Donors Still Give, For Different Reasons

November 15, 2012       Patrick Sullivan      

U.S. donors gave almost three times as much as their counterparts in the U.K. or Australia across all age groups between August 2011 and August 2012. More donors in each country either increased their donations or held steady than decreased their donations. Only 15.9 percent gave less in Australia, with 17.2 percent of U.K. donors and 19.8 percent of U.S donors giving less than the previous 12 months.

Those were some results from two studies on donor behavior and engagement. The Charleston, S.C. software company Blackbaud produced “Donor Perspectives: An Investigation Into What Drives Your Donors To Give,” which analyzed responses from more than 4,000 donors from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. The “Nonprofit Donor Engagement Benchmark Study,” a joint effort by Austin, Texas company Charity Dynamics and the Portland, Ore.-based Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), surveyed 1,022 U.S. donors in September 2012 about their previous year’s giving habits.

Motivation to give differed between the three countries in the Blackbaud survey. Americans give more in relation to their own financial situation, while donors in the U.K. and Australia are more driven by a desire to help. In America, said Dennis McCarthy, Blackbaud’s vice president of strategy and business practices, “changes in financial circumstances open people to feeling more philanthropic.” He added, “It’s good to hear that as the economy slowly expands, people are more amenable to giving money.”

The Blackbaud study showed that in the United Kingdom and Australia, donors seem to give a fixed portion of their budget for one-off donations, and it did not much matter whether to just one organization or more than five. Regular donations to charities followed a similar pattern, though there was a slight increase in total donations when the number of charities supported increased.

“People in other countries tend to give a fixed amount and it doesn’t fluctuate as much,” said McCarthy. In contrast, U.S. donors give more money in total the more organizations they support, whether it be one-time or regular donations.

According to the Charity Dynamics/NTEN study, almost four-fifths of donors gave to more than one charity. Nearly half of those donors have a favorite charity, the one to which they feel most connected. Not only do donors give more to their favorite charity — about 67 percent of the total according to NTEN Publications Director Annaliese Hoehling — but they also engage with it in other ways, such as volunteering, fundraising and advocating on behalf of the organization.

“Donors are giving to multiple organizations in a given year, but there really is a difference between how much they might give to one charity compared to others,” said Hoehling. “This means relationships and engagement with donors matter. It’s not enough to just send a one-time thank-you email or…card. We should be considering their gift as a conversation starter, then work to get them engaged in other ways.”

To become a donor’s favorite charity, said Charity Dynamics President Donna Wilkins, it’s important to communicate with donors in the ways they want to communicate, being mindful that different age groups communicate differently. For older donors, direct mail is still number one, but more and more younger donors are interacting with organizations through mobile devices and social media like Twitter. Though you may juggle a number of communications channels due to the preferences between age groups, Wilkins said to make sure your website ties them all together.

“While people prefer to become aware of information through different channels, when it came time to complete a transaction the website is the number one channel,” said Wilkins. “It’s a good reminder to nonprofits not to lose sight of having a website supporting all those other channels.”

Once you’ve identified where your donors are and how they want to be engaged, the next step is developing the right communications. The Blackbaud study found that between 20 and 30 percent of donors, depending on the country, had stopped making regular donations to an organization in the last 12 months. While the number one reason was a change in donors’ personal financial situations, the second most cited reason was that the donors felt the charity was not making the best use of its financial resources. “If you want to create genuine engagement, (donors) have to see what their gifts do,” said McCarthy.

Like Hoehling, McCarthy said he believes a rapid thank-you response is essential to that engagement and helps donors feel that their gifts and actions matter.

Hoehling said that the two studies complemented each other so well the authors decided to co-promote them even though they’d been developed independently. “One thing that both of our studies looked at and confirm is that donors are motivated by personal connections,” she said. “It’s wonderful when two studies come out together like this –they help confirm data and at the same time offer nonprofits multiple pieces of the puzzle to put together when they’re building their engagement and fundraising strategies.”