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The Fundraiser’s Practical Guide to Older Donors: 3 Things You Need to Know

One of the most difficult things about fundraising is the gap between most fundraisers and most donors. (If you are in your 50s or later, you probably already know what I’m going to say in this post.)

Ours is a young profession. Most professional fundraisers — including you, most likely — are below age 50. Or 40. Or younger.

Most donors are above 60. And even more above 70.

This is not because the fundraising industry lacks the ability or imagination to connect with younger people. It’s a combination of human biology and cultural forces. 

Biology: There’s a change in brain chemistry that happens usually in your 50s. You become more right-brained. More emotional. More story and belief driven. More empathetic, aware of the challenges other people face. These things drive us to donate more often. 

Culture. At about the same time, life changes in significant ways as you age. Kids grow up and move out. You have more time (and for some, more money) than you’ve had in decades. There’s a sense that after so many years running hard in the rat race, you can finally look around and see the world and your place in it. Somewhere along the way, many people retire, giving them even more time to think and notice the world — and be involved. It’s common at this age for people to discover (or rediscover) their religion or spirituality.

That’s why older donors are so much more likely to donate.

With few exceptions, donor files are dominated by people older than 60. Maybe more important, if you look at donor retention rates by age, you will see a strong correlation between age and retention. Older donors are dramatically more likely to keep on giving.

Those who succeed at fundraising have a practical understanding of older donors. Think of it this way: if you were selling skateboards, you’d focus on young people. That’s who buys most skateboards. There are no doubt some 70+ skateboarders, but sales won’t be great if you focus on that demographic. You sell where people are buying.

And when you’re raising funds, your customer base is older donors.

People much older than you or me have a different way of viewing the world.  To connect with them, you must embrace this truth and get into their heads and hearts.

Getting outside of your own mind is one of the greatest challenges we face as human beings. It’s why fundraising can be so confounding.

Fundraising comes down to this: You have to be persuasive in ways that may not seem persuasive to you.

When working on any kind of fundraising, we all have to ask ourselves, “Is this good?”

If you get your answer to that from your inner sense that you would or would not respond to it — and you are under the age of 60 — your answer is at best misleading. Or flat-out wrong. Whether you’d respond or not is not relevant. Whether your donors would respond it what you need to know.

There are three areas that especially challenge younger fundraisers when they work to reach older donors: Motivations for giving, style/design, and readability. If you struggle with these, don’t feel bad. It’s the hard stuff, and everyone is challenged by them.

Motivations for giving

The majority of donors are not motivated to give because there’s a huge problem to solve. They give because they see a small, solvable problem where they can make a difference. 

This isn’t just an “older donors” thing, but it’s much more common as people age. One way we can see the age difference in giving motivation is when there’s a major disaster like an earthquake: donations from new donors pour in — and most of them never give again. That’s younger people giving, motivated by the size of the problem. 

This is why storytelling is so important in fundraising. Stats that give the “big picture” may seem important if you’re younger … not so much when you’re older. 

Another difference in motivation is that young people are highly influenced by their peers. That’s why clothing, entertainment, memes, and other young-dominated areas are so driven by fads. Charity fads, like the Ice Bucket Challenge of a few years ago are also dominated by young donors. Older donors are far less influenced by what “everyone is doing.” They are more self-directed and likely to stick with the causes that matter to them.

While you might wish you could have an Ice Bucket Challenge of your own, you’re better off with a clear fundraising offer supported by compelling stories that can keep a relationship going with self-directed older donors.

Style/design

If a lot of fundraising you see makes you say “yuck,” you are not alone. Effective fundraising often looks “corny” and/or dated. You don’t find it compelling! 

But how you find it doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s nearly always a good sign if it gives you a “yuck” reaction. Because if it’s compelling to your donors, all will be well.

Style — what looks good to people — changes constantly. Eventually, it will leave you behind, if it hasn’t already. Everyone, at some point, stops riding the style waves and sticks with something they like. Most of your donors did this a long time ago. They settled in on what is appealing to them, and they still find that appealing.  While everyone younger has moved on. 

Effective fundraisers learn to ignore their own opinion on style and design. 

Readability

The older you get, the worse your eyes get. It’s just a fact of life. For most people, the problem starts in your 40s, when you’re told you have “presbyopia” (which means “old eyes”) and you get your first bifocals. It’s all downhill from there.

This is a big problem for young fundraisers, many of whom still have eyes that can power through all kinds of challenges. They even like that challenge, and styles periodically embrace that challenge. Remember what Wired magazine looked like a few years ago?

But when you create readability challenges, your older donors quickly lose patience and stop trying. They have better things to do!

So effective fundraisers know to follow some readability standards:

  • Larger type (unless it’s something you really don’t want people to read, make text 12 point — or larger.
  • Favor serif fonts (in print).
  • Don’t use ALL CAPS.
  • Never use reverse type, or type over photos or even tints. Or, except for headlines, any type color other than black.

These rules will make some young designers unhappy. But they aren’t your donors!

Here’s the real secret to successful fundraising: Love older people.

Make sure you have some older people in your life. Not just your family — family has its own dynamics and complexities. Cultivate actual friendships and connections. Pay attention to what they do, what makes them respond. Enjoy the ways they are different from you.

And never forget that as a fundraiser, it’s your job to cross the age gap. That’s how you succeed.

Would you like a partner in your journey to really connect with your donors — regardless of your age or theirs? Consider coaching with one of our Moceanic Fundraisingologists. Find out if coaching is right for you by scheduling a free 25-minute call. You’ll get great free advice, and see if there’s a Coaching+ program for you. Click here to book your call.

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    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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