Just How “Different” Are Your Donors, Really?

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Here’s the most true and untrue statement in fundraising:

“Our donors are different from other donors.”

Yes, they really are different. And no, they are not! They are both unique and typical.

Okay, it may sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth. Or treating you to mystical sayings that you’ll have to contemplate for hours.

But understanding the ways your particular donors are different from other donors – and the ways they aren’t different – is one of the keys to success in fundraising.

But it’s a tough key to find. It’s just confusing, no matter how you approach it. Here’s what I mean:

The ways your donors are unique

The main thing that sets your donors apart from others is your cause.

Let me tell you something you already know, but perhaps don’t like: Not everyone loves your cause.

Even if it’s uncontroversial, hyper-important, and inarguably good … the large majority of human beings on planet Earth don’t love your cause. Some of them may even hate it. Most just don’t care. They have no life experience or emotional connection with what you do. Apathy is just as bad for revenue as hate. In fact, it’s worse in many ways.

Most people will never donate to your organization, no matter what you do.

That may be frustrating, but it’s also liberating …

Your donors, and people who potentially might become your donors, are like a super elite special corps of human beings.

That frees you from the impossible-to-achieve burden of persuading everyone to donate.

All you have to do is understand and connect with a very particular set of people. People who share your values and care about things that matter to you. That’s not exactly an easy task, but it is a “mission possible.”

There are some other factors beyond your cause that may add to the uniqueness of your donors:


For many donors, where a cause is happening is the most important thing about it. Sure they care about hungry kids everywhere. But what really moves them to give is helping hungry kids right here in the community. That community is often a town or city, but can be a region or a country.

That means you need to talk to them like the caring neighbors they are. You need to tell stories that are clearly happening in the community. You can (and should) be very specific about places, customs, and other unique things about your area.

An easy and obvious way to think about this is if your donors speak Spanish, you’d better communicate with them in Spanish.

But it also can mean much more subtle things. Let me give you an odd example of what I mean: Most American cities (and many beyond the US) have an area that’s known as “Skid Row.” It’s usually the “rough” part of town. In my hometown of Seattle, we have one too, but it’s called “Skid Road.” It’s from our history as a logging town, when logs would literally “skid” down from the hills to the sawmill. That road developed into the rough part of town. But woe to you if you call Seattle’s Skid Road “Skid Row.” It means you’re not from around here. Does it actually matter? No! But getting it wrong shows you don’t know your audience.


If you are a faith-based organization and your donors are part of your own “flock,” you know there are all kinds of expectations and specialized language that you really need to use. Different groups have their own cultures, approach to ethics, and terminology that might be strange or even unintelligible to those outside the group.

It’s important to connect with faith-specific donors in relevant ways, even though it means saying things that might hardly make sense outside your faith community.

This also applies to other cultural and political in-groups. They all have their own languages, and the fundraising should be in those languages.

Life experience

There are some causes that you just can’t grasp unless you’ve experienced it close-up.

Hospice care is one of those. The idea of a type of medical care that ends in death is not very compelling to most people. But if you’ve been through the passing of a loved one and seen the impact of hospice care, you know it’s incredibly beautiful and important.

Disease-specific charities are somewhat like that too. Their donors are dominated by people who have the disease, their family members or survivors. Donors to arts organizations are overwhelmingly people who participate in the art form.

Effective fundraising speaks into these specific life experiences. Failing to do so makes the fundraising far less effective.

Ways your donors are not different from others

Here are some common beliefs about donors:

  • Our donors are scholarly; they won’t respond to easy-to-read writing.
  • Our donors are rational, motivated by facts and statistics, not emotional storytelling.
  • Our donors are busy; they’ll only respond to short messages.
  • Our donors are tech-savvy; they’d never respond to anything that comes in the post.
  • Our sophisticated donors would be insulted by simplistic fundraising that doesn’t explain how things work.

In each of these, the first part of the statement might be true. Any group of donors may be more scholarly, busy, or tech-savvy than others.

But the conclusion that follows rarely pans out.

My friend Sean is an intellectual’s intellectual. He wants to know the facts and proof about everything. But he’s also highly motivated by his heart, as are most people, intellectuals or not.

Scholarly people may be able to understand scholarly communications. But they donate more when they encounter messages that are easy to read.

We could go down the list, and for every assertion about what donors are like, the corresponding intuition about what those characteristics mean for fundraising is unlikely to pan out.

I can’t prove it, but I suspect this is because one (or both) of the following happens:

  1. Often, those characterizations of donors are stereotypes or hunches, not meaningful facts.
  2. Even when the characterizations are measurable and true, they don’t actually lead to the conclusions we think they ought to. It might seem intuitive that “sophisticated” people would be repelled by simplistic communications, but it’s equally likely that the one has nothing to do with the other.

In other words, most of them aren’t like you think they are, and your beliefs about what their characteristics will drive them to think and do are probably wrong!

That’s why fundraising that departs from the basic approaches that speak into human psychology nearly always fall flat.

You may not believe what I’m saying. But you should test your notions about your donors and what will motivate them. Surprises can happen. But they’re rare.

Here’s the short version of what I’ve just said:

The ways any group of donors is different from others are all on the surface: vocabulary, design, details. You need to be aware of and on top of those things, because when you get them “wrong,” you come across as less relevant, less connected.

But deep inside, at the psychological level, donors are the same. They’ll give when you engage with their hearts.

Success in fundraising is understanding those two truths and keeping them in balance.

Want help understanding how your donors are and are not “different”? Find your way forward by scheduling a free 25-minute call with one of our Fundraisingologists. They will give you great free advice, and help you identify which Coaching+ program might be right for you. Click here to book your call.

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  • Jeff Brooks

    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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