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Go Inside the Mind of Your Donor

AHP Staff
Published:  08/07/2015
meeting over coffee

As a development professional, you have a good idea about what makes people give. You have gathered this knowledge through practice, learning and experience. But what is the scientific backing behind what you know, and how can it help with your future development efforts?

Stripped down, the thing that makes people give is emotion. We give when our subconscious— the limbic part of our brain—is engaged. We make decisions based on our emotions and intuitions, then use logic to justify these decisions. As our brains age, we become more right- sided— which means we tend to act on our emotions even more. Since the majority of the current donor population is older, it’s all the more reason to focus your development efforts on appealing to emotion instead of logic.


The Identifiable Victim

One important research finding is that people are more likely to donate to an individual person than to a series of statistics and facts. As Mother Theresa once said, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at one I will.”

This idea has been backed by science. For example, researchers in one study asked a group of people if they would donate toward a $300,000 piece of medical equipment that would save the lives of eight children. They asked another group if they would donate toward the same amount to save one child instead. People in the second group were twice as likely to donate than those in the first group. People want to donate to an identifiable and specific victim.


The Power of Storytelling

Storytelling is a fundamental part of being human. We do it every day, and it is a part of our nature. It has been shown that people are more likely to believe information given to them in the form of a story rather than statistics. Stories also linger longer in the listener or reader’s mind, which allows the message to be passed along faster and further.

During a study on the effects of storytelling, researchers found that the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted who would donate. Oxytocin is a chemical related to empathy. Based on changes in brain chemistry—how much oxytocin was released—researchers were able to predict who would donate with 80 percent accuracy.

When writing or telling your story, it is important to remember what makes a story captivating: the dramatic arc. This means that the story has an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Although it is important to keep the information relevant, don’t be afraid to delve into the details so you can discuss them with your donors.


Influence and Persuasion

Here are a few factors that can help influence and persuade your donors, according to psychologist Robert Cialdini.

  • Reciprocity: People often give because they feel indebted in some way—for example, because they have received care from your organization.
  • Consensus/social proof: People tend to look to others to see what to do, which is why testimonials can be very important.
  • Authority: People also look to authority figures see what to do. That is why many organizations are giving their head officers the title of CEO, for example, since it’s a title that people are more likely to respond to.


Tips to Improve Your Mailings

The more knowledge we have about how our donors make decisions, the better off we are. This extends to the way we write.

Reading Comprehension

For maximum readability and comprehension, write at the level of a seventh grader. Some organizations reject this notion, because they believe their audience to be more educated. However, even President Obama spoke at an eighth-grade level when making speeches so everyone was sure to understand the information.

Use influential words, including: you, value, do, imagine, see, show, hear, and tackle. Avoid using negative trigger words like problem; talk about opportunities instead.


Use the donor’s first name. There always is a higher response rate when people feel like you are speaking directly to them.

Why, Not How

Focus on explaining to donors why it is important to donate to your cause, not how to do it.

"Thank You" Is a Powerful Motivator

If you write thank you anywhere in the letter, people are more likely to respond and donate.


NEWS  /02/27/19
Combine the art of the pitch, proven philanthropic strategies and classic storytelling techniques to develop a case for support.
NEWS  /08/08/13
Editor’s note: As we prepare for the 2013 AHP International Conference this October in Toronto, Ontario
NEWS  /12/20/17
Working with donors who are elderly may bring up ethical questions for fundraisers.

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AHP Staff

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