8 Questions to Ask to Get Inside Your Donor’s Head
The better you know your donor, the better your appeal is going to be. That’s obvious. The problem is your donor is probably coming from a completely different experiential background. How do you get inside that person’s head?
Luckily, the answer comes by way of a book on screenwriting: “The Protagonist’s Journey” by Scott Myers. In his book, he lays out eight questions that a screenwriter needs to ask in order to understand the protagonist of the story and get into the protagonist’s head.
Copywriter David Garfinkle adapted the questions for commercial direct response. Here, I’m taking it a step further and rethinking the questions for direct response fundraising. You might notice that some of the responses overlap. That’s good. Because the repeated aspects are likely to be the most important. This is how to get inside your donor’s head.
1. Who Is the Donor?
To create an effective appeal, you can’t think of your donors as a mass of people. You have to think of one person. Depending on your charity, that donor is likely to be a woman, middle-aged or elderly.
Maybe that’s your Aunt Irene. What’s she like? Maybe she is 76 years old. She worked as a nurse her whole life, and now she’s retired. She’s practical. She’s had the same hairstyle for the past 10 years. She likes it, so why change it? She doesn’t spend money frivolously, but if it’s something worthwhile, she’ll open her checkbook. She’s a caring person. She has a soft spot for anyone who’s hurting. But on the other hand, she’s not going to put up with anything. If Aunt Irene thinks she’s getting snowed, you’ve lost her.
You can see how a simple exercise like this can take you deeper into who your donor is. Of course, each one of the assumptions made about Aunt Irene won’t correspond to each donor. That’s not the point. What you want to do here is to think more about how your donor is as a person. You want to get out of your head. And into hers.
2. What Does the Donor Want?
Your donor gives for her own reasons, not because your charity needs funds. So your appeal has to align with what your donor wants.
What does Aunt Irene want? Maybe one thing she wants is for her community to be a safe and neighborly place to live. In that case, if your charity is a rescue mission, and you’re offering action on homelessness that will benefit the community, then you’re likely to align with what Aunt Irene wants. She’ll be inclined to consider your appeal.
But we can go deeper. Does Aunt Irene want to think of herself as a good person? As someone who cares about others? As someone who does good in order to fulfill a religious obligation?
By thinking about what your donor wants, you can zero in on the end goal that you present. You can focus on the transformation that your donor can make possible.
3. What Does the Donor Need?
What your donor needs and what your donor wants aren’t necessarily the same thing. Take Aunt Irene. When it comes to your rescue mission, what Aunt Irene might need to know is that homelessness is a difficult, complex problem.
That’s not something you’d want to discuss in depth in your appeal. Trying to educate donors in an appeal is usually a losing battle. But it is something you could cover in some other marketing communication pieces, like a white paper, informational brochure or annual report. That could form an effective backdrop for an appeal.
In your appeal itself, though, what Aunt Irene might need to know is that homelessness is indeed a complex problem (without delving into every detail), and that the only thing holding your rescue mission back from tackling it is a lack of funds. More funds would mean more facilities at your site, more meals and shelter, more counselors, etc., and that would result in fewer people out on the street in Aunt Irene’s community.
4. What Is the Eventual Resolution of the Donor’s Want and Need?
The eventual resolution isn’t necessarily giving a donation, although that’s certainly part of it. The point here is more along the lines of the transformation that the donor’s gift makes happen. It’s about what changes as a result of the donor’s gift.
Let’s say Aunt Irene was once approached by a harmless panhandler who asked her for money. Only it didn’t seem harmless to her. She was scared. So for your rescue mission, maybe Aunt Irene’s wants and needs come down to getting homeless people off the street and into their own homes, so they have secure housing, have a stake in the neighborhood and won’t be left to fend for themselves out on the street.
The resolution of Aunt Irene’s want and need in this case might be a community where everyone who needs a home will have one. It might be a community where Aunt Irene feels safe and in which she is proud to live because it takes care of its people.
5. What Is at Stake for the Donor?
Your donor sees that there are things at stake, both for her and for the people around her. If your donor doesn’t give and if your nonprofit weren’t there to do the work you do, there would be consequences. Think of what those might be.
For Aunt Irene, the stakes are high. Maybe there are more homeless people in her community now than she recalls from the past. Maybe that’s not the way she likes to think of the place she lives. Worse, maybe she fears that these people are prowling around looking to commit crimes.
Even beyond those immediate concerns, maybe the stakes of not helping homeless people center around a world that’s fast becoming more cruel, more coarse, more uncaring. For Aunt Irene, that’s a trend she doesn’t like. It’s disturbing and frightening.
6. Who or What Opposes the Donor From Getting What She Wants and Needs?
There are two parts to this. The first part involves your donor’s objections to giving. Maybe she had to buy a new washing machine and doesn’t have the money to give. Maybe she discovered a new charity that has her attention. Maybe she just doesn’t feel like giving right now. It could be a number of things that you have no way of knowing.
The second part involves other factors that your donor might be fully or only partially aware of. These are more subtle objections. For example, when it comes to your rescue mission, and you ask Aunt Irene to give, she might think that helping homeless people is nice, but there are other factors at play.
Maybe Aunt Irene sees that we live in a dog-eat-dog economy, with businesses moving their factories overseas and laying off workers by the thousands. We have a social system that doesn’t provide a good education for young people in the first place, so they can’t find and keep jobs. And we have a government that won’t spend enough on creating a safety net that could keep people from living on the street. In Aunt Irene’s mind, giving to your charity won’t change any of that.
7. What Does the Donor Fear the Most?
Sometimes what your donor fears the most is only partially related to your cause. For your rescue mission, you might want to consider that what your donor fears is encountering a homeless person on the street. Of course, you know that most of them are harmless. But Aunt Irene doesn’t know that.
When she sees or thinks about a homeless man approaching her on the street and asking for money, she immediately starts to fear that the neighborhood is changing and for the worse. And this is happening at a time when she’s getting a little older and starting to feel more vulnerable — both in terms of her financial stability and the social changes she sees swirling around her.
8. Why Does This Donor Need to Give at This Time?
There are lots of reasons your donor would decide to give to your nonprofit. It’s important to pick the best one. This is different from creating urgency to prompt a gift. This is about getting a fix on the phase of life that your donor is in, the events that might occur in the future, and the social conditions that make now the best time to give.
For a rescue mission, for example, you could be in sync with your donor by explaining that with the economy the way it is, with drug and alcohol abuse so rampant, and with so many social ills swirling around us, more and more people are becoming homeless, left to fend for themselves, and living at the margins. The situation is bad and getting worse, and if your donor wants to improve her community and create a better world, this is the time to act.
The many insights you gain from thinking through these questions will help you get clearer about the donor you’re appealing to, why you’re appealing to her, why she should care and why she should give. That’s where the real value is. Because that’s how to create appeals that connect with donors and move them to give.
An agency-trained, award-winning, freelance fundraising copywriter and consultant with years of on-the-ground experience, George specializes in crafting direct mail appeals, online appeals and other communications that move donors to give. He serves major nonprofits with projects ranging from specialized appeals for mid-level and high-dollar donors, to integrated, multichannel campaigns, to appeals for acquisition, reactivation and cultivation.