Understanding and Upgrading Habitual Donors

Three fourths of all donors give by habit, some with the rhythm and regularity of piano teacher’s metronome. Tick, tock, tick, tock — same time, same amount, same method, same organizations.

Other equally habitual donors manage their giving with a systematic approach that suggests their giving has simply been put on automatic pilot. Some begin with a small gift and methodically increase it over time. Others start out with a large gift that diminishes each year by a predetermined percentage.

People who have been giving for many years develop their own systems, guidelines, or formulas. Many of those habits are rooted in some good or bad previous giving experience. For corporations and grant-making organizations that receive numerous requests, habits can be defense mechanisms established to avoid being overwhelmed with the large task of evaluating and selecting recipients. Habits and systems are easier than investigation and deliberation.

Those mechanics simplify their lives, and they generally do not entertain proposals that upset the order they have constructed. They don’t like people complicating their busy lives.

Individuals are much the same way but with less formal and often with unstated guidelines. For instance, if you are raising money for an organization that does not fully or willingly disclose the details of their spending, some donors will answer with an automatic no. They may in fact have a lot of things that produce automatic declines. Those mechanics simplify their lives, and they generally do not entertain proposals that upset the order they have constructed. They don’t like people complicating their busy lives.

The fact that some donors or donor organizations are highly mechanized in their giving doesn’t necessarily mean that they are unwilling to give more or more frequently. It does, however, mean that you need to figure out how their giving systems works and how to work within their often unstated rules, schedules, or timelines.

For instance, if you go to all your habitual year-end givers in July with an emotional appeal for an emergency gift, some may indeed respond with a donation. However, in the minds of a few, the donor-organization relationship just got downgraded. It’s not the amount of money that bothered them but that the request forced them out of their giving habit or schedule.

It’s not the amount of money that bothered them but that the request forced them out of their giving habit or schedule.

Donors often adopt habits, rules, and schedules in order to avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed. If you ignore their habits, break their rules, or try to get them off schedule, you are probably going to get a cool response. The donors may or may not explain why, but generally speaking, you have just invaded their comfort zone, trying to knock down fences they have spent considerable time and effort erecting.

Another example: some mechanized givers set up system to protect themselves from emotion involvement. They may give $100 each year to homeless ministries because they do not want to be confronted with the personal responsibility for homelessness. In that case, giving is a way of distancing themselves from the situation, not getting closer to it. So, introducing them to the emotional realities of homelessness or trying to get them physically involved is counter-productive.

It is not hard to identify habitual givers if you have basic giving records. The bigger issue is to figure out what their habits are. Even more important is to understand what caused or causes those habits to be as they are. Below are some questions about donor habits. Ideally, I would discover these answers in the context of a long-term relationship. Getting to know people, I discover things about their giving habits that I would have never thought to ask.

Many donors are much more reluctant to open up when the only visits are for the purpose of making another ask. 

Below are some standard questions ask (not all at once but over time):

  • How and when do you prefer to give?
  • Did you always do it that way or did you develop that system over time?
  • What has been your best and worst giving experience?
  • When and how did you get involved with this organization?
  • What criteria do you use when making giving decisions?
  • When do you make those decisions?
  • How do you evaluate your previous gifts?
  • What means most to you – newsletters, personal follow up, prayer requests, details on the program results, financial data, etc.?

Above answers come from visiting with donors, talking about giving in general and discussing what their previous gifts have done. Two cautions: 1) Many donors are much more reluctant to open up when the only visits are for the purpose of making another ask.  2) There is a temptation to mail a survey or mechanically go though a survey in person. In doing so you may wind up violating or treading on the very thing their systems are designed to protect them from – personal disclosure. Donor relationships, like all good relationship, begin with open, honest communications. They are built on trust and developed over time.

—Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

 copyright 2012, Eddie Thompson
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2 Responses to Understanding and Upgrading Habitual Donors

  1. Pingback: SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT; Six Conversations that You Need to Have with Major Donors | The Fundraising Executive

  2. Reblogged this on Unleashed Abundance and commented:
    Fantastic blog post on communicating with philanthropists and “investors” so you discuss what THEY want to.

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