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Why the Donor’s Story Matters

Resource Center - Foundation

(May 17, 2011) Understanding why a person donates money to any charity will help you understand why they might donate to yours. Here are some ways to take a step back and really understand a prospective major gift donor--their philosophy of giving, their giving priorities and even their views on money itself.

This week, AFP eWire interviewed consultant and strategist Debra Minton, President of Philanthropia Partners in Grand Rapids, Mich. The topic was major gift donors--specifically, asking the right questions and taking the time to really listen.

"I have always counseled volunteers and key staff to try to get to the ‘listening post' whenever possible, and as quickly as possible, when on major gift visits" says Minton. "As fundraisers we will often go in so nervous and structured that we overlook what the donor wants."

If we stop and listen to hear the donor's approach to their giving, why they give and what they dream to achieve, the direction of the call--and ultimately, the relationship--will become apparent, she explains.

Asking Good Questions

A good question goes deeper than simply asking about their giving history.

Ask donors to talk about and identify the history and roots of their giving philosophy, Minton says. "Did your parents participate and engage in civic and community life?" "What did that look like?" "What values have you carried on in your own life?"

Perhaps their approach to money traces back to childhood. "Did you receive any lessons about money as a young person that stick with you today?"

Another good question is, "What keeps you up at night?" In other words, what does the donor really care about? Is it the environment, their community, youth? What is it about those issues that compel them?

As you begin to paint the picture of the donor's giving priorities, ask "How do you see yourself contributing to that issue?  Is it with your time, ideas, relationships, voice or money?"

The key here is that you are not telling them why they should give to your organization. You are asking them why they give to any organization, then which ones in particular, and why some concerns stand out as priorities in their minds.

With the "listening post" approach you can determine the direction of your conversation based on the answers you receive, rather than the points you feel you need to make, Minton says. It is a win-win situation because you will only deepen the relationship you have with the donor, who is often excited to discuss her dreams. You are also more likely to have a future meeting because she enjoyed the conversation so much.

How Do You Fit In?

Once you have a better grasp of the donor's story, you can begin to explore how their story might weave together with your organization's--or more importantly--to the story of those you serve.

"Figure out how you can run up alongside a donor and help them as they focus their efforts to make a difference," Minton says. In other words, make it a partnership.

"The gifts I have seen that have been the most satisfying is when the donor and the organization actualized a new vision that they co-created for the organization," Minton says. "When a relationship becomes that rich, it is the most powerful work a fundraiser can do."

Add this to your major gifts program to-do list: Have a dialogue with a donor about why they give. You'll hear some great stories. And you'll write new ones with the people you serve in leading roles.

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