Listening to Your Donors: Empathetic Giving Part II

Randy McCabe June 23, 2016 Nonprofits

“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”

 — Daniel H. Pink

Donor to Nonprofit Employee: I Know You Love Your Organization, But Do You Know Why I Love Your Organization?

As a nonprofit, it’s critical to know who your donors are. And I don’t mean standard data points like age, geographic region, frequency of giving, etc. (although those are important), but I mean true understanding. In Part I of this series on Empathetic Giving, I explained how understanding donor motivations in the form of empathy is a new approach to fundraising that can have benefits for your nonprofit. This week, I’ll explain why it’s critical to gather this information by using donor surveys.

More Than Pulling on Heartstrings

In reading about this idea of Empathetic Giving, there is a lot of talk about how nonprofits need to share stories that are as close to the work their organization is performing as possible.  The thinking goes like this – if I share not just what we do or how effective we are at doing it, but the real and emotional stories of hearts / bodies / minds that are changed for the better because of the work of the nonprofit, then people will feel empathy and give to help the cause.

And while I have always believed that real and emotional stories of changed lives (hearts / bodies / minds) are more effective fundraising stories than descriptions of what nonprofits do and explanations of their effectiveness, I also believe Empathetic Giving goes a level deeper.  It isn’t just sharing these stories in a blind effort to tug at heartstrings and evoke empathy in the donor.  Rather, Empathetic Giving involves understanding your donors: who they are, what they believe, and what moves them, so you can connect them to the right parts of your organization that will interest them the most.

Now let’s be careful, because a nonprofit could get carried away by trying to make their organization seem like, “all things to all people.” That could not be further from the point.  Your donors have connected with you for a reason, and Empathetic Giving advocates for understanding that reason as a way to promote a healthy relationship between donor and organization. Using this method can help connect a donor more personally to the specific causes that moved them to donate in the first place.

Using Surveys and Giving History to Understand Your Donors

Have you ever thought of asking your donors what they care about in your organization?  There is a wealth of information to be gained through a Donor Survey, not the least of which is getting to know your donors better.

As I explained in Empathetic Giving, Part I, understanding your donors, what they believe, and what moves them is the next level of segmentation after RFM (recency, frequency, monetary).  It is critical to understand:

  • The original way they found your nonprofit (sometimes referred to as Source).
  • What newsletters or appeals they have given to over the years (sometimes known as Motivation).
  • What they have volunteered for.

Then you are getting a clearer picture of who your donors are, how to communicate with them, and how to directly connect them with the kind of things they want to help.

Empathy is about listening first. How can we understand someone’s heart without listening to her story? At its deepest level, Empathetic Giving must invite your donors to share their stories. If an organization can facilitate groups of like-minded donors sharing their stories with each other—and with curious prospects—explosive things can happen. Nonprofits have done a lot of talking to donors over the years. Maybe it’s time we focus more on listening, and then connecting our donors. Then, our biggest advocates and most passionate constituents can share their stories with each other—and the world—directly.

How to Use the Information to Promote Empathetic Giving

Let me give you an example.  It would be easy to view a homeless shelter as a great organization with a fairly simple story and value proposition.  But let’s look at two different cases. What if Donor A (we’ll call her Anne) saw a news story on TV about the church service that the shelter puts on every evening after dinner. It resonated with her to get involved because of the number of homeless people who have received the love and hope that comes from God through those services.  On the other hand, look at Donor B (we’ll call him Jeff) who connected with the shelter when he was a volunteer teacher at one of the career training classes the shelter puts on every month. Because of that experience Jeff cares deeply about education and what it can do to enhance the lives of people through skills-development and job opportunities.

The idea of Empathetic Giving is to understand what is important to Anne and Jeff, and to communicate with them appropriately to help them engage at a deeper level. That way they can more directly help the shelter do good in each specific area that they care most about.

Differentiating between Anne and Jeff is only possible if an organization has made an effort to understand their donors through Empathetic Giving.