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Donor Participation Project

Learn Fundraising Secrets from the Expert

Dr. Russell James, a professor of philanthropic psychology, shared his insights on fundraising best practices with nonprofit leaders at a recent Donor Participation Project conference. A renowned expert in fundraising research, Dr. James emphasized the importance of understanding donor motivation and using data to optimize fundraising strategies.

According to Dr. James, donors give primarily to enhance their identity and personal meaning through “identity-challenge-victory” cycles.

Nonprofits should connect donations to donors’ personal values and life experiences. For example, an environmental nonprofit could ask donors about when they first became passionate about conservation and who influenced them. These questions help tell donors’ stories and strengthen their bonds to the cause.

Learning Organizations

Dr. James also advocated for nonprofits to become “learning organizations” that constantly test and optimize fundraising strategies. Even successful organizations need to re-test approaches as circumstances change. While learning organizations risk leaders losing some control or prestige, the rewards of higher donations and a closer donor community make the effort worthwhile.

One key to learning is testing variations of the same campaign. For example, changing just one phrase in an appeal and measuring differences in response can yield valuable insights. The best tests change only one variable at a time to pinpoint what works.

Donors today also want two-way engagement, not just marketing messages. Dr. James suggested inviting donors to share their opinions and stories through surveys, social media, and online communities. Their responses help nonprofits personalize appeals and show donors their impact.

Overall, Dr. James demonstrated how fundraisers can gain a scientific edge. By understanding identity-linked motivation, fostering learning cultures, optimizing campaigns through testing, and creating conversations with donors, nonprofits can build highly engaging communities and help donors achieve meaningful victories together. With Dr. James’ data-driven approach, fundraisers can learn secrets to motivate donors more deeply.

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

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