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Understanding the Motivations of Major Donors, Part II: Know Thy Donors

Excerpt from the second edition of Over Goal! What You Must Know to Excel at Fundraising Today

Research May Give Clues about Motivation, but the Only Truly Reliable Resource Is the Donor

Get to know your major prospects and donors. More importantly, get to know as many of your donors—major or not—as you can. See them all as having potential to give a large gift at some time or to connect you with those who can. If you're fortunate enough to have research capability at your organization, use it as a baseline.

Validate it through conversation and involvement. Throw out the old paradigms and be open to those on whom no research exists. Inexperienced donors need to feel supported by an organization that understands their need for information, involvement, and, in many cases, time.

The Goal of Good Stewardship Is to Keep the Donor Motivated

Stewardship, which is the ongoing relationship with a donor based on mutual respect for both the source and impact of the gift, is perhaps the most important function in the development process. It is critical to maintaining major donor motivation.

So many institutions have lost major donors through their failure to maintain a values- and mission-based relationship with their donors. They wine, dine, and solicit prospects and then, once the gift is secured, place the new donor into the donor file and close it up.

For them, the transaction is over. But for the donor, the relationship is just beginning. Honoring the donor, and his motivation, is the key to effective stewardship. Motivation is stimulated by knowing that the shared values of the donor and the institution are being advanced. Stewardship is the vehicle for conveying that information.

Corporate and Foundation Motivation Is Different from Individual Motivation, but Remember That Corporations and Foundations Are Run by Individuals

Although corporations and foundations may be motivated by more complex factors in their giving (perception as corporate citizens, investing in a local or national agenda), remember they are run by individuals.

When a corporation or foundation becomes a major donor, chances are it's because your organization matches the guidelines or fulfills their community commitment to a particular population, service, need, or ideal.

Most often, the process for obtaining a gift is relatively impersonal, requiring a certain level of objective application within funding guidelines. However, during the gift-seeking process and afterwards, as stewardship is implemented, the motivations of decision-making individuals should be watched and responded to. Chances are, you'll end up with a continuing and deeper relationship.

Motivated Donors Must Be Linked with Motivated Volunteers

The increasing trend in universities, hospitals, and other larger organizations to use staff-only soliciting is unfortunate. The presence of a volunteer, motivated by the values and mission of the organization and giving of his time to meet with a potential donor, cannot be over-valued. The peer ask continues to be the most effective, and the most motivating, in major gifts programs.

This doesn't in anyway undermine the training, effectiveness, or knowledge of development staff: it's merely a plea for the continued involvement of motivated volunteers—often with staff—in the cultivation and solicitation of major gifts.

Ultimately, the Most Motivated Major Donors Will Self-solicit

This concept, first introduced to the writer many years ago by a motivated and effective volunteer at Stanford University, has repeatedly proven true.

When the environment is established in which a prospective donor's motivations can flourish, and when the prospect is connected with volunteers who themselves are motivated and share the prospect's values, the prospect begins to self-solicit.

Presented with an array of opportunities to act on his values, the prospect begins an internal dialogue in which the gift is considered and "solicited."

While few donors will actually step forward without being asked, the self-solicit ensures that—when the prospect is asked—the ensuing transaction will be characterized by excitement, energy, and commitment.

It is the same with those who are already committed as major donors. They will renew and increase their gifts if a motivating environment surrounds them. The challenge to those who ask is to stay so connected to the prospect or donor that the right time to ask becomes obvious.

The motivation accelerates, the involvement increases, and the desire to invest becomes clear. Seize the moment: it will reap rewards for the donor, and for the organization.

Ultimately, major donor motivation is as varied as the donors themselves. Learn to look for the unique aspects of each current and potential donor: his values, interests, connections, and what he cares about. While some aspects of the traditional profiles still hold true, there's so much more to consider.

A broader view of motivation will bring a broader base of major donors, and among them will be the "new philanthropists": those who are mercifully free of donor fatigue.

And you just might find a cure for donor fatigue among the major donors that everyone seeks. They're all looking increasingly for continued involvement, values-based feedback, and opportunities to make a difference.

Read "Understanding the Motivations of Major Donors, Part I: The Most Important Things to Know"

Kay Sprinkel Grace
© 2006. Excerpted from the second edition of Over Goal! What You Must Know to Excel at Fundraising Today. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Kay Sprinkel Grace is the author of Over Goal! What You Must Know to Excel at Fundraising Today, from which this article is excerpted. Her other books include The Ultimate Board Member's Book  and Fundraising Mistakes that Bedevil All Boards (and Staff Too).
Topics: Fundraising