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20 evidence-based messages from Wendy Scaife, the 2021 recipient of the FIA Arthur Venn Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Fundraising is very much about listening,” advised Associate Professor Wendy Scaife. Wise words from the Director of the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies at QUT, speaking at the 2021 Generosity Conference. Listening is also crucial in her field – research. 

Over the past 20 years, Wendy has done just that. She has spoken and listened to thousands of donors and fundraisers. Wendy has deep knowledge of what donors do want and, importantly, don’t want.

“Giving, I always think, is something that has a certain inertia to it. Most of us have great intentions but actually turning that into giving takes a little bit more understanding of what people are individually wanting and looking for.”

Even when they do give, alarmingly, up to 70% of donors will never make a second gift to a charity. So it is crucial to work out what makes your donors tick, how best to serve them and, in the best-case scenario, transform them into advocates for your cause.

Better understood and served donors come from confident, joyful, evidence-based fundraising, argues Wendy.

As one of the authors of a seminal piece of research – Giving Australia, first published in 2005 and most recently in 2016  – Wendy has helped provide that evidence base to Australian fundraisers. The most comprehensive report of its kind, Giving Australia collected information from individuals, charitable organisations, philanthropists and businesses and explored volunteering and fundraising to provide critical information about giving and volunteering behaviours, attitudes and trends. 

So in the spirit of celebrating evidence, here are Wendy’s 20 messages from 20 years of transformative research. The first eight are informed by Bekkers and Wiepking’s 2011 research, A literature review of empirical studies of philanthropy: Eight mechanisms that drive charitable giving. From there we travel through some  seminal Australian and international studies on giving and donor behaviour. 

1. Donors want to know about need.

It is the role of fundraisers to communicate to people the issues that affect our society and the needs of the community. No pressure! So, how do you do that effectively? Thousands of years later, Aristotle’s three-pronged approach is still the best. As fundraisers (and humans) you can best portray need through pathos (emotion), logos (information) and ethos (credibility). 

2. Donors want to be invited to be part of something special.

Donors want to be invited to join in — to help you achieve your mission, to be part of something bigger than themselves. Studies tell us that 85% of all donations are in response to someone asking people to help. Show people how they can help, how they can be special. Be active,not passive! 

3. Donors want to see the costs and benefits.

We may not always make the proverbial pros and cons list, but decisions, from the simple to complex, involve this process whether conscious or sub-conscious. It’s no different when making a decision to give. Wendy notes that smoothing the giving process is a must — any obstacles to giving are seen as a cost. If giving is easy, it happens. Gift-in-wills fundraisers take particular note. Making a will is difficult enough for many people so make the process of leaving a bequest as easy as possible. 

4. Donors want to be altruistic.

People for the most part really want to contribute to the rest of society. Language is important here — words such as generous, caring and giving reflect the feelings evoked by giving, by being altruistic.

5. Donors want to know about impact on their reputation.

There are social benefits to giving, or not giving. Giving is generally perceived to be a good thing and, if visible or observable, giving tends to be higher — our reputation is on display. Studies show that given a choice, people would prefer that giving is known. We can see this in the t-shirts, ribbons and wristbands that people wear to align themselves with a cause and demonstrate that they are contributing to the community. While there are people who are very private in their giving, increasingly there has been a lot more transparency in giving, particularly from major donors, as a way to encourage others. 

6. Donors want ‘psychological benefits’.

People want to be seen as empathic, moral, ethical, socially responsible, influential. Giving has a positive effect on our mental and physical health. There is a wealth of research into the neuroscience of giving to support this. Giving Australia 2016 has a valuable list of reasons why individuals give to support this factor.

7. Donors want to act on their values and ideals.

Values are powerful motivators and come across strongly in all QUT’s giving studies. In the words of Kay Sprinkel Grace, “fundraising is enabling people to act on their values.” 

This is in particular born out in qualitative research. People who give tend to demonstrate similar value sets. They are altruistic, pro-social, less materialistic, view themselves as moral, value spirituality, are interested in social justice, and feel responsibility for society and the organisations that serve society.

8. Donors want the power to make a desired difference.

This is call ‘efficacy’. Donors want their donation to enable their dreams for needed community change. When a person donates money, they want to know what will happen with that money. This, explains Wendy, is often why people want their donation to be tied to an outcome. Donors also feel their donations are legitimised if others — other people like themselves or who they perceive as knowing about the cause — have given and believed in the impact of their gift. Note regarding: celebrity ambassadors — the research shows parachuting in a celebrity will be much less effective than a celebrity who already has a direct relationship with the cause. People also feel they can make more of a difference if they see less costs going to expenses not directly related to the cause, to the community outcome they are seeking.

9. Donors want to belong to something bigger than themselves.

Many people want to be part of a group that are giving. This is exemplified by the growth in collective giving and giving circles. The 2017 report, Collective Giving and its Role in Australian Philanthropy, conducted by Creative Partnerships Australia, is a great resource to find out more about this topic.

10. Donors want more than one touchpoint.

More than one touchpoint allows donors to verify any concerns they have about their donations reaching the beneficiaries and making an impact. Volunteering in addition to giving is a prime example of another touchpoint. One of the outstanding findings of Giving Australia 2016 was that people who are donors as well as volunteers give twice as much in terms of their average donation.

11. Donors want respect.

Gaining the respect of your donor is key to donor retention. Wendy recommends the seminal work of Dr Adrian Sargeant. To get you started, his research uncovered three elements that create donor retention: satisfaction (with the work of the organisation), commitment (to the cause) and trust (that donations will go to the mission of the organisation).

12. Donors want to feel the emotion of a cause.

People often make decisions based on their positive or negative feeling towards a subject rather an objective analysis. Strong positive emotions tend to elicit pro-social behaviour. Much research has been conducted around the power of one (one identifiable beneficiary) rather than many, as well as the potent role of images and storytelling to evoke emotional responses.

13. Donors want to leverage their dollars, often through matching.

In most studies, a matching or challenge gift makes donors feel like their gift will achieve more. In one study, researchers sent direct mail solicitations to 60,000 new donors who were unfamiliar with the charity. The group who were told that their contributions would be matched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation were 39% more likely to donate and donated on average 44% more than those who did not know the identity of the match donor (Karlan and List, 2018). Earlier research revealed a ‘challenge gift’ from a lead donor increased participation rates by 23% and total contributions by 18%, compared to a plain ask (Rondeau and List, 2008).

14. Donors want tangible details about outcomes and to be ‘close’ to those outcomes.

“Detail, detail, detail,” advises Wendy. She references Cryder, Loewenstein and Scheines’ 2013 study The donor is in the details. Their research looked beyond sympathy as a motivator of generosity and found that providing tangible details about a charity’s interventions significantly increases donations to that charity. The influence of tangible details operates through donors’ perceptions that their contributions will have impact. If those details happen to be stats then give your donor a visual reference of what that would look like, advises Wendy. The idea that the number of deaths from a certain disease per year is the equivalent to three football stadiums filled with people is a more powerful motivator than the number alone.

15. Donors want identity salience.

Why people choose one charity over the other is poorly understood, but new research into identity salience is remedying this. A recent University of Queensland study looked at identity motives in charitable giving (Chapman, Masser and Louis, 2020). The researchers’ global donor survey analysis of 1800-plus donors from 117 countries found different identities will choose different causes. The study includes an inventory of the identities consumers use to inform their giving.

16. Donors want role models of giving.

People with larger social networks tend to give more, as evidenced by Herzog and Yang’s 2017 study, Social Networks and Charitable Giving: Trusting, Doing, Asking, and Alter Primacy. As well as the theory, this study also offers practical implications for fundraising professionals.

17. Bequest donors want to make a tribute.

The neuroscience work of Russell James III is imperative reading if you work in this area. Parts of our brain have been shown to flare up when we discuss leaving a gift in our will in tribute to a special person. Bequestors are a different kind of giver and have specialised needs. You need to address the fact that they are giving to the future and that the organisation and need will still exist. They require more information than non-bequest donors, more information to assure them they have made the right choice. They need clear, non-legalistic language and easy access to bequest wording. They also often require anonymity in case they need to change their mind — they don’t want to let down a trusted charity. Take a deeper dive into the minds of bequestors with the study Keeping giving going: charitable bequests and Australians (Scaife and Madden, 2008).

18. Women donors want to give beyond dollars alone.

Women donors want trusted, authentic communication. They want the good and the bad — they want to know your failures as well as your successes. Community is important to women — collective giving is very attractive to these donors. The Women Give 2020 report from the Philanthropy Institute at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in the US is a trove of information for fundraisers looking to better understand their women donors.

19. High net worth donors want to make a difference.

If you work in an area in which a societal need is not well covered by other funding sources, this an attractive proposition for HNW donors. After experiencing success, they often want to ‘give back’ and make an impact. Family legacy is also important — they want their values to be reflected in their giving. Importantly, they want to fund sustainable outcomes. A study involving nearly 50 Australians involved in major giving can be found in A Transformational Role: Donor and charity perspectives on major giving in Australia (Scaife, McDonald and Smyllie, 2011). Or find out more about structured giving from the study Foundations for giving: why and how Australians structure their philanthropy (Scaife, Williamson, McDonald, Smyllie, 2012).

And while four out of 10 affluent Aussies do not appear in the tax deductibility data ACPNS crunches each year, for Wendy this represents possibility — if fundraisers can give these donors what they want.

20. And last but not least, devote some time to the large evidence base that can be found in Giving Australia 2016.

The range of reports on various aspects of giving, including handy fact sheets, are a deep well of local information about what donors want. So add them to your library now!

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