Think like a fundraiser, feel like a donor

publication date: Dec 2, 2013
author/source: Jose vanHerpt

To be great fundraisers, we have to work at understanding the donor experience. We have to relate to donors where they are and we have to feel what they feel.Jose vanHerpt photo

As fundraising professionals we must ask for money, employ strategy, use leverage tactics, focus on retaining donors and aim to generate maximum revenue. We need to think, have a knowledge base, evaluate and plan. We steward, cultivate, educate, solicit. The days and weeks can whirl by with meetings, proposals, writing, presentations and work.

Donors on the other hand are feeling and living the giving experience. They want to save lives, make a difference, change the world. Donors give because they care, or have been moved or inspired in some way. How much they give, how often they give, whether they give just once or for the long term mostly comes down to how they feel about your cause and how they feel about the experience they’re having as donors.  Fundamentally donors want to do good, to know they’ve done good and they want to feel good.

For fundraisers it’s about raising money and for donors it’s about giving money. It’s our job to connect with them and to ensure they feel connected to the charities they give to. So, how do we do that?

I’d like to share some of the fundraising gospel I learned from the great Hank Rosso and Kim Klein in the early 90’s. This vintage stuff still applies today:

  • People give to people.
  • The institution has no needs.
  • Fundraising is not about money.
  • Asking for money is a good thing.

People give to people

People are most often inspired to give when the case for support is articulated through a story. I’ll never forget interviewing a young woman who had cystic fibrosis some years ago. She was to be the signatory for an appeal letter.  She was in her early 20’s, had spent much of her life in the hospital and knew she would live for a few more years at most. 

She talked about her desire just to live a normal life, get married, have children and a job – and she felt none of those things were possible for her.  She was grateful that research to that point had added years to her life. She hoped that telling her story would inspire people to give for research that could help babies born with CF today live longer and more normal lives than hers.

To do justice to her story, I had to get into her shoes.  I had to feel what life was like for her and share that with donors. Donors gave to her, because of her and because the organization that shared her story was intelligent enough to know that emotion was a good strategy.

The institution has no needs

It’s not about you or the organization you work for. Your charity is a conduit, that’s all.  You exist to facilitate the giving of donations and the doing of good work. Donors do not give to you, they give through you. Every charity has an obligation to ensure donor funds are acquired and stewarded in an ethical and accountable way.

Fundraising isn’t about money

Fundraising is about meeting a need or fixing a problem: saving lives, making a difference, changing the world.

I had the good fortune to hear Hélène Campbell speak at Congress recently – she’s a young woman from Ottawa who has raised great awareness for organ donations, largely through talking about her own need for new lungs.  Using twitter and by catching the attention of celebrities Justin Bieber and Ellen DeGeneres, Hélène has inspired thousands to register for organ donation. Hers is an amazing story of hope, fortitude, kindness and courage.  Check out her story at

Asking for money is a good thing.

It’s an honorable thing.  But all too often it is seen as a necessary evil that nobody wants to do.  Why? Because often times when you ask, people will say no, or not right now, or not today. Getting a ‘no’ never feels good, but refusing to ask can’t feel any better.

Many years ago I stood in front of a board of directors for a local organization of a very worthy cause.  They were struggling with the idea of embarking on a capital campaign – they just couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to give to their organization and they couldn’t imagine themselves asking.  I asked them to look at each around the room and share with us all why they were there and how much they had given over their years of involvement.  I asked them to talk about how being involved and giving made them feel. 

And then I asked them why they would ever think to deny everyone else in the community the same feelings of satisfaction they themselves had enjoyed.  They saw things differently after that and were able to move forward with their campaign.  Most fundraisers I know don’t have trouble thinking like a fundraiser (likely why they got the job) but many either find it difficult or just don’t take the time to feel like a donor.  Here are a few questions to ponder…

  • Do you know how your donors feel about their experience with your organization?
  • Do you assume that just because people give they’re happy and having a good experience?
  • Do you use tools to measure or evaluate donor satisfaction?
  • Do you engage donors beyond transactional giving?
  • Do you take the time to chat with your donors?
  • Do you have the time to chat with your donors?
  • Does your organization encourage donor contact?
  • Do you care?

Jose van Herpt is Principal & Chief Counsel with Good Works. Contact her by email with your questions and reactions.

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