Elevate Philanthropy ™
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Donor motivations and the danger of assumptions

Vice President (FORMER)

Few can deny that this has been a challenging year, but would it be fair to say that it was challenging for everyone in the same way?

Before you answer, consider:

Over the past year, I’ve found myself wondering on more than one occasion why fundraisers are so confident that economic uncertainty is the reason for a donor’s behavior.

No matter what that behavior – or change in behavior – might be, I can usually think of several other equally likely possibilities for what motivates a donor’s behavior. And no one has any empirical evidence to prove those possibilities right or wrong.

I thought I was the only one wondering about this. Then, one day not long ago, a colleague commented on the very same question. Deciding to undertake some informal research, we each asked others in the profession to reflect on what assumptions they, themselves, made or observed others making regarding donor behavior.

Lightbulb moment: fundraising is rife with assumptions!

The prevalence of assumptions and why it occurs

We recognize that no one has better insight into donors’ motivations than the frontline fundraisers with whom they interact. Consultants can spot industry trends and recognize patterns we see across clients, but a frontline fundraiser who interacts directly with a donor has an inherently deeper understanding of that person.

If that’s the case, then what is so wrong with making assumptions?

The answer is deceptively simple: knowing our donors does not mean that every assumption we make is correct. It is the very fortunate fundraiser who cannot name a single instance in which they misread donor motivation and intent.

So why do we make assumptions about donor behavior?

A brief investigation into the psychology of assumptions yielded an interesting answer: the “false consensus effect.” Briefly, the false consensus effect refers to the tendency of most humans to overestimate the extent to which others share our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors

Another lightbulb.

If, for instance, you or I had fears about the current economy, we may assume that our donors do as well. If we learn that a donor is undergoing a significant life event such as a cross-country move, a health scare, or a change of employment, we may assume that their plate is too full to be bothered with philanthropy because, in their shoes, we would not have time for it.  While it is wise to be respectful of our donors’ personal situations, we cannot know with any certainty how various circumstances will impact behavior.

Unless we ask.

How to move past assumption to knowledge

In working with donors, we know that personalization is everything.  The most successful cultivation strategies are donor-centric and tailored to meet donors’ needs and help achieve their philanthropic goals. But how do we avoid the false consensus effect and move from assumption to knowledge?

By asking ourselves these five questions, we can move donor relationships forward with certainty rather than guesswork:

1. What do I know?

What has the donor told me directly?  What empirical data is available from sources including, but not limited to, reputable news outlets and published annual reports?  For instance, imagine you are doing research on your donor and learned through a national newspaper that his or her small software company was recently acquired by a huge tech firm.  This is what you know. 

2. What don’t I know?

What have I heard through secondary or otherwise questionable sources?  Did you, for example, hear from a mutual acquaintance that your donor “had a financial windfall” pursuant to a business deal?  This could be more or less solid information depending on its source, but unless you have documentation (SEC data, for example) to prove it, you do not truly know it.

3. What must I find out to make an educated decision about next steps with this donor?

What information must I have to develop an informed plan of action relative to this donor?  For instance, if you heard a rumor that the donor suffered a job loss, can that rumor be substantiated?  This has direct bearing on the donor’s capacity and is inherently relevant.

4. What is less essential to know?

What information is available but not truly indispensable?  As an example, did you see a photo of your donor at a political rally for a candidate who subsequently lost?  From this information, there is not enough evidence to confirm that this combination of circumstances might lead the donor to halt philanthropy. It might not even confirm political leaning! This is less essential to know.

5. Once I’ve done my due diligence, how do I adjust my strategy based on my findings?

This is where we separate the wheat from the chaff.

In your assessment, the answers to questions 1 and 3 are your guideposts: “What do I know?” and “What must I find out to make an educated decision about next steps with this donor?”

The answers to 2 and 4 may provide interesting color commentary, but they do not provide actionable information on their own. To act on them, you would need to make assumptions about what each of the circumstances mean to your donor. Remember, a financial windfall to one person may mean greater liquidity and philanthropic flexibility. But to another individual, this windfall may mean they have the capital needed to make a significant real estate investment.

From the fundraiser’s perspective, these are very different outcomes. Moreover, they represent only two of the many scenarios that could play out with your donor.

Instead of making assumptions, use what you do know to build a strategy based on fact. This process can be time consuming, but it is also worthwhile. Seek information from reliable sources and, when possible, directly from the donor. Never assume your donor shares your beliefs or perceptions of events. Fundraisers are in the business of building relationships, and this is why: the single most important source of information about any donor will always come from a respectful, friendly, and honest conversation with the donors themselves.