Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Washington Nonprofit Conference. While there were countless takeaways from the conference and many great speakers, there is one quote that keeps playing on repeat in my head; “Your donor can’t write a check while they’re applauding”.
This adage has me thinking a lot about what motivates us: in both fundraising – and in life.
First, let me take a step back to explain the fundraising context. The speaker of these words was Tom Gaffny of Tom Gaffny Consulting – a long-time fundraising professional and a fantastic speaker. In this particular session Tom was speaking about the importance of “the offer” in fundraising: how are you asking for a donor’s contribution and what are you offering them in return?
He went on to explain that in countless tests he’s found that focusing on the need (People are hungry. Animals are homeless. Children are suffering.) rather than your own success (We fed people! We housed animals! We saved children!) motivates more donors and raises more money. Hence his pithy and wonderfully visual observation: “Your donor can’t write a check while they’re applauding [your success]”.
I’ve found this to be equally true for the organizations I work with. Our testing over the years has shown that focusing on the need and what has to be done is more effective than focusing on what has been done. Donors want to take action themselves to solve a problem – not donate because you did something.
It’s the same reason why special anniversary logos tend to suppress results. Donors typically don’t care that your organization is celebrating its 25th anniversary. That doesn’t have anything to do with them. On the other hand, acknowledging when a donor has a giving anniversary themselves (such as “Joe Smith, you’ve been saving animals from the streets for 5 years!”) is much more motivating. It speaks to what the donor has done and makes them feel great and want to do more.
So, what’s the application of this idea outside of fundraising?
I think Tom’s maxim gets at a central truth: we need to listen to what motivates others and accept that it might not be what we expected or wanted to hear. This goes for pretty much any aspect of our lives where we interact with others… and even ourselves. Here are a few examples.
If we want to motivate our employees, that means listening to them and realizing that what motivates them may be different than what motivates us.
For example, I’m motivated to double-check the accuracy of my work because I know that mistakes could ultimately cost money. This is because I manage a budget and costs are critically important in my role. But for someone I supervise, the financial cost may not be that motivating. I could make a perfectly reasonable argument about why the financial cost should be motivating to my supervisees… but at the end of the day they may find their main motivation for double-checking their work is so they don’t have to spend more time fixing mistakes later. That makes total sense, and once I understand that I can encourage them to complete their work error-free in a way that resonates with them.
If we want to help our partner achieve their goals, we can be better cheerleaders if we’re in tune with what their motivations are rather than assuming we know.
For example, if our partner expresses that they want to start exercising more often, we might assume it’s because they want to look fit for us – how sweet! We might make comments that we think are encouraging about how good they’re starting to look or how soon they won’t be carrying around those few extra pounds. But if their motivation to work out is because they are concerned about their heart health, our comments may not have the intended effect and some could even be perceived as un-motivating (“She only seems to care about how I look, not about how I feel. What’s the point?”). By asking questions and understanding what motivates our partner, we can be better cheerleaders and encourage them to achieve their goals more effectively.
If we’re struggling with a challenge personally and feel stuck, we need to get clear with ourselves about our own motivations.
For example, if you’re trying to develop a new habit – such as reading more – but can’t seem to make it happen, have a frank conversation with yourself about what your motivation is. Is it because other people in your office are always talking about what they’re reading? Or is it something you want to do for your own personal enjoyment but can’t find the time?
Whatever the answer, you can use that information to jumpstart yourself into action, and not waste time on strategies for motivating yourself that won’t work. For example, if you want to read more to keep pace with well-read colleagues, enlisting an accountability partner or challenging a friend to see who can read more industry articles in a month may be a good method for making it happen. If you want to read more for pleasure, something as formal as an accountability buddy may be stressful and un-motivating. Instead you might consider sticking a post-it on your remote control that says, “How about reading instead?” or making a date with yourself at a coffee shop you like once a week to enjoy a few chapters. You get the idea – once we’re clear on our own motivations we can better encourage ourselves when we’re struggling to complete a task or master a new habit.
I hope some of these thoughts about motivation are helpful to you.
What motivates others may not always be what we want to hear – like if an appeal about our organization’s success doesn’t motivate our donors to give, or finding out our spouse doesn’t want to sculpt a six-pack just to look good in a swimsuit. But if we ask the right questions and are willing to listen, we can benefit from learning what does motivate them – such as a fundraising appeal that clearly communicates an urgent need and raises buckets of money, or realizing that our spouse only cares about exercising so they can be around to love us for many years to come.