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Why people donate and what it means for fundraisers

Nonprofit Fundraising

One of the most important questions we must struggle with as fundraisers is this:

“Why do people choose to give?”

It’s important that we return to this question often.

And it’s glaringly obvious when I see appeals for donations from fundraisers who have not spent sufficient time considering this question.

I’ll share an example with you in a second…

But first I want to emphasize why it’s so important to spend time reflecting on this question.

To ignore this question is detrimental to effective and sustainable fundraising campaigns.

It should be the first question we ask every time we sit down to write a new request for donations.

And it should be the question top-of-mind when we participate in the review of our nonprofit’s appeals.

Our job is to put ourselves in the shoes of our potential donors and truly understand what it is that will get them to take action in support of our cause.

What is it they’re after?

Why would they choose to give their hard earned money?

These questions are at the heart of everything we do.

Ignore these questions and you’ll never achieve the full potential of your fundraising efforts.

And even though there are lots of reasons why people choose to give, they all have one very big thing in common…

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s take a quick look at an example of appeal language that has forgotten to consider this question and then we’ll explore why people give and what it means for you…

An example of why people do not give

I recently received an appeal for donations that began with this opening statement…

“We’re looking for new donors!”

It then went on to describe how they needed more money so they could participate in a certain event that was part of their mission.

Now, I won’t copy & paste the entire appeal here. Suffice it to say it didn’t move me to take action.


Because not once did it speak to any reason why I would actually choose to give.

It only spoke to the reasons why they needed “new donors.”

And look, no one WANTS to be a “donor.”

The idea of being labeled a “donor” has never inspired anyone to give.

When asked why people choose to give, no one has ever said,

“Because it was my lifelong dream to be a ‘donor.’”

A person of influence? Sure.

A leader in the eyes of the community? Yes.

A person who has made a difference? Absolutely.

But, a donor?

No way.

I found their opening statement so bizarre that it led me to ask a few questions myself…

“Why do they need new donors? What did they do with their last donors? Are they okay?”

Not the line of thought you want to inspire in your readers…

But even more detrimental to their request was the fact that their appeal couldn’t answer this one simple question:

“Why should I care?”

Not once in this appeal did they give me any reason to care whether or not they achieved their goal.

How on earth did their appeal go so wrong?

Simple. They never stopped to consider why people might give to their cause.

They only considered what they needed to get out of the appeal…new donors.

[Cringe] Fatal error.

This type of appeal would never have been written if they had just started with the right question:

“Why would people choose to give to this cause?”

People give for lots of reasons

The answer to why people give varies.

There’s a great book that helps fundraisers categorize the reasons why people give and considers the implications for how to approach them.

If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend checking out The 7 Faces of Philanthropy.

It’s a bit pricey, but it’s on my list of required reads for all fundraisers.

Off the top of my head I can come up with more than a dozen reasons why people choose to give.

Here’s a few…

  • It would help someone they know
  • They know the person who is asking them to give
  • It will have a positive impact on their local community
  • It will impact a community they identify with
  • They feel fortunate and want to give back
  • They overcame the same challenge the cause works to solve for others
  • It makes them feel good
  • They want to be seen as a leader or a role model
  • It reinforces their ideals, beliefs, and/or faith
  • It makes them look good to their friends, family, and community
  • They were moved emotionally and wanted to help
  • They saw others give
  • It makes them feel important
  • It makes them feel useful
  • They want to join a community
  • They wanted to take advantage of tax breaks

With all the different reasons for giving it might seem a futile exercise.

If you can’t address all of these reasons for giving in one appeal then what’s the point of asking the question at all?

Well, it turns out, all of these reasons for giving have one very big thing in common.

And you can capitalize on this one thing to make your appeal for donations much more effective.

The reasons people give all have ONE thing in common

Here’s the key thing you need to understand about why people give…

They’re all motivated by something very personal to the donor.

This is important so if you’re skimming now’s the time to read closely.

People choose to give because they are motivated by something that touches them personally.

Look back through that list I came up with off the top of my head.

Everything on that list, and anything else you could come up with, will be something that is personal to the donor.

It is about them and what they want or need at the time.

It’s not about you or your need for donors.

It’s about them.


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The reason why people give is up to you

So how do you use this insight to improve your appeals for donations?

Always write appeals that motivate your reader on a personal level.

And no, this doesn’t mean you have to write a dozen different appeals hoping to touch on every single reason people choose to give.

People don’t decide why they’ll give and then rigidly stick to that the rest of their life.

The truth is people don’t decide to give until they make the decision to give.

And the reasons why people make donations will vary at any given time.

This is GREAT NEWS for fundraisers. This is opportunity!

You see, it‘s our job to GIVE them the personal reason they should give.

In fact, you can easily offer multiple reasons to give in a single appeal.

But make sure every single one of them motivates the reader on a personal level.

People don’t know why they should give…

Until you give them the reason.

And the reason you give them will not work if it does not motivate the reader on a personal level.

So, why do people give?

Because you gave them a reason to.

How can you convince more people to give?

Make it personal.

Keep doing good work,
Jeremy Signature


10 comments… add one
  • Pete Waldron

    Jeremy —
    Great article on the key element of writing a successful fundraising appeal: making it personal.

    You shared an example of an appeal that doesn’t work. I’m interested in you sharing your best example of one that best demonstrates the “personal” approach.

    • Jeremy

      Hi Pete, Glad you enjoyed this article and you’ve asked a great question.

      This is going to sound like a cop-out, but the best way to add a personal touch depends on your goals and your audience so I can’t give one example. But I can definitely work on a new article to address this question. Stay tuned…

  • Brenda

    Thanks Jeremy, great article! “Making it personal” is something I lead with……..Thanks for sharing your insight for all to benefit!

    • Jeremy

      I’m glad you appreciated this article, Brenda. Good for you for always making it personal. Best of luck!

  • Zubeida

    Thank you for sharing… we always seem to overlook the “obvious”. Z

    • Jeremy

      I agree, Zubeida. Even if you “know” this stuff already, it is still helpful to be reminded. Knowing and applying are two different things!

  • Chris

    I found in working with a database program it’s good to note or mark each campaign (or newsletter) very specifically and then track what works for YOUR group. We had a certain group that only gave money when it was a raffle or something they could win. The “gambler” set. And they never donated any other time. A detail specific data base was oh so helpful when finding appeals to very specific groups.. (this was non profit animal shelters).. cat pictures on the front of the newsletter brought in donations from more women, etc. It’s work the extra time to track!

    • Jeremy

      Chris, YES!!! That is the power of using data to segment your email lists. What a great example of this in action. Thanks for sharing and keep doing good work!

  • Well written. Thank you so much. Amazing how all of us can forget so quickly !

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