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What Psychology Can Teach Us About Major Donor Fundraising

Resource Center - Foundation

(April 5, 2011) Before they will even consider making a gift, donors often have specific expectations that have to be met. Do you have sound financial reserves? Do you have a track record of past success? According to psychologists, no matter how good you are at making the ask, you will hear a quick "no" unless you address these concerns.

A familiar scenario is a person who has applied for a job for which they are well qualified, but before they are even called for an interview the employer notices a glaring typo on the applicant's resume. Quickly the person is given no further consideration.

Fair or unfair, donors often have their own similar criteria for nonprofit organizations, according to Bernard Ross and Clare Segal, authors of The Influential Fundraiser. Before you can even walk in their door you'll need to be sure you have your shop in order.

The first step is to remove potential negative barriers, say Ross and Segal. Psychologists call these barriers "hygiene factors" - certain elements that we expect to be present in any situation, and we only notice them if they are not there. For example, having a written employment contract, or a desk, when you start a job are hygiene factors. You are not going to be excited or motivated to work harder for an employer who provides these things. You'll simply accept that these are part of a "normal" employment package. But if these components are missing, you feel dissatisfied or demotivated-the hygiene factors you expect to be present are not there.

Meeting a Donor's Basic Needs

Hygiene factors for potential donors can be categorized into three types.

  • Providing security: (Your nonprofit is financially and organizationally stable)
  • Creating credibility: (You have a track record and status in the field)
  • Meeting expectations: (You fit with the donor's view of what is reasonable and normal)

By addressing their basic concerns, you move donors from a state of being hesitant, to a state of being neutral, according to social psychologist Frederick Herzberg, who came up with the concept of hygiene factors. Once they move from negative to neutral, only then can you start to motivate donors in a positive direction. In other words, removing barriers is only half of the equation.

Although each donor will have their own barriers, they might include the following basic expectations:

  • The fact that you have a good board
  • An attractive annual report
  • Evidence of past financial integrity
  • An appropriate level of financial reserves
  • Charity or nonprofit registration
  • Other high-profile patrons
  • Donor recognition systems
  • A stewardship program
  • A demonstrable track record of past success
  • A robust business plan

While likely no one will give you a major donation just because you have a track record of success, they will certainly not give if you don't have that, say Ross and Segal. And unfortunately, like the example of the employer reviewing resumes, something as simple as a spelling error in promotional material can stop a donor from making a gift: "If they can't bother to spellcheck, how can I trust them with my money?"

Before you question your entire approach to cultivating a donor and making the ask, consider whether you are addressing the donor's core needs and concerns and creating security, credibility and meeting expectations. According to psychologists, you must work on meeting these "hygiene" concerns before you even begin identifying their deeper motivations for making a major gift.

Bernard Ross and Clare Segal are co-directors of The Management Centre (=mc), an internationally based management consultancy. Their book, The Influential Fundraiser: Using the Psychology of Persuasion to Achieve Outstanding Results (2009) is available in the AFP Bookstore.



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