The secret truth that donors can’t tell you

One of the most important things you can know about fundraising is this: What people say about their charity or your fundraising has little to do with what they do.

When you believe that, you are free from taking terrible advice.

People’s opinions and their actions do not line up. Don’t expect them to. And don’t build your brand or fundraising platform based on what people tell you in surveys or focus groups.

Here are a few things donors consistently tell us:

  • You only have to ask me for a donation once a year. I’ll respond with my whole year worth of giving then.
  • Keep your letters short.
  • Don’t send me address labels; I don’t need them to respond.
  • Don’t phone me, ever!
  • You don’t have to thank me for giving.

And yet these things are repeatedly and resoundingly shown to be really bad advice for fundraising.

Likewise, when a donor tells you, “I’d donate to that,” they virtually always tell you something that fails in the real marketplace.

Are they lying?

No. They’re telling the truth as well as they know it.

It’s just that giving your opinion about something is a fundamentally different action from actually responding to it. When you just opine about something, you have no skin in the game. It’s easy to say something you think looks reasonable or politically correct or will make you look good. That’s why complex and intellectual offers do well when people are asked about them.

But not in real-life fundraising.

But when it actually comes to shelling out money, a different dynamic is in play. You respond to what actually moves you, not what you think should move you — or what you think others think should move you.

That’s why fundraising approaches that work best are super-simple, emotional, and often a bit short-sighted. Providing a meal for a hungry child will always beat creating systems that keep the child from going hungry. Even though most people agree that fixing a system is better than reacting to the problem.

You can spend your whole fundraising career trying to change this fundamental quirk of the human mind — and you’ll have a miserably unsuccessful career.

Or you can work with people as they really are — and raise more money to actually get stuff done.

I’d choose the latter.


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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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