The Fundraising Executive

PERSUASION THEORY; Two Pathways to a Giving Decision

By Eddie Thompson | September 13, 2013 | Donor Communications

2-roads-in-woodsTwo donor appointments early on in my career showed me then (and remind me now) how donor relations is a never-ending learning experience. With both experiences, I made some very wrong assumptions about what those two donors wanted and needed to hear. In retrospect, my heart was right, but what was I thinking?

The Attorney and the Capital Campaign
In my first year as a fundraiser, I sat down with an attorney and launched into a passionate appeal for a major gift. I came to the meeting armed with blueprints, a budget, and a gift-hierarchy chart. The only thing missing was a big thermometer that wouldn’t fit into my car. For forty-five minutes I pleaded the case for the capital campaign—just as I had envisioned, just as I had rehearsed. I remember thinking to myself, “What a great presentation I am making!” I was a man on fire.

Pausing for a second to catch my breath, I asked the attorney what he thought. He paused too but a little longer—an awkward silence just long enough to break my rhythm.

“Eddie,” the lawyer asked, “is Steve giving to this?”

I suddenly realized that his mind had been somewhere else. I think he stopped listening at about the 10-minute mark. It wasn’t that he didn’t care for the organization. At that time and in that place, the data I was trying so hard to provide just wasn’t relevant to his decision-making process.

I remember thinking to myself, “What a great presentation I am making!”

“Yes, Steve is giving,” I replied.

“How much?”

I hesitated as a rookie fundraiser, not knowing exactly what I should say. Finally, I said, “Well, that’s confidential and…”

“Never mind,” he interrupted. “I’ll just give Steve a call and get back with you.”

With that he stood up, signifying that my presentation was over. And I didn’t even get to deliver my passionate appeal.

The lawyer found out that his friend Steve was giving $50,000, and so, he gave $50,000 too.

The Couple and the Medical Mission
Twenty years ago I worked as a fundraiser for an organization that sponsored medical mission trips for surgeons. Visiting with a couple who had expressed interest in the work, I illustrated the importance of giving with my most compelling story. A woman in Belize had been diagnosed with a life-threatening tumor in the spring. Sadly, she passed away in the following fall because there were insufficient funds for a follow up trip.

To further impress upon them the consequence, I even brought a photo of the deceased woman’s three children standing alone by a tree. I personally felt sadness for the orphaned children, and at the same time, felt that I was doing a superb job making the connection between potential gifts and changed lives.

Then the wife asked, “How many situations are there like this? How many mothers passed away last year?”

“Well,” I said painfully, realizing that I had been cornered, “this is the only one I know of.”

The couple continued to press me for more data on the number of operations, the cost of travel, the number of doctors, time they spent onsite, equipment needs, anesthesia, sterilization, success rate, and on and on and on. The wife was very gracious and sincerely interested. But in my own eyes, it had appeared that I had not been completely straightforward with them. I answered their questions as best I could, and the meeting was over.

I don’t know which situation left me feeling worse—being politely dismissed by the lawyer because I was giving too much information or being politely cross-examined by the man’s wife for not giving enough.

One of the most well-established theories of persuasion is Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) formulated by Petty and Cacioppo in the mid-1980s and first published in 1986. ELM is a dual processing model—that is, individuals are persuaded to change attitudes and/or make decisions by one of two routes. Those following a CENTRAL ROUTE tend to elaborate on (think through) competing arguments, carefully processing the data until they come to a conclusion. In contrast, those following a PERIPHERAL ROUTE are not so inclined to elaborate on the arguments but look for “heuristic cues” or mental shortcuts to a decision.

Individuals choose the CENTRAL or PERIPHERAL ROUTE (or some blend of both) based on several factors, including:

  • Relevance of the topic to their situation
  • Quality of presentation
  • Argument complexity
  • Ability to process
  • Available time
  • Distractions

I had failed to communicate effectively with both donors because I simply assumed how they thought and how they would make their decisions. Long-term, strategic thinkers don’t always carefully process the data, and tactical-reactive donors always look for decision-making shortcuts.

The lawyer was a classic strategic giver. He would, I assumed, want to hear me passionately plead my case with lots of supporting evidence. That’s how I assumed lawyers operated. But I failed to take into account that lawyers also bill by the hour and have an internal meter that tracks how much a long-winded presentation like mine is costing him. Time was the driving issue that motivated the lawyer to look for a decision-making shortcut—i.e., “Is Steve giving?” and “How much?”

Note: Most major donors are well connected to their philanthropic networks. They know who makes long-term strategic gifts and who are the ones more likely to respond tactically to immediate needs. Consequently, they often take their cues from other like-minded donors.

I had failed to communicate effectively with both donors because I simply assumed how they thought and how they would make their decisions.

The conventional donor-relations wisdom is that donors who are wired to give tactically (reacting to immediate needs), will make those decisions by mental shortcuts. The man and wife were classic tactical givers. [See Strategic and Tactical Giving – Part 2]. However, they not only responded with passion to immediate needs, they understood the dynamics of medical missions. They were, consequently, geared up to process data while I was simply trying to pull on emotional strings.

In both donor presentations, I just forged ahead, unaware that I was not connecting.  Too often fundraisers launch into presentations either packed with data or citing a long list of mental shortcuts. But I think it goes without being said—we need to build relationships and get to know our donors—what they know, who they know, and which route they are likely to follow on the way to a giving decision.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

Copyright 2013, R. Edward Thompson