Need research funds? Ask a trucker.

May 26, 2015


Last year, I worked with a client who crossed a trucking company off a prospect list because she said there is no reason for such a business to fund research.  That’s true. Actually, outside of a purely academic arena, nobody really gives to research. They fund the answers, the people it affects, the things it can make happen, the policies it can bring to life, the votes it can generate – you get the picture.

Are you sure you understand why your donors are investing in your work? What are you “selling”? What are they really “buying”?

Let’s get back to that trucker. This client does high quality research that has a direct effect on critical policy decision-making in India. What if we knew that this trucking company traveled to Washington to attend White House briefing on the Indian economy? Or that it belongs to a Business Council on India?  Most likely it is either doing business in India or planning to do so. In that case, it would be very interested in an organization that produces actionable information about urbanization, education, public health – all issues that affect the quality of life and commerce in India. The trucking company is back on the prospect list.

What about other nonprofits? Other causes?

Glaucoma is a genetic disease and most of the individuals who give to The Glaucoma Foundation have the disease themselves or in their families. So they must be funding research that will bring about a cure – right? Well, it’s more subtle than that: they are investing in their children and grandchildren.

Another research organization, The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) approaches this from another perspective. Most of their constituents are living daily with the immediate effects of these devastating diseases. They are not likely to give unless the organization addresses their current needs - access to effective treatment, support for sufferers and their family members, frequent updates on new findings about causes, treatment and cures – in addition to enabling research. The organization listens and creates programs that serve its mission as well as the current needs of its donors.

Government funding supports the cost of keeping children in foster care. Good foster care agencies work to keep them out of foster care. Right now it is private funds that will get them closer to that mission.  Every nonprofit dealing with a societal problem should be promoting its “going out of business” plan, no matter how distant that vision may seem.   Donors are less inclined to give if they perceive problems for which there seem to be no solution.

How’s this for a change of pace?

I’ve been having an ongoing dialog with a dues paying member of the National Rifle Association.  (No stereotypes, people: he’s a well-educated, wicked-smart, urban professional. And he doesn’t actually own a gun.)  It isn’t easy to get him to part with money – I know; I’ve tried.  So what’s the appeal? I’m still working on this one but I’m discovering that, for him, tampering with the second amendment is a serious infringement on personal freedom. He sees it as a part of larger and more dangerous infringements on all kinds of personal freedoms, like government surveillance of private citizens and monitoring of financial and consumer behavior by a variety of public and private entities – all exacerbated by the power of the internet. Giving government a monopoly on violence is viewed by many as an essential component of civil society; he sees this as a serious threat.

Why am I telling you this? A good fundraiser, working for gun control advocates knows that there’s no point in trying to turn this NRA member into a supporter. Don’t bother.  On the other hand, the opportunity to learn more about how he thinks is priceless. (No, I’m not going to give you his contact information. Find your own contrarians.)

This letter is not about guns, but consider this: A recent New York Times Op-Ed article presented clear evidence that pro-gun advocates are winning. So it seems that the NRA is not only successful in appealing to its natural constituency, it is also winning converts. The NRA appears to know how to bring prospects to the point of giving money. They are getting at what different parts of its constituency are buying. Those of us who want to restrict private gun ownership have a lot to learn. Telling people guns are dangerous isn’t working. After tragedies like Newtown, gun sales have increased. We should learn more about what they’re thinking.

This is hard work; there is so much we don’t know

 It is likely that we are missing opportunities. Not only can there be many different motivations among different types of donors to a single cause, but a single individual can also have more than one reason for giving.

•        The policy research organization in India has donors who give because of the information they generate on public health trends, others who support the light they shed on women’s reproductive health, and still others who applaud their dedication to increasing the number of Indians qualified to do high quality research in India.

•        Many donors to The Glaucoma Foundation also give in honor of the physicians who treated them successfully.

•        Some donors to, the National Eating Disorders Association, do give to research because they hope to discover genetic markers that will lead to better prevention and treatment.

•        The NRA has many donors who are moved by numerous anecdotes about private citizens who have decisively vanquished intruders because they own firearms. This despite the fact that much credible research tells us that in this type of situation, the resident is actually putting himself in greater danger.

Try this

•        Talk to your donors when you are not soliciting. Ask them why they give. Find out what other causes they support and why. Find out as much as you can about their non-philanthropic interests. But don’t try to do this in one meeting or phone call; you don’t want it to seem like an FBI interrogation. This should be part of your ongoing relationships with your donors.

•        You already know that you must find out as much as you can about your donors. Don’t forget that social media sources like LinkedIn and Facebook are excellent sources of information. And we all know to just google a person’s name, right?

•        Deploy your board members for opposition research of all kinds – like chatting with friends and colleagues who have different views. This is one way they help fundraising, even though they keep telling you they don’t like fundraising. And make sure they know just how valuable their efforts are.

•        Do an on-line survey about some aspect of your work. It should be well-designed, not too long, and should relate to a substantial issue for which you really want more information. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be a good way to learn more about your current supporters. Services like Survey Monkey are making polling your constituents easier and more economical than ever.

•        You can’t tell your donors that you will solve major social problems like foster care or poverty, which is what many of them really wish for. That is out of the grasp of a single organization. But you can make sure your constituents know that you are participating in effective coalitions and advocacy projects – and keep them informed about the milestones attained as a result of these joint efforts.

•        Reach out beyond like-minded individuals and organizations to learn more about those who don’t share your point of view. If you don’t have access to individuals learn more about the causes they support by visiting their websites and reading some of their publications.

•        Try not to demonize the opposition. That mind set works against learning what makes them tick. Many of them are succeeding and you need to know why

Even though finding out more about those who don’t share your views is important, most of your resources should be directed toward those who are closest to you and the prospects whose profiles tell you that they may be interested in your work. Donor retention is a serious challenge. Diving below the surface to learn more about what your donors are really buying is one way to keep them close.

Please share your own thoughts by responding to this email or by chiming in on my website, where you will find this discussion posted on my blog.  You will enrich the conversation for all of us. (Tip: The post-its at the top of the page are links.)

Thank you for staying in touch.

All the best,


P.S. Let me know if I can help untangle your fundraising challenges. The first meeting is always free.



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