Advancing Philanthropy

Fundraising and Research: Two Tools to Turn Major Donors into Engaged Allies

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woman drawing an image on a wall with a lightbulb and the words idea, plan, team, support

Imagine receiving a new email with this bold subject line: Join us in lighting up Denver! You’re familiar with the sender, so you open it up, and under the pretty header, a form letter to the effect of:

Then, a few links and event details, and more than a few questions left in your mind. What work are they doing? Why should I participate? Why do they need me?

If you’re in the nonprofit world, you know it’s so hard to get donors’ precious attention. Once you do get that introduction, that contact, that meeting—what do you do to maximize it? This is where so many organizations go wrong.

I’ve been helping executives become more persuasive through stories since 2010, before it became “a thing.” Through my work in helping leaders, philanthropists, and fundraisers tell stories about their work, I have created a fundamental storytelling framework called the IRS model: Intriguing beginning, Riveting middle, Satisfying end. Whether written in a proposal or spoken over the phone, a good story features these basic building blocks. Thoughtfully crafting your story is the difference between inspiring interest and falling flat.

Thoughtfully crafting your story is the difference between inspiring interest and falling flat.

You can’t get anywhere if you don’t spark interest from the get-go. That’s why you need an intriguing beginning. But there is also no substitute for knowing your audience.

Having done original research on first-generation wealth creators, I have learned that major donors tend to fall into one of four personas. (My friend Scott Mordell, the longest serving CEO of YPO Global, illuminated and defined their motivations during a webinar where we collaborated to educate nonprofit leaders.) While not a substitute for a relationship, the persona is a shortcut to understanding how your donor wants to learn, contribute and be included.

Let’s cover these two tools—our donor personas and some examples of intriguing beginnings for each—which you can use immediately to jumpstart a connection with your major donors.

Persona #1: The Idealist

The Idealist sees wealth as a source of opportunity to impact their world, whether that’s through the school district where they received their education, tech internships for young women, or environmentally-friendly innovations. This individual wants to see the world become a better place, and they know they can help move it in the right direction.

How to engage the Idealist:

  • Paint a picture to show them the reality you can create together. Photos, video, and data are very important, but underpinning all of those elements is the story. Let them enter the story and become personally invested.
  • Focus on problem-solving, whether long- or short-term. Donors focused on impact want to see change and progress; it is their No.1 motivation for philanthropy.
  • Give them a voice. Small voting campaigns allow new initiatives to feel personal. An example would be collecting a vote on which sister organization will get 5% of their donations this month.

Intriguing beginnings:

  • “High school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested in their lifetime than students who finish school. What we do now will change the rest of their lives.”
  • “Every shelter animal has a forever family out there waiting. We’ve designed the tools to get them home. Here’s how you can help.”

Persona #2: The Legacy Leader

This individual has a vision of enduring reputation; long after they and their children and grandchildren are gone, their name will symbolize generosity, ambition, social conscience and positive change.

How to engage the Legacy Leader:

  • Make this donor feel seen and remembered by your organization. Ask this donor for input. Be honest about where you can and cannot take their recommendations but also let them know their ideas matter as well as their money.
  • Offer volunteer opportunities and campaigns for entire families. Show this donor how they can invite their children to share in a family approach to philanthropy and pass on their values.

Intriguing beginnings:

  • “Wow! Our 2021 Gala raised over $360,000! Donors and sponsors, you almost doubled our 2019 Gala total. Our staff has a message for you in the video below.”
  • “‘I want it to matter that I was here.’ Donor Caroline Benson celebrates 20 years partnering with our organization.”

Persona #3: The Model Citizen

The Model Citizen may come from any background; what they have in common is a desire to possess an exemplary life and polished image. Though not all individuals may think in terms of “checking the boxes,” a principle of that sort is at play. Model Citizens tend to build admirable lives with the “right” education and degrees, homes, family life and leisure activities. Philanthropy, to this persona, is part of being well-rounded.

How to engage the Model Citizen:

  • Present your measurable outcomes. This persona prefers a “sure thing” to a more vague or far-off goal.
  •  Visible campaigns like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge are a fun and satisfying way for this individual to participate collectively with others.
  • Much as this person curates an image, your organization must present an authentic image of stability, conscientiousness and commitment to best practices. Endorsements, awards and certifications should be prominently presented on your website and development materials.

Intriguing beginnings:

  • “Last year, we were recognized by GuideStar for providing eight Detroit-area crisis shelters with over 10,000 hours of free counseling services. This year, three celebrity partners will MATCH your donations to double our impact!”
  • “What’s so special about our reusable water bottle? Is it recycled? Is it recyclable? Does it provide clean water to a whole community in need? It’s all of the above!”

Persona #4: The Busy Bigwig

Two cell phones and two assistants: this persona is the most difficult to reach because they are so busy with work and life. They don’t have a lot of bandwidth for researching your campaigns or for frequent engagement. Therefore, early on, it’s important to tell short, impactful stories to communicate your mission, explain your activities, and prove your organization’s efficacy. Once they are in your corner, they will likely remain a reliable, low-maintenance, and long-term donor.

How to engage the Busy Bigwig:

  • Brief reports and infographics will help this individual feel secure about funding your efforts. Always link to full sources in case they have a moment to read further.
  • Communication should be condensed. Use the IRS model described earlier to present a short, complete narrative. Accompany these short narratives with photos and quick statistics.
  • You should also communicate at infrequent but regular intervals—consider on a quarterly basis.

Intriguing beginnings:

  • “Celebrate your amazing 2020 impact! Here are six graphs that show how your donations changed over 3 million women’s lives in Central America and the Caribbean.”
  • “Did you know 100% of our employees donate 3% or more of their salary to our Trevor B. Jones Scholarship Fund? Over the last five years, this fund has awarded full state college tuition to over 100 deserving Atlanta-area students.”

By getting to know your donor as a person and effectively presenting a compelling story of your organization and your work, you’ll facilitate a strong partnership. Give them an intriguing beginning, and they’ll be glad to get your emails.

Esther ChoyEsther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010. She believes respectful curiosity is the doorway to connecting with everyone. It’s a mindset she’s taken to research and understand first generation wealth creators and their relationship with wealth and philanthropy. When any audience is asked respectful and thought-provoking questions, stories pour out, revelations emerge, and connections forge. Esther’s research on first-generation wealth creators can be found in the report Transforming Partnerships with Major Donors.

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