What Your Donors Want...and Why

What Your Donors Want...and Why

Tom Ahern

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What Your Donors Want...and Why!
The Ultimate Guide to Successful Fundraising Communications

by Tom Ahern, 171 pp

The New York Times has called Tom Ahern "one of the country's most sought-after creators of fundraising messages." He's also a wildly popular trainer, introducing fundraisers around the world to the secrets of persuasion and donor-centricity.

What Your Donors Want...and Why! is his latest and most impassioned book. In its chapters, nonprofits learn how to treat donors as customers (and why that matters so much to income) ... how to organize communications around the prime metric of Lifetime Value (LTV) ... and how to answer the Big Three questions required in a high-performance case for support.

What Your Donors Want...and Why! bases its advice on the latest research. It debunks common myths such as "increased awareness raises more money." It explores in depth the psychology and neuroscience behind loyal donors.

Written in Tom Ahern's easy-going jargon-free style, What Your Donors Want...and Why! is heavily illustrated with recent real-world examples from charities of all sizes.

About the Author

Tom Ahern is considered one of the world’s top authorities on how to make donor communications more profitable. He is author of Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes, How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money, and Making Money with Donor Newsletters, all published by Emerson & Church. He collaborated with Adrian Sargeant and psychologist Jen Shang on prototyping innovative direct mail packages for PBS TV. As a “message strategist” he’s won three prestigious IABC Gold Quill awards, all for nonprofit communications campaigns that achieved unusual success.

Table of Contents

View from orbit

1. Insert this into your job description

2. Job #1: Keeping your customer happy

3. Donor, who art thou?

4. Lifetime value (LTV)

View from 30,000 feet

5. How to improve first-time retention

6. Why bequests are your easiest, simplest road to riches

7. You know who's not your customer? Your boss and board

8. Are your expectations realistic?

9. Donor-centricity: The only secret I know to increased giving

10. Does your charity come across as an egotistical maniac?

11. Raising awareness does not raise funds (usually)

12. Why you actually matter to donors

Wheels down

13. Do you have a "case for support"?

14. How to figure out your case

15. "Make it bigger"

16. Ron Arena's 3 Big Questions

17. In the mind of a donor

18. Natural constituencies

19. Get them into a fight

20. Focus on your target audience

21. Donor communications 101

22. How quickly should you thank a new donor?

23. Triggers

24. Interest me (or else)

25. (1) emotions (2) totally (3) rule

26. You're an intrusion, too

27. The rise of skimming

Into the weeds

28. AIDA (it's not an opera, it's a sales approach)

29. Stories, not stats

30. The Gift of Joy (Faster!)

31. Sad or happy? Both.

32. What about "poverty porn"?

33. Do you have an offer?

34. Grade level of your writing

35. First things first: "Anchoring"

36. What's your SMIT?

37. Mental nods

38. The perfect length for a direct mail appeal

39. One-line opening paragraphs

40. To PS? Or not to PS?

41. What are you writing today: Acquisition, existing or lapsed?

42. How often can you ask in a year?

43. How soon will we know our results?

44. The Domain Formula for print newsletters

45. Content for newsletters

46. Big type matters most

Afterword: One last pep rally

P.S.: For all new fundraisers


This article is excerpted from Tom Ahern's book, What Your Donors Want...Andy Why, ©Emerson & Church, Publishers. To obtain reprint permission, call 508-359-0019 or email us.

Why People Respond with Donations

"The story’s about the donor," Seth Godin says.

Godin is a Stanford MBA, a successful serial entrepreneur, and the best-selling author of more than a dozen mind-bending marketing books. His insights into consumer behavior are sharp and actionable, especially where donors are concerned.   

"Every time someone donates to a good cause," Godin points out, "they're buying a story, a story that's worth more than the amount they donated."

There is more treasure hidden in that observation than in King Solomon's lost mines. Godin goes on: "It might be the story of doing the right thing, or fitting in, or pleasing a friend or honoring a memory, but the story has value. For many, it's the story of what it means to be part of a community."     

Notice two points:

- Donors play a role in the story they're buying;

- The purchased story is worth the money because it reinforces the donor's self-image: "I am a good person because I chipped in."  

When a person makes a gift to charity, they're proving something to themselves (and maybe others): This is the kind of person I am. Every gift to charity has the potential to extend a person's story in a meaningful and positive direction.

In her research, Jen Shang, a psychologist who studies philanthropic behavior, found that Americans describe a "good person" with nine favored adjectives: caring, compassionate, fair, friendly, generous, hard-working, helpful, honest and kind. A "good person" would be someone you'd like as a neighbor, as a politician representing you, as a teacher for your kids.           

As you read those adjectives, you probably noticed that many of them—six of nine—link up nicely with the charitable impulse: caring, compassionate, fair (as in a desire for social justice), generous, helpful and kind.             

In other words, good people make gifts. Yet how many charities bother to celebrate such baseline values in their donor communications? Very few I run across. And I review hundreds of items a year: direct mail appeals, donor newsletters, emails, websites, annual reports, videos, case statements, thank you's and so on.            

Instead, by and large, the donor communications I see say the wrong things. Almost none are donor centered. Jeff Brooks, one of America's most experienced and successful direct mail copywriters, author How to Turn Your Words Into Money, puts it this way:

Your donors are not your donors—as in an asset you own or control. But your                organization is their charity—something they use to accomplish their goals. Keep    this distinction in mind, and your fundraising will be a lot better.

What every communication from your organization should (subliminally) say          

No matter what words you actually choose, your prospects and your donors should hear something like this from you loud and clear, over and over and over and over and over:             

Thank you.

You make it possible.

Thank you ... SO, SO MUCH.

This mission depends on you UTTERLY.

At board and staff retreats, we always talk about YOU, the donor ... the true believer, the supporter, the real family member.

Who keeps us strong and cutting edge? Donors like you. Philanthropists. Like you.

We talk about YOU ... and how all these special, compassionate, selfless people like you make SO MUCH possible.

We gush about you shamelessly. Because you joined "the fight."

You consulted your heart. You felt those crazy "caring" enzymes rise inside you.

You glowed ... like a high-wattage LED bulb of doing good.

You flared ... into a nova star of doing good.

Would it embarrass you to say the above? Good. You should be embarrassed. That's when you know you've gone far enough. Donors, however, won't be embarrassed. Applaud them without reservation. They'll love you for it.