Do We Really Want “Donations”?

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Faces as Dollar signsWhat are we really asking when we ask for donations? This question has arisen as Creating the Future is rethinking everything about how community health and vibrance is supported and sustained.

This is not an academic exercise for us. The question arises as a result of rethinking what philanthropy looks like if it reflects its roots in “Love of Humanity.” As we have vowed to explore what it means to be the future we want to see in our communities, we find ourselves asking, “What do our values look like in action at our donation page?” And to be honest, we have a lot more questions than answers so far…

What We’re Really Saying When We Ask for Donations
There are so many unspoken assumptions embedded in the language of donations. Here are just a few:

Donate to our organization / our work
Assumption: WE the organization are separate from YOU the donor. YOU give to US.
Assumption: When YOU give US money, WE will do the work. After all, WE are the experts.

Your dollars make this work possible
Assumption: WE depend on YOU.
Assumption: More to the point, WE desperately need YOUR money.
Assumption: Without YOUR money, OUR organization will not survive, and none of the work in our community will get done.

The more we unpack the layers, the more we see that the act of asking for donations, no matter how noble it is (and we acknowledge that it is, indeed, noble), is ultimately rooted in a sense of scarcity. And any relationship rooted in scarcity is a power relationship. You have money, we need that money – it’s not for us personally, but to do amazing things for others. But we really need it. Please give it to us?!

Starting a Different Conversation
As we re-think philanthropy to be the true partnership implied in the words “Love of Humanity” – the original meaning of that word – all this is coming up for us. If we know the only way to create the future we all want is for all of us to work together – not YOU helping US, but all of us working together in one big Stone Soup of partnership – what does that look like in practice when it comes to supporting the work to accomplish that? And if the word “donations” carries all the assumptions noted above, is that really an approach that aligns with the world we want?

I don’t want to suggest we have the answers; what I do know is that…

  1. Individuals will go where systems lead them.
  2. The situation I’ve described above is simply a system.

To create new systems will require a whole new set of questions – questions that lead to empowering, engaging answers, rooted in abundance and connection.

  • How can we walk the talk of being in community with each other at our “donations” page?
  • What do those values and assumptions look like in action at that page?
  • Would we still call it a “donations” page?
  • What do we want to offer at that page? How can we use that page to be of service to each other (vs. “YOU the donor” being of service to US)?

If the Page- Formerly-Known-As-Our-Donations-Page** is about all of us together creating the world we want, how can we link what people expect to find – a donations page – to our own intention to be the future we want to see?

Much to think about. What bubbles up for you?

** Our “donation” page is a work in progress. Here’s what it looks like today. As you look at it, is there anything that stands out? Anything that makes you stop and think? What does it evoke for you? Any and all observations and thoughts are welcome!

9 thoughts on “Do We Really Want “Donations”?”

  1. Love this line of questioning and your transparency here. I’m currently reading Meg Wheatley’s Walk Out, Walk On, which I highly recommend. I think that the line of thinking in there about engaging people in discussions and planning for the future is part of where you’re going here.

    To respond to the “Donations” page question, I think that one of the things that could be done would be to engage people in identifying what they see as the issues that need to be addressed and in creative problem-solving around how to fund those things. It becomes more of a conversation on a larger scale about what’s important to the community and the various ways that these things can be funded, going beyond just “give us your money.”

    It could also be discussions about how things can be done for less money, too–are there ideas about how to address the other side of the equation and build on talents, resources, etc. that may already exist?

    Great questions here and looking forward to seeing the discussion continue.

  2. Michele – thank you for this! Your questions are precisely the purpose of this new blog. And starting in January, the blog will have several other authors engaging those conversations. I’m just glad you’ll be part of the discussion!

  3. I hope this doesn’t sound like semantics but I like the word: contribution. If your “contribution” page talked about the contributions you are trying to make. And invited people to talk about the ways in which they want to or are already contributing to the issues you are focused on. And certainly one of the ways of contributing is to add funds to existing initiatives or endeavors.

  4. I think you also have to be *very* careful to see the world as a potential donor might see it. Too many orgs see donors and donations as consumable fuel and treat them as such.

    They forget the connection that the donation might be trying to make for the donor. The amount is not always indicative of the connection’s value to the donor, much less the org.

    Someone might truly believe in your mission and your vision for achieving it but their current place in life might only allow them to engage in seeing it happen with a donation. It might be the only 5 minutes they have that day, or it might be the only spare $5 they have, and to them it might be all they have the time, energy or mindspace to deal with.

    But they still gave it to your cause.

    And they might give again when the time, budget and headspace is available. They might give that $5 annually for years. They might quietly share the mission with 100, 1000 or a million people and do so with great impact. You don’t know what impact their dedication might generate that goes far beyond that $5.

    Why do you put your change in the Salvation Army bucket?

    Guilt? Because you walked past it? Because it is so easy? Because it is anonymous? Because you don’t like carrying change? Because you understand the dignity that comes through the simple act of being able to take a shower and wash your clothes? Or….?

    What’s really in your donors’ mind when they give a gift? “Because we believe in what you’re doing” is far too easy to accept, validate and move on from.

    I’d be quite surprised to get quality answers that matched what their donors would say if I asked 100 EDs why their donors *really* give and what that connection/donation means to those donors.

    What, if anything, do those donors share about their donations with friends, co-workers, employees and family? Why?

    Orgs and their systems rarely ask these questions (or similar ones). They sometimes ask the “It’s all about us” questions like “How did you hear about us?” that marketing people like me need to hear answers to, while neglecting to find out what provoked someone to pull their last $5 out of their wallet and hand it to you.

    I can’t help but wonder why that is. This discussion is about far more than wordsmithing.

  5. Indeed, Mark, I agree that it is not about the word. It is about how we think. And the “we” in this case is not orgs, but all of us.

    I want to focus, though, on the thought that someone might only have 5 minutes and therefore would simply write a check. This comes back to the goal of what we want to accomplish as a movement (not as an organization)- what we want to be different in the way people BE with each other.

    Which means it cannot be about giving to US as an org (or for that matter, a VC investing just dollars) but about something as simple as having a different conversation with a family member over dinner. It’s about asking different questions – questions beyond “How will we fund this effort?” – questions of “What does it mean to be fully engaged in my life, in my community, in my world?”

    I don’t purport to have the answer – it’s why we are asking the question so publicly! What I do know, though, is when money comes into the picture, the relationship becomes transactional and thereby creates separations of us and them. I am a donor or an investor and I give to / invest in you so that I will get something in return – whether that something is ROI, a healthier community, or (as you note) simply assuaging guilt.

    If we stop focusing on the money – the means – and reverse engineer from the end results we want – what would resourcing look like? And how could individuals contribute (yes, Pearl) to that end result, in ways that create change not just in “our work as an organization” but in them as humans on this planet? How can we all be the future we want to see, rather than paying someone else to somehow magically make it so?

  6. Re thinking philanthropy
    Do I need to get permission to quote (with attributions) from this article in a letter to our supporters?
    It is fantastic.
    Linda Horner
    Executive Director
    L.A.C.E.R. Afterschool Programs.

  7. Linda:
    I’m excited that this is resonating with you to that degree. Not only will we encourage you to quote from the post, but please let us know what kinds of responses you get from folks – not “how much money comes in” but “what conversation is this creating?” Can’t wait to hear!

  8. Firstly I think it’s FANTASTIC that we’re even having this discussion. And secondly I think this discussion is perfectly timed. I work for Communities Plus. CP helps Australian community service professionals to improve the engagement of communities. A lot of our strategies are borrowed from marketing, and this can be confronting for community services. There’s a perception that anything ‘commercial’ or business-like is exploitative.

    But I digress. At CP we work with 7 strategies. Number 2 strategy is ‘think like a marketer’. In other words, lose the jargon and pseudo-physco-speak. Act less like an ‘expert’ and more like a marketer with a business, customers, contacts and a tag line.

    Number 2 strategy also looks at motivation. Basically people fall into one main category and sometimes another (lesser) category. If you want to engage a person who’s motivated by money you talk about sustainability, high level governance, ‘safe hands’ and building financial security. If you want to engage a person who is motivated by ego you talk about ‘the difference they make’, about leaving a ‘legacy’ and being an ambassador for your cause. If you want to engage a person who is motivated by justice you give them the data on disparities and inequality, and if you want to engage a person who’s motivated by wisdom you ask them to help you with a theory or hypothesis. They’re the ones who want to know how things work so you talk about ‘how’ things happen. They also love models and frameworks.

    With all that, we do know that people donate for different reasons. But pitching it appropriately is challenging. So we use one simple tag line throughout- and give it a slightly different slant.

    And before I go, I just want to share something with you. I recently donated to Wikipedia. Which is surprising really because I can be a bit suspicious of on-line donating. Why? Because, #1 it looks legitimate, #2 it resonated with me because it talked of the ‘free’ benefits to everyone (and obviously myself too) and protecting the sanctity of the internet (and free speech) etc, and lastly- AND MOST importantly, the pay now screen was one-simple action. I didn’t have to click here, or go to another page. And I definitely didn’t have to log in and subscribe/ validate anything.

    So, in closing the best thing you can do to secure donations- is make donating very, very easy. Hope this helps! Good luck guys. You’re making a difference, you have good governance and ‘safe hands’, you’re helping us to understand how things happen and you’re helping our cause!!!

  9. Hildy,

    I like the idea of “individuals will go where systems lead them”. I like the ideas presented here too, including Michelle’s mention of Meg Wheatley’s Walk Out, Walk On.

    All that said, not only is money or time scarce but people’s attention is scarce. People are busy and don’t want to be reminded of it. They need to be led to the place of abundance via the path, not words explaining the philosophy. People decide if they will stay on a website very quickly – in about the first seven seconds. And I think people reading here know this intuitive so I’m a little confused. I agree with Gayle’s sensibilities.

    From where I sit, don’t explain the new “system” or the new way for people to think. Meet people where they are… engage and meet them how they are… and once you engage them then act in accordance to your values.

    Here are some examples on how people really engage differently when it comes to “donating” or

    These links might be more about $ but the same knowledge can be applied to what is important to an organization. If someone clicks “donate” perhaps you could have another page that illustrates the sense of community in the organization and how the organization enriches donor and community lives. Keep it brief, but let them dig into another page if they truly want more information. If they want more information then maybe they are ready to volunteer, so make volunteer info available then.

    Find someone who knows about A/B testing and building websites as a website and organization continually evolve as the people using it evolve. A/B testing helps find the best outcomes for your organization.


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