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Chat with “State of Nonprofits 2023” – The Center for Effective Philanthropy

Chat with State of Nonprofits 2023 from The Center for Effective Philanthropy:

Donor Participation Project Resources

Free Insights and Resources: Connecting With Dr. Russell James

Dr. Russell James is a leading expert in philanthropy and charitable giving. He generously shares his knowledge and resources for free to help nonprofit fundraisers strengthen their fundraising programs.

His recent presentation in the Donor Participation Project offered key insights into effectively using storytelling to motivate donors.

You can view the entire presentation video in our Resource Library.

Dr. James emphasized the importance of evoking a clear visual image and generating social emotion.

A vague, complicated, or confusing story won’t trigger the mental visualization needed to feel empathy. Focus on a single sympathetic character and share specific details to help the audience envision them.

Too much complexity also inhibits giving by making the story hard to follow. Find the right balance of details to fill in the picture without overcomplicating things.

For major gifts, the most compelling story is the donor’s own story.

Ask open-ended questions to understand their journey and values. Then find meaningful connections between what they share and your mission to build their motivation to give. Help them define what victory would look like to inspire their support.

Dr. James studies neuroimaging to understand the science behind generosity. His research shows that donating depends on empathy and taking the perspective of the character or beneficiary in the story. The more donors can identify with a story, the more motivated they will feel to give.

Surveys are a useful tool for learning details to personalize stories and relationships at scale.

Dr. James generously provides free resources to help nonprofits strengthen their fundraising. He shares his knowledge through presentations, videos, slide decks, and four books on encouraging generosity. Connect with him on LinkedIn to gain access to these valuable materials. His insights and scientific approach to philanthropy can help any nonprofit achieve their mission through smarter, more effective fundraising.

Take advantage of this opportunity to learn from an expert in the field!

Donor Participation Project Resources

Asking the Right Questions Elicits Donor Victory Stories and Gifts

Nonprofit fundraisers know that connecting donors to the impact of gifts is key to building lasting relationships and major gifts.

According to fundraising expert Dr. Russell James, the most powerful way to make this connection is by helping donors tell their own meaningful “victory stories.”

Dr. James explains that victory stories show how donors’ values and life experiences connect to a nonprofit’s mission. By asking donors questions about what first inspired their support, their vision for change, and what is most meaningful to them about the work, fundraisers can uncover elements of donors’ stories.

They can then share how current and future priorities of the organization will help achieve donors’ visions of victory.

For example, a fundraiser might ask, “What first motivated you to support our cause?”

A donor may share a personal experience with a health condition, exposure to poverty in childhood, or parents who modeled philanthropy. The fundraiser now understands more about what shaped this donor’s passion for the mission.

Fundraisers can also ask, “If money were no object, what would you change about this issue?”

Donors’ responses point to the victories they most want to see. A donor supporting a food bank, for instance, may say they want to solve the root causes of hunger through policy changes and job training programs. The fundraiser sees this donor is motivated not just by filling empty bellies but by empowering people to provide for themselves.

Finally, fundraisers can ask, “What is most meaningful to you about what we do?”

The answers reveal what moves and inspires donors at the deepest level. A donor to an animal welfare organization may say “reuniting families with the pets they love—that is what motivates me most.” The fundraiser now understands the most emotionally compelling ways to engage with this donor are by sharing pet adoption stories. In summary, the key to unlocking major gifts is understanding what drives donors at the level of identity and values.

By asking questions that reveal donors’ victory stories, fundraisers can connect priorities that shape donors’ self-concept to the work they support.

The result is inspired donors and transformational gifts.

View the video recording of this presentation with Dr. James in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project Resources

Simplify Your Story: How Too Much Complexity Hurts Donations

Nonprofit organizations often have intricate, multifaceted stories to tell about their missions and work.

However, sharing too much complexity with donors can hurt fundraising efforts.

According to research by nonprofit fundraising expert Dr. Russell James, a clear and simple story that generates an emotional response is most effective for motivating donors.

Dr. James has studied how our brains respond to stories and complexity in the context of charitable giving. His research using fMRI neuroimaging shows that donating is linked to feeling empathy and identifying with a cause or beneficiary.

This “social-emotional valuation” requires a clear mental image and narrative.

If a story is vague, confusing or overly complicated, it fails to trigger the visualization needed to motivate giving.

In one experiment, donors gave 90% more when asked to help one child with a name, age and photo versus helping eight children. Another study found donations decreased by 58% when a story grew more complex by adding details about eight beneficiaries. However, a cohesive group, like six siblings, can simplify a multi-character story and double gifts. The key is evoking a simple, empathetic image.

Dr. James cautions that while nonprofit experts understand complexity, sharing too many details with donors destroys stories and fundraising potential.

The internal goal of a fundraising story is not just getting a gift, but generating a clear visual and emotional experience that leads to giving.

To achieve this:

  • Make stories specific but keep them simple.
  • Focus on one empathetic character or group, not many individuals.
  • Connect personal details to a meaningful victory or outcome to bring the story to life.

In summary, an effective fundraising story needs a relatable character, not just statistics or facts. Details should enhance a simple story without introducing confusion.

When visualizing the story generates empathy and social emotion, donors are compelled to give to achieve a shared victory. But if a story fails to evoke a clear image and feeling, its fundraising power is lost no matter the details.

The moral for nonprofits: simplify your story and make sure it is one donors can see themselves in.

View the full recording of this Donor Participation Project session in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project Resources

Personalized Donor Outreach: Using Tech to Build Meaningful Relationships

For nonprofits, building meaningful relationships with donors is key to fundraising success.

However, with small staffs and budgets, scaling personalized outreach can seem daunting.

The good news is, by leveraging marketing automation tools, nonprofits can reach more donors in a personal way without draining resources.

An automation example from

Nick Prenger, CEO of fundraising firm Prenger Solutions Group, shared how his team used Microsoft Power Automate to help a Catholic diocese launch an automated email cultivation program.

Over the course of a year, 15,000 donors received periodic emails directly from the diocese’s development director with updates and stories of impact. Meanwhile, 35,000 donors did not receive the emails.

The results showed the power of this personalized outreach. Those receiving emails were 62% more likely to donate to the annual appeal. They also gave 264% more and had three times the recurring giving rate. Additionally, their participation only declined 6% compared to 20% for non-email recipients, indicating higher retention.

For nonprofits considering a similar program, Prenger recommends starting with a simple “stewardship email” to express thanks, share an impact story or provide a program update.

This low-risk contact can yield big returns while building trust for future appeals.

He also suggests an 8:1 ratio of non-ask touches to appeals to cultivate true relationships.

To implement, Prenger suggests exploring tools like Microsoft Power Automate that integrate with your CRM to automatically trigger personalized emails based on donor actions. For example, send new donor welcome emails or recurring gift renewal invitations when a multi-month pledge is nearing completion. With segments tailored to giving history, you can keep messages highly relevant.

While marketing automation may be new territory, starting small and learning as you go can help overcome legal and technical roadblocks. Focusing on the impact—stronger donor relationships and fundraising results—will make the challenges worthwhile. With the right tools and strategy, every nonprofit can achieve meaningful donor outreach at scale.

Get the full recording for this session in our Resource Library!

Donor Participation Project Resources

The Neuroscience of Fundraising: Images, Empathy and Giving

Fundraising is an emotional process, not just a logical one.

Donors give because they feel something.

Neuroimaging research shows that donating activates the social emotional parts of the brain, the areas involved in empathy, social bonding, and reward.

Effective fundraising storytelling taps into these social emotions. Stories need visual details and compelling characters to evoke emotion. Vague or complicated stories fail to create mental images, so donors feel nothing.

Simplicity is key.

While the issues nonprofits address can be complex, fundraising stories must be simple. Focus on one character or group to identify with, not many. Adding too many names, details and subplots muddies the story and alienates donors.

Emotion-evoking stories also need empathy.

Details only help if donors care about the character.

For example, in studies people donated more to help one sick child named “Chase” versus five children without names.

But empathy depends on the character. Details increased donations for a needy gifted child but not when the child wasn’t in need.

Nonprofits often focus on statistics but numbers alone don’t motivate giving. Stories do.

That said, visual images do matter—events in nice settings encourage bigger gifts than frugal ones.

Surveys and conversations can also elicit donor stories and connections to your mission. Major donors gave after including charities in estate plans, likely because this “donating wealth” mindset stuck. Ask how donors first got involved or what they’d change if money were no object. Their answers reveal values and victories to build stories around. In the end, people give to people and nonprofits they identify with.

Stories that evoke mental images and emotion create this identification.

While there’s an art to storytelling, understanding its neuroscience and social impact can guide more effective, empathetic fundraising stories.

Compelling tales of overcoming challenges and achieving meaningful victories will move donors to act and forge lasting relationships with your cause.

View the complete recording of this Donor Participation Project session with Dr. Russell James in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project Resources

Why “You” Matters More Than “I” in Fundraising Communications

Nonprofit fundraisers spend significant time and resources crafting messaging to appeal to donors and encourage their support. However, the language we use in these communications often focuses too much on “us”—the organization—rather than “you”—the donor.

To truly engage donors and inspire them to give generously, we must adopt an outward focus in our writing.

When writing for donors, avoid starting sentences with “I,” “we,” or “our.”

Instead, address the donor directly using “you.”

For example, rather than saying “We awarded 10 new scholarships this year thanks to your support,” try “You made it possible for 10 deserving students to receive scholarships this year.”

Debbie Meyers

This subtle shift places the donor at the center of the impact and helps them feel personally connected to your mission.

Ask open-ended questions to engage the reader

For example, say “How can we work together to help even more students access higher education?”

However, be sure to provide context for your questions. Donors want to understand the challenges and opportunities, not guess at them. Follow up your questions with compelling stories and data that inspire them to act.

Show how donors are part of the solution, not just funders of your organization. Highlight the change they are making possible in people’s lives.

For example, say “You gave John hope for a brighter future” rather than “Your gift supported our youth programs.”

Capture the human impact and emotions to forge a deeper connection between the donor and your cause.

Conversational, authentic language also helps to focus outward.

Use an active voice, contractions, and vary your sentence structure.

Write the way you would talk to a friend. While a formal tone may seem respectful, it creates distance rather than fostering intimacy with the donor.

An outward focus requires empathy, listening to understand what motivates your donors to give and framing communications around their interests and impact. When donors recognize how they can transform lives through your organization, they will become loyal champions of your mission. So, keep “you” at the heart of your messages—it’s the key to donor participation.

Donor Participation Project Resources

Connecting Through Gaming: How the USO Leverages Video Games to Support Military Members

The USO, a nonprofit that supports active military members and their families, has discovered an innovative way to connect with younger service members: through video games.

Over the last few years, the USO has developed a gaming program that leverages streaming platforms like Twitch to raise funds, build community, and bridge the civilian-military divide.

According to Diego Scharifker, the USO’s gaming partnerships manager, the key to their gaming success has been connecting it directly to their mission.

“Gaming can’t just be a fundraising tool. There has to be a connection to our mission.”.

Diego Scharifker, USO

For the USO, that means using gaming to connect deployed service members with their families and friends back home. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the USO noticed how gaming provided opportunities for people to connect when they couldn’t be together in person. They wanted to provide that same benefit to active military members, who are often separated from loved ones.

The USO’s gaming program includes livestreaming events where military gamers in different locations can compete against each other, as well as building gaming centers at military bases.

They’ve also had success fundraising through popular streaming platform Twitch, raising over $160,000 so far through peer-to-peer campaigns and matching gifts.

According to Scharifker, while the number of followers a streamer has can matter, the most important thing is that the streamer has an authentic connection to the charity’s mission. With the right stewarding, these streamers can become effective fundraisers and ambassadors.

For nonprofits looking to start their own gaming fundraising initiatives, the USO provides a model of how to do it well.

  • Connecting gaming directly to your mission
  • Focusing on relationships over numbers
  • Ensuring gaming is not just a passing fad but an integral part of how you achieve your goals

While getting leadership buy-in may take time, the USO’s example shows that gaming can be a worthwhile investment!

Donor Participation Project Resources

Major Gifts Need Donor Stories: Connecting Personal Narratives to Your Mission

To secure major gifts, nonprofits must understand and connect with donors on a personal level.

According to Dr. Russell James, a leading expert on philanthropic psychology, donors give the largest gifts when organizations effectively elicit their life stories and identify how those narratives link with the organizational mission.

Large donations represent a major life investment for donors, so their giving choices are deeply personal.

Through surveys and in-depth conversations, fundraisers can discover donors’ core values, meaningful relationships, life experiences, and perceptions of significant life victories.

With this understanding, nonprofits can then frame their case for support around the donors’ self-concept and autobiographical memories.

For example, a nonprofit supporting medical research may ask donors about their experiences with illness and healthcare. A university can invite alumni to share memories of their time as students and the lifelong impact of their education. A performing arts organization could survey patrons about the role that arts and culture have played in their lives.

Armed with this insight, the nonprofit can then demonstrate how donations will fuel victories and advance values that resonate with the donor’s sense of identity and purpose.

The stories and settings the nonprofit shares should also reflect the donors’ abundance mindset, as research shows people give more when they feel financially secure.

An opulent donor event, for instance, reinforces that mindset more so than a barebones gathering.

While mass communication campaigns have their place, major gifts fundraising requires highly personalized outreach.

Nonprofits must devote time and resources to understanding donors’ narratives, then strategically connect those stories to the meaning and importance of the work.

The keys are:

  • Listen to learn their story;
  • Frame requests around their values and vision of victory; and
  • Choose language and settings that inspire an abundance perspective.

With the right approach, donor stories can transform into major gifts that change lives through the power of a shared mission.

View the complete recording of this session with Dr. Russell James in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project Resources

The Power of Asking: How Questions Can Lead to Transformational Gifts

Asking the right questions is key to securing major gifts from donors.

According to fundraising experts Dr. Russell James and Jim Langley, questions are more powerful than telling donors about your organization’s needs.

Questions help donors define what they want to accomplish with their giving and find meaning in their philanthropy.

Questions also lead donors to make positive predictions about their future giving behavior, known as the question-behavior effect. For example, asking “Would you consider donating to your alma mater if asked?” increases the likelihood of a donation when asked.

Questions also help donors construct “personally meaningful philanthropic victories” by connecting gifts to what matters most.

How can fundraisers start these important conversations?

  • First, build trust and rapport. Explain why the donor’s input is valuable before asking lots of questions. For example, say you want advice from loyal donors or that the donor’s unique perspective can help shape your work.
  • Frame questions around the donor’s “people, values and history.”
  • Ask open-ended questions like “What would you like to accomplish with your giving?” or “Have you thought about how you’d like your gift used?”
  • Listen for clues to the donor’s motivation and interests. Then, suggest specific ways they can make an impact, ranging from small to transformational gifts.
  • Explain the difference their support can make at each level. This approach expands the donor’s “enjoyment of being philanthropic” and increases their lifetime giving.

While time-intensive, fundraising powered by donor questions and conversations yields the best ROI. Large gifts often have “instructions” on how they’re used, showing donors want to shape impact.

Though technology can enhance outreach, in-depth, interpersonal conversations are most likely to produce transformational gifts.

Overall, an organizational culture built on trust, listening, and meeting donors where they are will lead to the most meaningful partnerships. The power of questions simply can’t be overstated.

This approach may require an investment of resources, but empirical evidence proves that it pays off. The future of fundraising is building profound relationships with donors of capacity and care through the art of asking.

Get the full record of this Donor Participation Project session in our resource library!