by Kyla Winchester, published June 2020

The motivations of donors can feel slippery and hard to pin down. It’s hard to know why a single person gave last year but not this year; or gave a certain amount last year but then gave less this year. However, there are patterns and trends that can help us, especially now: we are all having very similar feelings and trying to fulfill similar psychological ends to manage these feelings. We know donors give for complicated reasons, but observing the effect social distancing and uncertainty are having on us and the people around us can help us interpret what people may look for in their giving this year.

Consider the following reasons why people may be donating to your cause, and find out how you can help them feel good, empowered, and connected.

Feeling good

While there has been some improvement in recent weeks, people are still experiencing a lot of anxiety. People are searching for ways to feel good. There are ways to ‘manufacture’ this feeling, i.e. to create an external situation that will give us good feelings. Some people are watching their favourite TV shows or ordering delivery from beloved local restaurants. Another way to create this good feeling is to make a donation: giving often provides an immediate surge, with subsequent rushes when you get the thank you email and then share the organization you just supported on social media.

To support this: use language to emphasize the good feeling they will get, perhaps evoking altruism, with wording like “Your gift makes a difference” or “Do something great today.”

Feeling of accomplishment/Immediate tangible results

The pandemic is, for most of us, far removed and intangible. Unless you’re in health care, the effects usually come in the form of models and statistics, which can seem abstract at the best of times. Making a gift is something that can provide a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of immediate or even ‘tangible’ results. (It’s not technically tangible because they can’t touch it; however, it can provide more of a feeling of being ‘real’ than, for example, lines on a chart).

To support this: share information about the tangible, immediate result of giving. You can talk about mission delivery, like “Your gift will provide a food box with a week’s worth of food”, or “Your gift will help save a wild animal in [your city].” In your thank-you, be specific: “You have helped a child get an education!”, or “You helped get a pet into a loving home.” To emphasize this feeling, it’s particularly important not to share information that’s overwhelming, distant in time, or vague: for example, don’t phrase it like, “We plan to save a forest next year!” or “We’ll help more people than ever!”).

Feeling empowered

Another common feeling today is helplessness. People often prefer to tackle things head on, and battling a pandemic by staying home leaves many people feeling like they aren’t doing anything, or aren’t doing enough. In addition, many of the normal measures of achievement are lacking: things that we would usually be checking off our list are impossible, like the meaningful volunteering outreach, finishing that home improvement project, or tackling things that would otherwise be getting done. Making a donation provides an easy solution to that feeling of helplessness: your donors can be empowered through their giving, providing the opportunity to decide and then act, leading to feelings of accomplishment and empowerment. 

To support this: try to emphasize choice and action. Online, you could do a petition, which certainly helps with feelings of empowerment and could also be an opportunity for lead generation;  in direct mail, you could provide a bounce-back, for example a card they fill out and mail back with their gift. This also overlaps with language around feelings of accomplishment, including the specific impact their support will have. Try testing a “How you can help” list, like “Make a gift, sign a petition, become a volunteer, follow us on social, share with a friend” to see what actions people respond to and how they engage.

Forming connections

A number of people are living in situations with reduced connections: we’re all seeing fewer people than we used to. Many are turning to Facebook, Instagram and other social platforms to provide connections. Giving can be a way to feel connected to something outside your home. People often give because they feel a connection to the mission or to the organization; the current restrictions just amplify that need to connect. 

To support this: put a face to your ask; make it from somebody specific, like a board member or volunteer; or about somebody specific, like someone who works on the front lines, has received support or is affected by your cause. Make your thank-you specific as well: the thank-you is from someone named (not “Thank you from all of us”) and/or includes a mission-related photo, like  a person holding a food basket or an after photo of a rescue animal.

Showing their values

Studies show younger people like to demonstrate their values on social media. One of the effects of COVID-19 has been increased concern for vulnerable people—such as those who rely on food banks, live in long-term care, or otherwise had challenges even before lockdown. What’s also been highlighted is that the values we saw 3 months ago—for example, fair wages, active transportation, access to education, climate change—are things people still care about now, perhaps through a different lens. People want to be able to affect change for issues they care about, and with so many people spending more time online, social sharing is a great way for people to demonstrate their support for the things they value.

To support this: you could include a direct mail premium like a window cling or sticker saying they proudly support your organization. On a landing page, you could include a button to easily share a message on social media (“Click here to share your support for food security!”), so they know before they give that this option is readily available. We can also learn from for-profits with ideas like Wallpaper Wednesday, where you can provide beautiful images they want to share online that also highlight their values.

Customize, test, repeat

You may be thinking, “Not all of these will work for my organization.” It’s true, some missions may work better for immediate results, like a food box with meals for a week. Some may work better for demonstrating values, like a theatre that has pivoted to shareable online content. Some may work better for forming connections, if you already have faces and stories available to provide meaningful stories for supporters. Sort out what you think will work best given what your donors usually respond to, and then test it. Your donors already believe in your cause, and they haven’t suddenly stopped believing in the mission, but their motivations may be working slightly differently than usual. Help them find what they seek, whether it’s connection or empowerment, values or just a good feeling, and they’ll be glad to give.