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The First Question a Donor Asks


Excerpted from The 11 Questions Every Donors Asks & the Answers All Donors Crave

If you have teenagers (or have been one), you know the person the world revolves around.

Or if by some quirk of nature your kids are model cherubs, think back to that blind date. "Enough about me," your companion said. "Let's talk about you. What do you think of me?"

Have you ever spent time with someone who talked only about him- or herself and never once asked a question about you? Of course you have. If this hasn't happened to you, then maybe you are that person!

Or perhaps it's an elderly neighbor you meet on the street. You ask with civility, "How are you?" only to be subjected to a list of ailments spanning your neighbor's entire anatomy.

In short, Me is everyone's favorite subject.

So it's no surprise that a would-be supporter's first question (whether spoken or not) is ... Why me?

It's a loaded question. By asking it, the donor is trying to situate himself in the world, or at least in your world. Going through her mind—simultaneously—are related concerns: How do you see me? Do I approve of the way you see me? Do you really know me? Do you care about me? Am I important to you for reasons other than my money?

Carol is someone who had such questions.

After a distinguished career in public health, she retired and devoted herself to a variety of organizations serving seniors. Noted author and consultant Mal Warwick, who at the time was establishing a community foundation focused on young people, approached Carol and asked if she'd become a founder. His goal: a gift of $5,000.

"Why me?" she asked. "You know I never give more than $1,000 at a time. And my interest is seniors, not youth. Why should I do this?"

This is a common dilemma fundraisers face. Virtually all people predisposed to philanthropy are already donors to some causes. It can be tough to break into their circles of concern. And yet it is possible, as you'll see in Mal's case.

"Knowing she was fully capable of giving $5,000 and that she viewed herself as a community leader, I felt I could persuade her to join the founders group," says Mal. "The challenge was to relate our mission to her fondest interests. So I asked whether she saw any contradiction in helping young people rather than seniors."

Mal is nothing if not astute.

"The question caught her off guard," he continues. "She started thinking out loud about intergenerational programs in which young people help seniors with household chores while the seniors, in turn, mentor the young. She recalled the young people who had joined in a program she herself was running. As she spoke at length about this intergenerational concept—novel at the time—she talked herself into giving the $5,000. The amount wasn't the problem. All she needed was an excuse to give."

Mal knew exactly what he was doing. In a kind and respectful way he allowed Carol to discover that she also cared about their community's youth. Like most people, she wanted to help. And by posing that one perfect question, Mal solved her problem of priorities, and his friend became a founder.

Carol essentially asked herself the question, "Why not?"

As this example illustrates, the art of fundraising is the ability to help donors understand how your cause meshes with their personal interests and how, by entrusting you with their money, they'll achieve something they want: namely, improving the lives of others.

You are looking for common ground that helps a donor to express his or her values. The "Why me?" question can also be answered with:

  • Because with your past gifts you've shown you care.
  • Because you've met so and so (a person the cause has helped), and your gift can help others like her.
  • Because you're respected, and your support will inspire others.
  • Because you know how big the need is, and your gift will help provide solutions.

There are many other answers, of course. You'll identify the best one when you deepen your understanding of the donor. And guess what? The best way to do that is to ask him or her questions!


The preceding is a guest post by Harvey McKinnon, one of North America's leading fundraising experts and president of the Vancouver/Toronto-based fundraising consultancy Harvey McKinnon Associates. In addition to The 11 Questions Every Donor Asks and the Answers All Donors Crave, his works include Hidden Gold (Taylor); the audio CD How Today's Rich Give (Jossey-Bass); Tiny Essentials of Monthly Committed Giving (White Lion Press); and (as co-author) the international bestseller The Power of Giving (Tarcher/Penguin), which was selected as an Amazon Best Book for 2005.

Topics: Fundraising