Posted December 1st, 2008

Building on the Basics

Motivation is a critical element in the charitable giving process. You can identify those who are likely to give for one or more reasons, but what finally motivates an individual to make a particular gift?

During the post-Hurricane Katrina period some charities experienced a boost in giving while others faltered. A similar pattern was observed during the fall of 2001 after the economic disruptions that occurred in the wake of the events of September 11. At that time, we observed a number of key factors that seemed to most influence charitable giving during periods of crisis and uncertainty.

This year has seen turmoil in the financial markets characterized by some observers as “once in a lifetime.” Many nonprofit development executives are understandably concerned about how this will affect their fundraising efforts in the last few weeks of 2008, in 2009, and possibly beyond.

Experience reveals that now, as always, to enjoy maximum effectiveness in their fund development efforts, nonprofit organizations and institutions should strive to be “near,” “dear,” and “clear” to their donors.

Stay near to donors

Many charitable organizations, especially those that are national or international in scope, may have trouble achieving the goal of being near many of their donors. Some organizations have countered this problem by establishing local chapters or affiliates around the country or opening regional offices. But this is not an option for many groups, and may not be necessary for others.

If your organization is not physically close to many of its donors, it is important to take steps to make it seem that the organization is closer to them. This can be done in several ways—ongoing communications efforts such as newsletter updates, phone calls, and personal visits when possible are all good ways to bring your organization “closer” to your donors. Many colleges and universities sponsor alumni dinners and other events in various cities, for example. Other types of organizations reach television commercials and other mass media. Web sites can make an organization seem nearer and more accessible as well.

An effective strategy for keeping your donors continually informed about your work can help ensure you will not be “out of sight, out of mind,” and donors will feel closer to you no matter what your address happens to be.

Are you dear to them?

Something that is dear to you probably didn’t become dear to you overnight. It took time and serious interest for an emotional attachment to develop. It is rare, for example, for a donor who has not been involved with an organization for a significant period of time to include it as one of the charitable interests named in his or her will.

During times of economic distress, some donors will decide to more tightly focus their giving and concentrate their efforts where they feel the greatest attachment. Since time is required, “dearness” may be the most difficult of the three goals for charitable organizations to achieve.

How to become “dear”

In our experience, almost any type of nonprofit entity can form strong ties to donors. For example, many alumni donors to educational institutions have traditionally felt their college years were among the best of their lives, and their gifts arise from that sense of nostalgia.

Faith-based organizations and institutions are often dear to their supporters because of deeply felt spiritual motivations. These can be based on personal experience or a desire to further the mission of the organization as it reaches out to help others. Charitable activity in our society, as elsewhere in the world, is rooted to a large extent in religious teachings and it is important to understand and respect the tie this can build to any number of types of causes.

Cultural institutions can also become “dear” to their donors. A development officer once told the story of a woman who visited her zoo every day when the weather permitted with an attendant who helped her traverse the grounds in her wheelchair. When asked why she came each day she stated that she had lost her son in an accident some years before and her best memories were the time she spent with him as a child at the zoo. A short time thereafter she passed away and left a significant sum to the zoo to fund an endowment in memory of her son. This is just one of the many examples of how an organization can become “dear” to those it serves.

Donors to health-care providers were often patients themselves or had a family member who benefited from treatment or from research conducted. They want to do all they can to help a cause they believe saved their life or that of a loved one. In these cases, “dearness” also comes from deep emotional attachment to an organization and its mission. Rising costs of healthcare may compete against other motivations, so it is imperative that charities continue to make their case, even with those who appear to be most dedicated.

Those involved in charitable gift planning quickly learn that, in most cases, a prerequisite for the completion of bequests and similar gifts is a powerful emotional or other attachment that sustains the donative intent necessary to elevate a charity to the status of a close friend or family member. With estate tax savings now a non-factor for more donors, this is especially true.

Make your mission clear

Would you feel comfortable giving to an organization if you weren’t quite sure what it did, whom it served, or the nature of its mission? Probably not. It is imperative that the mission of your organization is crystal clear to your donors and potential donors.

Just because your organization’s mission is relatively specialized or even unique doesn’t mean that there aren’t donors out there who are willing and able to support it. Every charitable organization exists today because someone supported it and believed in its mission. So, from the most obscure to the most well known charity, the goal is to state your case clearly in order to attract and retain donors who know what their gifts will be supporting.

Without a clear and understandable mission, an organization may find itself floundering due to confused donors, or worse, lack of donors. This is especially challenging for organizations that have in years past acquired older donors based on one mission focus and are now attempting to change that focus to acquire a younger base—without losing the clarity of mission that is required to maintain the existing donor base.

Final thoughts

In light of economic events of this year, the continuing war on terrorism, the recent presidential election, and other changes, many Americans are reevaluating their charitable interests. In some cases donors may be newly drawn to the issues your organization addresses—or drawn back to a core interest from which they had strayed in recent years.

Now may be an especially opportune time to stop and return your focus to the basics of fund development— making certain you are as near to your support base as possible, you nurture and respect the relationships that keep your institution dear to donors, and make sure you are conveying messages that make your mission clear to those who may choose to act through you to employ a portion of what could be scarcer monetary resources for the benefit of others.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated from the original, entitled “Are You Near, Dear, and Clear?”, published in the November 2001 issue of Give & Take.

The publisher of Give & Take is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Give & Take may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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