What Are Your Donor’s Thinking? Find Out

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On the sidewalk by the busy highway, a scruffy man squatted. He was loading beer cans into a plastic grocery sack. After he loaded three, the first one rolled out of the bottom of the sack. A second can followed the first. He cursed and started loading cans again into the top.

Walking across the parking lot, I watched this scene. I identified the solution – one of my spare grocery sacks. At the same time, I calculated the risk of getting involved. I wanted to be safe inside my car and on to my next appointment.

At my car, I opened the door, tossed in my purse, and stopped. I remembered what it was like to have sacks fail and to watch my purchases pour out on the pavement. It made me curse, too. I walked to the trunk and popped it open. From the pile, I extracted a sack.

Walking toward the angry, frustrated, twice-my-size human being, I ignored the stranger-danger messages blasting in my head. I stopped, coming as close as I dared. I extended my arm and dangled in his direction, between my thumb and forefinger, the sack. “Sir, would this help?” I asked. He continued cursing. “Sir,” I said in my adamant parent voice, “Would this help?”

He heard and noticed the bag. Now calm, he reached for it. “God bless you,” he said.

When I drove onto the highway a few minutes later, I saw him making good progress walking toward downtown.

The Philanthropic Process

I share this story because it illustrates the steps involved in the philanthropic process. (Yes, it was philanthropic —which is giving of your personal means to help fellow humans.) It’s not a particularly noteworthy example, but with it I can show you a philanthropic process. You can use it as an example and as a model of how you might study your own philanthropic process. Both will lead you to better understanding donors’ experiences you’re hoping to increase.

Here’s the process and what I experienced:

  1. A need: Man has a shopping bag with a huge hole.
  2. A solution: I can give him one of my bags!
  3. Reasons not to act: To do so, I must step out of my comfort zone. He’s angry.
  4. Stronger reasons to act: The man was having a meltdown with the potential to involve the traffic roaring behind him, endangering everyone. Besides, I hate it when grocery sacks fail.
  5. Acting with caution: While giving up the sack was easy, the process of giving it scared me.
  6. Joy: The experience of seeing the transformation made by a simple gift.

This example contains some commonly discussed philanthropic patterns. If you’ve been in the field for a while, you know that people need to learn about needs, how they can help, and that their gifts matter. This example also offers an uncommon insight. Donors argue the pros and cons of making gifts. In some cases, arguments are about their personal safety. In this case, it was about approaching an angry person. Another con or reason not to give might be fear of potential embarrassment (will my gift be adequate?) and, ironically, even in the same thought stream, fear about being hounded. I hope this micro-example gets you thinking about the pros and cons of your donors. I also hope that you’ll follow my lead and start exploring your philanthropic experiences— not simply from the end results, but by investing the steps that brought you to make a gift.

Step-by-step, study your own and other people’s philanthropic experiences. You will gain new insights you can use to help people to give more to your nonprofit.

Karen Eber Davis

Before founding her firm, Karen Eber Davis developed the Sarasota County Community Development Block Grant Program. Under her leadership, this infant program received the National Association of Counties National Affordable Housing Award for the Down Payment Assistance Program. To date, the program helped over 1,800 families realize their dreams of homeownership. She also worked with the City of Ft. Lauderdale and the Florida Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, where she developed the division’s first audit program. In an earlier position at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Tampa, she organized senior, youth, and children groups plus family activities. Her youth staffing work with the Florida Synod of the Lutheran Church in America supported youth ministries in 120 congregations in Florida.