Donors are inspired to give for intrinsically emotional reasons. Some give for public recognition, others from a need to make amends. Empathy, self-promotion, altruism and guilt are just a few of the many motivating emotions identified by the research-based Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy.

Here are three insights to help you identify donor motivations prior to soliciting major gifts:

The donor has already told you

Listen to everything donors say. And notice what they don’t say – all while observing their body language. If they become animated on a subject, they’re telling you what motivates them. If they look bored by an aspect of the nonprofit’s work, they’re telling you something, too. Ask open-ended questions and actively listen. Don’t be distracted by your own thoughts on what you want to say about the organization or the campaign. Listen, observe and take it to heart.

Focus on the donor’s big dream more than the nonprofit’s needs

Some donors are enthusiastic about naming opportunities, donor walls or levels of giving in the annual report. Others are not as concerned with external recognition as they’re about internal resolution. For example, you might hear a donor say something like, “I want to know I’ve done something good with my life.” That’s a big insight. Another donor’s motivation might be purely altruistic. In that case, too much recognition could take away from the joy of giving.

Identify the donor’s motivation before asking for a major gift

Respectfully and discreetly pick up on clues and use emotional intelligence to deduce underlying motivations. Then, work backwards from the donor’s big dream to the nonprofit’s big need. Don’t focus on how important a building is to the organization. Start with the donor’s passion and connect it back to your organization’s needs.

Never judge a donor’s motivation. Simply recognize the dream and help make it a reality. Doing so will unleash the power of philanthropy and be a win for everyone: the donor, nonprofit and individuals and communities you serve.

Matthew J. Beem PhD CFRE

Matthew J. Beem, PhD, CFRE
Chairman and CEO