Mention power in fundraising circles and you’ll perhaps find yourself hearing stories detailing how wealthy donors have compromised work, disrupted plans, and helped create a hostile working environment. It’s a subject that’s highly likely to evoke a strong emotional reaction from fundraisers who have struggled with the complexities of dealing with affluent and privileged donors. 

But, as we should know, donors aren’t a single homogenous group. Just as there are those who make demands and dictate conditions, there are many hundreds of thousands of people who consistently give to charities with few requests or limitations on the organisations that they support. Instead, they focus on the hope that through giving, the particular problems that they care about will be effectively addressed.

In our discussions with donors in Australia and throughout the world, it has become apparent that the supporters who give modest to relatively significant amounts see themselves as having very little influence over the charities they support.  To the degree that I’d argue that we are likely to be much more effective in our jobs if we concentrate on how we can empower these people as a central part of our fundraising strategies.

One of the fundamental need states that drives giving is the desire to combat the feelings of helplessness that can overcome us when we confront the challenges that society faces today. The list is long: climate change, poverty, injustice, conflict and disease can seem insurmountable when we act alone. But when we come together as part of a larger, committed group of people we become more powerful, and those goals suddenly become much more achievable. 

Let’s look at one specific area of work to help illustrate this point – medical research – fighting disease through developing new treatments and cures.

At its core, the act of giving to support medical research charities is tied to the complex interplay of hope, progress, and personal connection to a specific disease. 

But above all, medical research fundraising thrives on the foundation of hope. When donors believe in the potential for breakthroughs and advancements, they are more inclined to contribute. Conversely, when the narrative lacks signs of progress, it triggers a sense of helplessness which can act as a brake on giving resulting in donors stopping their support or redirecting their philanthropy to other causes.

And this is why demonstrating the power a donor has becomes so important. 

When anyone becomes ill, they and their loved ones, place themselves in the hands of healthcare professionals. Of course, they can read up about the condition they face and make lifestyle changes to put themselves in the best place for a quick recovery. But when it comes to medical treatment, it’s the medics that take control.

And this lack of agency doesn’t necessarily leave people in a good place. In the UK, our research team at Bluefrog, has just completed a study investigating the motivators to giving amongst people living with neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. 

Many donors are very frightened. When they, or a family member, develops the condition they can become hyper-vigilant. One person that we spoke to, shared her reaction to her dad developing dementia:

I live in terror. My sister and I live in terror. They say it’s not hereditary, but if I’m absolutely honest… if you’ve lost someone, a relative, to one of these diseases, the terror is on another level. That’s why I do it (give). It’s that simple. I want those cures.”

We heard similar concerns shared many times. Giving was a means to gain a sense of control over a disease. These were intelligent people who recognised that medical research was a long and difficult process with as many set-backs as advances. But they hoped that collective action would lead to new treatments. This was summed up by another donor:

“…in the 70s it was the dreaded C word and there was no hope, but now it’s the dreaded A-word (Alzheimer’s Disease). I don’t need them to say, we are done here, it’s going to be okay. I get it. This will take some time. People have to stick with the (giving) programme.”

The fact is, giving becomes part of a hybrid healthcare plan. Doctors provide medical support and patients make personal lifestyle changes – but they also consider their philanthropy as a means to take more control over the disease. They don’t need lofty promises. They simply want to be able to feel that it isn’t stupid to have hope for the future.

This manifests in high levels of generosity whenever we are able to focus on a new medical breakthrough as a core part of an appeal. Donors, as in this case, describe these types of appeals as being particularly welcome:

“…any news is good news. That’s why they (the appeals) are so great, because they keep you in the picture and if they have good news, that’s good for everyone.”

But, a breakthrough doesn’t need to stop at one appeal. It can form the basis of a campaign that can run over the course of months and years. At Bluefrog, we find that updates and ongoing feedback on a single breakthrough can generate better responses that the initial appeal, as donors increasingly feel they are part of a powerful community making real strides forward in beating a disease. It might sound obvious, but if you are worried about a specific condition, you are more than happy to hear about how it is being beaten more than once. It just needs to be packaged thoughtfully as part of a strategic approach. 

After you have shared the impact of the new treatment, there’s an opportunity for an appeal to demonstrate where other research programmes might lead and another where you highlight the work where the researchers behind the initial breakthrough are focusing now. You’ll know where the opportunities lie in your causal area, but most importantly, when breakthroughs do happen, don’t simply slip back into a standard appeal programme. 

And this advice holds true for a whole range of different causes – climate change, fighting poverty, tackling injustice or something completely different. Never ignore opportunities to share success with your donors as a means to remind them of the power they have. There’s always a temptation to focus on need, but amongst your most valuable and committed supporters, demonstrating success will always significantly boost levels of donor satisfaction and drive higher levels of income. 

And you can also further amplify their sense of power by making sure that you keep things personal. 

In today’s fundraising environment where commercial branding techniques can dominate, donors can feel like very small cogs in very big wheels – which is the last thing we want. Whatever you can do to show the donor that you value them as an individual, will give them the sense that they are part of your team. 

So, when you are sharing success make sure that you apply three simple techniques in your appeals:

  1. Authenticity – if you can, share copies of relevant articles from newspapers or journals. Use techniques such as highlighter pens or handwritten notes to emphasise the key facts. Donors don’t expect you to write and design a brochure. They just want to know their money is being used as they want it to be. 
  2. Proximity – as a donor once said to me, “the most powerful stuff you can send are reports from the professor”. Don’t be afraid to use copies of internal emails or other internal reports to get your part in the story over and bring the donor closer to the outcome. 
  3. History – show the donor that you know who they are. Remind them of their specific giving history and reference how the trust they placed in you has paid dividends. This helps make the case for your next appeal.

Your donors will probably see your charity as one of the most important organisations leading in the area of work that they are most concerned about. As such, they are looking for leadership about what needs to be done next. It’s crucial to keep in mind that a standout leader isn’t someone achieving the grandest feats alone but someone who empowers a community to unite and strive towards greatness together. 

So whenever you can, please make sure that your donors have the sense that they have the power to make a difference. If you do, you’ll reap the rewards from a community that feels they are taking personal control over an issue that matters to them – and others. 

This article was first published in the Autumn 2024 edition of F&P Magazine (that’s Spring up here in the Northern hemisphere).