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What “The Giving Tree” Taught Me About Fundraising

4 min read
June 04, 2018
Tim Sarrantonio headshot
Tim Sarrantonio
Director of Strategic Partnerships, Neon One

I recently had the honor of presenting a TEDx talk. After working with and for nonprofits for over a decade, I wanted to share some thoughts with a broader audience on where the industry is heading. While you can watch the entire talk above, I outlined some key takeaways that any nonprofit professional would appreciate.

The Giving Tree

When I first moved to upstate New York, one of the first books that I unboxed was The Giving Tree. It’s a beautiful book by Shel Silverstein about a young boy and a tree that get along together very well. Yet as the boy grows up, he starts to want things that the tree can’t give him. So the tree gives the young man apples, branches, and even the very trunk of the tree itself.

The book is an apt parable on the nature of charity itself. We are most happy when making honest and reciprocal connections with each other and most removed from each other when we treat each other in a transactional way.

Donors see this very clearly, with donor retention rates currently dropping industry wide. We talk a lot about how making a meaningful connection with a donor is the best way to continue the relationship, but here are a few key tips that any nonprofit can use to truly enter into a relationship based on mutual respect:

  • Listen: Do more outreach to learn why your donors give to you and how they want to hear from you. Donor surveys are a great way to begin this process.
  • Learn: If you see something that shows a red flag in your giving trends, identify it and try to explore what may be going wrong. Leverage your CRM’s built in donor dashboards to easily understand when a problem may occur.

We Are Born Givers

Another fascinating item I learned when researching my TEDx talk is that we all have biological foundations of charity within us. Several studies show that humans are hardwired to enjoy giving to others. In many cases, it may not even be the most logical thing that we can do but people naturally want to give and help build our communities.

As fundraisers, we can learn a great deal if we understand these biological impulses. When we are writing donor appeals, is your organization focusing on the story or are you listing statistics? The most effective appeals are written from the heart.

Storytelling is key to the best appeals, because it taps into the emotional sensors that activate giving. Video is a wonderful medium for translating your mission into action, which is why I was excited to have my own TEDx talk taped to share my message beyond the immediate audience.

How to Rewire the Ways We Make Good Happen

During my talk, I spent a significant portion talking about the three primary buckets of giving. Let’s unpack those a bit more to understand why the way we fund our missions is vital to ensuring we can continue to grow as an industry as well as professionally.

  • Foundations: My first job was as a grant writer and I’ve spoken about site visits before, but the reality is that our industry would be more effective if unrestricted grant money were freed up and less emphasis was placed on restricted giving.
  • Matching Gifts: If your nonprofit isn’t leveraging matching gifts from corporations, revisit that. There is nearly $10 billion per year left unclaimed in matching gifts each year and participation rates are only 9%. Imagine if we invested just a little bit more in matching gifts and spent less time worrying about getting someone to buy something through AmazonSmile?
  • Individual Giving: Yes, retention rates are dropping in general but that doesn’t mean overall giving is. We’re seeing more people support charities, so the key here is to ensure that we are building meaningful relationships with our donors and not taking them for granted. Ask yourself honestly — are you doing the best you can when it comes to building relationships?

Most of all, be creative and be yourself. The ways we generate revenue are varied but the core way we should organize any sort of giving program is to put relationships with our donors and our communities front and center.

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