How an over-active imagination about donors can make you a clumsy fundraiser

One of the biggest sources of fundraising errors happens when we make up stories about donors.

It’s a natural thing to do: It helps us think non-abstractly about these real people.

It goes astray when we depart from what we know and build elaborate fictions about donors — wild guesses about their behaviors that wander far away from what donors really do. Here’s an example:

You’re thinking about including a large red word URGENT on the outer envelope of your next piece of direct mail. That’s not a bad idea. Based on my experience, this has a good chance of improving results, though it’s not a slam-dunk.

As you discuss it with colleagues, two stories about how donors might react emerge:


  1. Donors will believe the piece is urgent. Response and/or average gift will improve.
  2. Donors will not believe the urgent claim, be annoyed at the silly gimmickry, and become less trusting, less likely to give again.

Both of these stories seem plausible. A normal person might do either of those things.

But neither story sheds any light on the situation or provides any useful direction on what you should do. These made-up stories create the illusion of knowledge, the false sense that you know what donors are likely to do.

You don’t know.

What really happens is thousands of individual donors, each following her own script in reaction to what you do — and very few of them doing what you picture them doing. Mainly because few donors will pay even a fraction as much attention to the piece as you do. And whatever they do, they’re doing it in private, not in a roomful of colleagues. They don’t have anything to prove. They’re just trying to get through a busy day and do the right things.

The way to think about donor behavior is to stick to what you know — or what you’ve learned from credible sources. You know how many donors respond to something. You know how much they give. You know how many keep giving and how many lapse away. You don’t know how they feel about it.

So stay with known facts about donor behavior, and avoid made-up stories about what they think and feel. That will keep you on target and allow you to learn from them.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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