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Understanding Your Donors Is Crucial to Keeping Them

Understanding Your Donor’s Attitude Is CrucialUnderstanding how donors feel about your organization and what role they want you to play in their lives is the starting point for your keeping them for years.

The key question you must answer is the one that resides subconsciously in every donor’s mind: How does this organization best enable me to make the difference I want to make?

How to uncover the answer to that question, and what resources you’ll need to do so, is the subject of my book, Retention Fundraising. Here I’ll focus on why answering the question is a bit trickier than you might imagine.

For nearly 35 years the commercial world has grasped the importance of attitude and has spent literally billions of dollars in understanding how to drive customer attitudes toward greater loyalty and commitment.

The result? According to, the commercial world enjoys customer retention rates approaching 90 percent. The national average of nonprofit retention rates is only 41 percent.

In his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky offers a valuable lesson for those of us involved in fundraising. He describes a research project conducted at McDonald’s. The aim was to improve the company’s milkshakes by learning which attributes could be changed to improve sales. As you would expect, researchers prepared questionnaires and polled random customers about the quality and characteristics of McDonald’s milkshakes.

A typical outcome might have been a report with detailed analysis of customer preferences about sweetness, taste, flavors—with specific recommendations about changes to improve sales.

But one of the researchers adopted a completely different approach. He spent several days sitting in a McDonald’s observing customers who purchased the product. He discovered something unexpected—many were buying milkshakes during breakfast hours.

He further noticed an unusual pattern. Most of these customers came in alone, generally ordered the milkshake and nothing else, and wanted it to go.

Setting out to understand this behavior, the researcher learned that these customers by and large were commuting to work alone. The milkshake was serving as the breakfast meal they could consume while driving. Its attributes made it perfect for the role it was assigned: it was filling, somewhat nutritious, and consumed easily with one hand on the wheel. This was McDonald’s “aha” moment.

Almost everyone else missed the unexpected use of the milkshake because they had focused on the product rather than the customer. They also missed it because they had preconceived notions of how and when a milkshake is consumed and certain fixed ideas about what constitutes a typical breakfast.

There are valuable lessons and insights here not only for fast food chains but for your organization as well.

First, a cause or an organization cannot be viewed apart from the constituency it serves. It is defined not only by its intrinsic features but also by the people (including donors) it serves.

Second, the organizational insiders’ vision of the mission may not always coincide with that of the donors. You may believe you attract donors because you do ABC. Your donors, on the other hand, may contribute because in their mind your group does, or represents for them, XYZ.

A principal reason that often motivates nonprofits to re-brand is their sense that “donors don’t get us.” As a result, a brand consultant is hired and countless dollars and loads of time are wasted. In The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications, Jeff Brooks accurately describes the effort: “So, a brand is cooked up that will set these donors straight: touché you ignorant persons! This is what we are about! Love us now! That’s the kind of brand that is deeply in trouble from the start. It’s going to cost you dearly to educate those donors. And you’ll fail to educate them.”

The milkshake mistake here is believing you can win people over by trying to change their core beliefs and values. Try that and they’ll leave you. Conversely, if you make the effort to match the description of your organization with what donors believe about it, you’ll keep them giving, often for many years.

Understanding Your Donor’s Attitude Is CrucialRoger Craver is author of Retention Fundraising: The New Art and Science of Keeping Your Donors for Life, from which this article is adapted.

Topics: Donor Retention Donor Stewardship Donor Management