing to ask. For a remit piece that typically has very little space, consider asking them to write one word that describes why they give. I did this when I worked for a comprehensive human services organization, and typically got back value-laden words like “love,” “compassion,” “caring,” “tradition,” and “giving back.” A social justice client of mine ended up rocking words like “equality,” “justice,” “humanity,” and “dignity.” For a thank you landing page, consider offering multiple choices (ideally based on feedback you’ve previously received; if you have no current feedback, ask your board to provide some) and ask folks to pick the one, two or three that most speak to them or to rank order them. You can also leave one open-ended question for them to tell you anything else they’d like you to know about why they give.
2. Offer a Meaningful Challenge
Whatever reasons a donor has for giving, they will be triggered when you offer a challenge that connects them to their identity and advances them towards an enhanced identity. In other words, it helps them become the person they’d like to see when they look in the mirror. Focus on values donors cherish and challenge them to create outcomes they’d like to see, both for themselves personally and for the larger community or world.
- Your gift of a holiday turkey demonstrates your generosity (value) and shows a family someone cares (outcome).
- Honor your loved ones (value) through the gift of music and enable students to see their first live performance (outcome).
- Fulfill the mitzvah/good deed (value) by welcoming the stranger into our shelter (outcome).
- As others helped you (value), please help today’s students by covering the cost of a tutor (outcome).
- Help others recovering from illness (value) with the gift of group support (outcome).
- Continue the tradition (value) of caring with a gift to drive seniors to appointments (outcome).
ACTION TIP: To the extent you’re aware of different donor identities in your database, segment your appeals accordingly to reinforce the values most resonant for these audiences (e.g., clients and families; parents; grandparents; religious; outwardly focused, etc.). For example, at the Jewish Community Center where I worked, half of the respondents said they gave to help the Jewish community while another half said they gave to embrace the larger community. It makes sense to tweak appeals somewhat differently to speak to individual identities and distinct values.
3. Show the Path to Victory
Show the donor valued outcomes your organization makes happen and tie them to what makes that outcome valuable to the donor. Focus on the transformative power of the donor’s action, not just the act itself. Go beyond simply asking for a gift of money. Ask for a gift of sight, health, education, redemption, peace, equality, safety, community connection or whatever else the donor may see as a victory.
- Your gift of a holiday turkey demonstrates your generosity (value), shows a family someone cares (outcome, and means no one feels alone (victory).
- Honor your loved ones (value) through the gift of music, enabling students to see their first live performance (outcome) and adding a new joyful dimension to their lives (victory).
- Fulfill the mitzvah/good deed (value) by welcoming the stranger into our shelter (outcome) and giving them the support of a caring community (victory).
- As others helped you (value), please help today’s students by covering the cost of a tutor (outcome) so they’re able graduate with their class (victory).
- Help others recovering from illness (value) with the gift of group support (outcome) that lifts them out of depression so they can move forward (victory).
- Continue the tradition (value) of caring with a gift to drive seniors to appointments (outcome) so they stay safe and healthy (victory).
ACTION TIP: Always ask the “so what?” question when crafting your appeal. By this I mean considering what you’d say if the donor asks “So what? What if I give this money? What really changes? The more you anticipate this question, and can make the donor feel they’ve done something transformative, the more likely they are to stick with you. This doesn’t mean they have to give a million dollars towards creating a vaccine or building a facility. Very small acts can be transformative. It’s your job, as the donor’s guide, to point them out. For example, the Tijuana-based charity Vida Joven does a brilliant job of showing the path to victory in both their appeals and thank you’s. Here’s a sample of something they send (every month) to recurring donors, reinforcing what transformative victory looks like.
4. Guide the Donor Down the Path towards Enhanced Identity
The Vida Joven thank you makes the donor feel like the kind of person who changes things for other people. The stories of the people helped become connected to the donor’s story. In a good way. The donor feels they’re not just in this for personal gain, or offering token support, but for powerful, demonstrable social good. This new vision of themselves, as metaphorical hero, feels good.
The closer you get to the mountain’s peak, the more clearly things come into focus. The journey moves from general to specific, or from broad to narrow. Do your appeals and acknowledgements do this? Or do you just ask generally for money to go towards your overall mission, then thank the donor generally for their “gift of $50?” You’ll raise some money the transactional way, but nowhere near as much as you will if you take donors on a transformative hero’s journey.
- This is why my Clairification tagline is philanthropy, not fundraising.
- This is why I call people in our profession philanthropy facilitators, not simply fundraisers.
- This is when fundraising becomes not about the money, but about the love.
- This is how working with donors becomes a co-creative process.
Lifelong donor relationships are about impact, not money. When you connect donors to cherished values, and guide them along the pathway to passionate philanthropy, all of this makes your organization sustainable – and the world a better place.
Want to Learn More about the Entire Process of Inspiring Donors to Make Passionate Gifts?
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Here’s to making your coming year the best ever!