Why (and How) to Learn about Your Donors’ Motivations

Donor Acquisition and Retention

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Understanding what motivates your donors is the key to being a successful fundraiser. If you can connect their passions to your mission, fundraising becomes less and less about asking for money. Instead of just asking for money, you’re showing donors how to use their money to make a difference in a way that’s special to them.

It’s a fine distinction, but it’s an important one!

The catch, of course, is finding out what motivates your donors to give in the first place. Luckily, we have some ideas that will get you started.

Fundraising is about understanding your donor’s mission…what drives them. What makes them happy, what brings them to tears, and what makes them tick? What kind of world are they creating through your organization?
— Pamela Grow (@PamelaGrow) February 18, 2019

If you want to understand what motivates your donors, ask them

The most effective solution to a problem is often the simplest one… and it’s also often the most-overlooked. If you want to understand what motivates your donors, why don’t you try asking them?

There are a number of different approaches you can take here. For major donors, donors that have a long history of giving, or donors that have a close relationship with your nonprofit, one effective method is just sitting down and talking with them. Take them out for lunch, coffee, or drinks, and get them started talking about why they’ve chosen to support you. What drives them? Why did they choose your organization and not a different one? What makes them happy? Why do they connect so strongly with your mission?

This conversation isn’t the place to make an additional ask — just listen to them. You’ll be amazed at some of the stories your biggest or most loyal donors will tell if they’re given the opportunity.

Of course, you can’t take each and every one of your donors out for lunch and uninterrupted conversation. For the rest of your donors, explore using donor surveys to get a grasp on what motivates your donor base.

We’re huge fans of donor surveys! You can read more about donor surveys, how to use them, and when to ask your donors to fill them out over in this article. You can also watch this fantastic webinar on how donor surveys can help you upgrade donors and boost overall fundraising. Whatever you do, please start using donor surveys! They’re the best tool available for getting into your donors’ heads and understanding how you can inspire them.

Double-check survey results with donor data

If you’ve got any marketing experience at all (and, often, even if you don’t have marketing experience), you know that people often say they want one thing but respond to something else entirely. We humans are funny that way: we think we enjoy something, but we respond better to something else. We’re not deceptive: we often just don’t know ourselves.

That’s why it’s important to look at data in addition to personal stories. The data your donors give you when they make a gift is a valuable window into their motivations.

One important piece of data to explore is the campaigns or programs your donors support. For example: imagine that tons of donors are registering for your pancake breakfast, but your gala registrations are lagging behind. What can you learn from that? Could it be that donors are less interested in formal events and more interested in informal, family-friendly fundraisers? Are ticket prices to the gala too high? Do donors feel intimidated by a perceived “fancy” fundraiser?

Alternatively, you can look at the messaging behind different campaigns to determine what inspires your donors. Imagine you’re running two campaigns: one focuses on a family that’s benefited from your programs. The other focuses on the county-wide impact of your programs and includes multiple stories and statistics. Which campaign performs better? What can you deduce about your donors’ motivations? Are they more inspired by individual stories or by a wider view?

Examining your campaign performance is both an art and a science, but it’s an important way to gauge your donors’ motivations.

Explore A/B testing

This is technically an extension of the donor data point, but it’s important enough that it warrants its own section! Testing two different versions of an email, landing page, or donation form can give you valuable insight into what moves your donors.

For example: pretend you want to send an email that reports the impact of a local food bank. You have two emails with different opening paragraphs; everything else is the same.

The first paragraph reads like this:

Version A

At the beginning of 2019, Kayla and her family were in a tough spot. Kayla’s children could depend on free breakfasts and lunches at the school cafeteria, but school was closed for the winter holidays. Every morning, Kayla woke with one thing on her mind: what was she going to feed the kids today?

Version B

At the beginning of 2019, 65,000 families in Polk County struggled with food insecurity. The problem was made worse by the closure of schools for the winter holidays, which meant that thousands of students were left without access to free school breakfasts and lunches.

A few days before you plan to send the email to your complete donor base, you’d run an A/B test to see which email resonated with donors. Each email would be sent to a small sampling of donors, and you’d gauge which resulted in the most donations. If Version A raised more money than Version B, you could conclude that a personal story is more compelling than a wide view. You’d know that sending Version A to your donor base would raise more money, and you’d also know that you should probably focus future appeals on individuals, not large numbers.


All fundraisers want one thing: to raise the money we need to fund our mission. But, to do that, we really need to understand what motivates the people who support us. Whether you choose to use donor surveys, donor meetings, fundraising data, or A/B testing, it’s important to get a complete view of what your donors want from working with your organization. Having a firm grasp on their motivations and emotions is the only way to ensure fundraising success!

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