Understanding donor identity will strengthen your fundraising.
My daughter recently graduated from Oberlin College. At the ceremony, speakers repeatedly encouraged the grads to go change the world. They were greeted with loud cheers.
It was obvious that from alumni to faculty, to graduating students and their younger friends, that Oberlin has a strong sense of self. It’s proudly weird. Extremely accepting. And focused on encouraging world-changers, whatever their course of study.
Not “Go rock Wall Street” world changers. More like “Make good trouble” world changers.
I thought about how strong the consensus was as we drove home. No explanations were needed. Everyone there was already in the know. Wouldn’t you love it if that’s how people reacted to your organization?
Can you build a strong community around your cause?
Imagine if everyone in your community felt that strongly about your work? If they all saw themselves as insiders? If their own sense of self was tied to your organization’s work?
A college has four years with each student to build that sense of belonging. Then the student goes out into the world. And hopefully, carries that college’s “brand” with them. Over time, with consistency and good communication, that sense of identity becomes stronger and stronger. That’s really what a brand is. Oberlin could change their school colors and logo tomorrow and it wouldn’t make much difference.
They know who they are. So do their various communities.
And that’s where you want to be, too.
People support organizations that connect to parts of their identity that are important to them. Your big win is when people identify with your organization. When they see themselves as someone who supports your organization. Then part of the giving decision is already made. “I am a person who gives to X organization” makes it much more likely they will give.
So how do you get there?
The Institute of Sustainable Philanthropy offers a course about this. I’m eager to take it but haven’t found the time yet. I’m picking up bits and pieces though, from friends.
So where do you start if you want people to feel really connected to your organization?
Have a strong sense of who your organization is.
Many organizations fall down here at the start. The hard part is that you have to be willing to take positions. Sometimes that means upsetting or annoying people. You cannot aim to be everything to everyone. So be bold. Who is your organization? What are your values? What do you do – and what don’t you do?
Be less concerned about a catchy mission statement or tagline and more concerned about how well you’ve defined your organization. (Mission statements and taglines are important. But first, you need to understand your organization.) Would everyone on the staff say the same thing if you asked, “who are we?” What about your board?
This is a weeding-out process. You probably have to leave things behind. To go back to my story, Oberlin students, alumni, and faculty know what Oberlin stands for. To be what they are does mean they’re not for everyone. My impression is they embrace that.
Know where your supporters and potential supporters are now
What do the people who already support you think you do? What do they think you stand for?
A survey can help you begin seeing your organization from the outside in. It can also help respondents think about your organization and where it falls in their priorities. How strongly do they identify with you?
Creating an effective survey is an art with layers of possibility. But don’t be afraid to start. Even a basic survey can teach you something.
Use what you learn to build better relationships
If you’ve defined who your organization is – and isn’t – and then you’ve learned what your supporters think, start using the information.
Reflect what you’ve learned from supporters back to them. Use language that underlines what they already think about themselves and why your cause or organization matters to them.
Have you ever had a conversation where the other person speaks to exactly what you just said? It shows your conversation partner is really listening, not just waiting for a pause to talk at you. It builds trust in the relationship.
To succeed with fundraising, your audience is not “everybody”. You’re looking for the people who will care about what you do. Then look for opportunities to listen as well as talk.
Use the language your supporters use
There are some general things you can assume about supporters or potential supporters. Assume they’re generous. Kind. Big-hearted. Because if they’re not, they’re not likely to give. And because sometimes hearing you’re good and kind makes want to live up to it.
Don’t let the cynics get in your way here. Almost every human has it in them to be kind and caring. And the more we encourage that, the better.
Not only can we match the way that we describe our supporters with the way that they describe themselves, we can help donors shape how they define themselves.
The more you learn from your supporters, the better you can reflect what’s important to them – about themselves. That builds trust. It creates donors who want to stick around. And the more you matter to them, the more support you’ll have.