Monday, 11 June 2012

Excuse me, can I ask you a question?

Why do your donors support you? No, really – why? Do you have an idea in your mind as to what motivates your donors to give to your organisation?

A charity DM insert fell through my letterbox this weekend, and it’s made me realise that I don’t entirely know why donors support my organisation. Let me explain.

Here is the piece.
RNLI piece 2012

RNLI piece 1990s
You may have seen something similar. It’s for the RNLI – the ‘lifeboats’ and it features one of their volunteers. ‘All we ask of you is £20’ it proclaims. A spot of digging on the internet and I discover that this is basically the same advert that the RNLI have been using for 20 years. Here is the version from the 1990s.

Ok, so the wave size has gone metric and we’ve had a slight increase in the donation amount, but I think you will agree they are much of a much-ness.

One would hope that if they’ve been using the exact same concept for 20 years – it works.

But why?

And this is where it gets interesting. This is where it is crucial that the RNLI knows what motivates people to support them.

The RNLI’s mission is to save those at peril on the seas. This 180 year old institution has more than 200 coastal stations around the UK, manned by volunteer lifeboatmen and women who launch crafts into the sea to provide emergency rescue to those in danger.

For 150 years of their 180 year history, the RNLI assumed that the reason people supported their work was because of the lives they saved. Those people who had got into difficulty on their boats, whose yacht had capsized, who’d been swept out on their surfboards. They saved thousands of lives a year – and that was why people gave to them – right?


The RNLI carried out some research.

Whilst it might be a little harsh to suggest that donors couldn’t care less about what happens to those at peril in the seas, what the research revealed was that this was not people’s motivation to support.

No, people were supporting the RNLI because of their volunteers. The hero men and women, who give their skill, courage and time to rescue people in trouble. They are ready to save the life of anyone – to risk their own lives – whatever the conditions and at any time of the day or night.

And so that, I imagine, is exactly why we see an RNLI volunteer on the fundraising piece. And that is why we've seen him (in various guises) for the past 20 years. 

I hope it is becoming clear what a useful tool understanding your donor's motivations can be. If the RNLI had continued to go with their instinct, these pieces would contain the stories of those they had saved – not the ones doing the saving.

So I’m going to go and ask our donors why they support us. And maybe the test of us really understanding will be that we’re still using the same message in 20 years’ time.

Have your messages stood the test of time? I'd love to hear. Comment below or contact me on twitter at  @brownrach 




  1. That's a darn good case for support for research, as well as the RNLI.

  2. here here. Invest in learning about your donors...