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How Should You Talk to Your Next Generation of Donors?

Posted by on January 26th, 2012
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Fundraising   

Mission Minded has worked with several large, long-established nonprofit organizations worried that their aging donor base is disappearing —and that younger donors are less interested in the missions embraced by the older generation.

These clients are prestigious, both because of the gravitas of their mission and the recognizable names who support it. But their major donors are often in their seventies or eighties, and their children don’t necessarily share their parents’ devotion to the work of the same organizations—or at least, they don’t see the need to offer their financial support at the same levels.

Instead, we’re hearing that the younger donors (in these cases, “younger” is defined as donors in their forties and fifties) are interested in supporting more entrepreneurial endeavors: causes where something “new” is being done to address an age-old problem. As Kay Sprinkel–Grace noted, “The age of the passive philanthropist is ending. As the face of philanthropy changes, so does its quest. An interest in outcomes is replacing a need for rewards. While recognition is still important, the way in which it is provided is changing. It is more mission-connected.”

Microfinance, public school reform, innovation in international aid—initiatives in pioneering fields seem to be garnering the most support amongst this generation of donors. Global poverty, inequalities in education, and other social ills have been a constant. These donors want to do something new to make lasting change, and they want to see a measurable social result in return for their donated investment.

How to respond to this? Our clients are doing the right thing: they’re digging deep to determine how to reposition their work to create a stronger appeal to these donors. It’s a seemingly formidable challenge:

How can we interest people in our work who have no interest in our work?

Two answers—or rather, two scenarios. The first is that a nonprofit continues doing the same work it always has, because it has and continues to be effective—but, it repackages the way it talks about the importance and value of the work.

The second scenario? Reinvent the organization. Reevaluate the problem it’s trying to solve and invent different ways of solving it. Those who bravely choose this scenario are hoping both to make a bigger impact and to attract greater support as a result.

Let’s look at the first approach. (Check back for a follow-up post about one of our client organizations that is actively reinventing itself for the next generation.)

Our society needs cultural institutions like theaters and art museums. It needs organizations that will work to preserve parks and open spaces, protect animals, and reform policies. Our society needs the people who devote their time and resources to helping those in need of food, clothing, shelter and compassion.

And some of the nonprofits that do this work do it so well that their impact is taken for granted. They do it so well that the mission seems to lose its urgency. After all, if an organization has been plodding along for 50 years successfully tending to a critical issue, can’t we expect that they’ll do so for the next 50?

If your nonprofit is worried that new major donors aren’t coming along to fill the generous, committed shoes of your past major donors, its time to start talking about the importance of your mission in a new way.

Going back to your roots, back to your original uniting purpose, to determine what made your current and past major donors fall in love with you in the first place is the best way to uncover what needs to be brought to the fore in your next donor appeal. Focusing on how to explain the critical importance of your work, instead of assuming people already understand that, is a must-do.

Chances are your brand—marketing jargon for reputation—has gotten muddled over the years. Your messages to your key audiences may not be as clear and succinct as they should be. Perhaps your communications routinely include the jargon and insider language that has the effect of keeping donors out, instead of inviting them in.

Most of your donors have something in common with each other – their values, their lifestyle, or their priorities. Make a list of what those are likely to be, and imagine that you had to start from the beginning with one of your donors, convincing them that a gift in support of your organization’s mission matters.

What would you say to draw them in? Start from their point of view. Not from the point of view of your organization and what it needs, but in a way that shows the donor how his or her values can be manifested and acted upon by supporting your work. This exercise can dramatically change the way you talk, write, Tweet, and blog about your work, and will help you attract the new donors needed to fuel your efforts into the future.

There will always be donors who want to fund the next flashy, big idea. But there are also donors who will believe – with a little strategic outreach on your part —
that your work is fresh and critical


Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded, a 25-year marketing veteran sought for her expertise in branding nonprofit organizations, and a one-on-one leadership coach.

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