Changing Prospects into Donors: How Change Theory Can Guide the Way

by Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

We have all struggled unsuccessfully to break old habits, like eating pastry with our mid-morning coffee, or tried to adopt rewarding new routines, like daily exercise workouts. But it wasn’t until I stumbled onto the ideas in a book called Changing for Good that I made the connection between fundraising and the difficulty we adults commonly experience in changing our behaviors.

The change model in Changing for Good is called the “Transtheoretical Model of Change” developed by James O. Prochaska, a psychologist at the University of Rhode Island, and a number of colleagues.

Fortunately, I didn’t let the imposing name stop me from learning more. I discovered that Prochaska’s model of change was well know and respected in public health and other disciplines concerned with changing human behaviors.

The model describes the process of behavioral change. It answers questions like these:

  • Why are some people more likely than others to succeed in dropping bad habits or picking up positive new ones?
  • Why do some programs have high success rates in helping individuals make lasting changes in their lives while others rarely work?

As someone who views philanthropy and charitable giving as a positive social behavior, could this model of change provide fundraisers with helpful insights into the work that we do?

The five stages of change

According to Prochaska, successful change isn’t a single event – for example, people don’t decide out of the blue to lose weight, change their diet that very day and successfully keep that weight off for the rest of their lives.

Instead, change is a process that involves five stages, a spiral of forward and backward progress.

The five stages of behavioral change are:

1. “I’m not yet thinking about a particular behavior” – precontemplation
2. “I’m thinking about this new behavior and weighing how it will work for me,” – contemplation
3. “I’ve made the decision to act and I’m deciding how to do it” – preparation
4. “I’m doing it for the first time, or first few times” – action
5. “I’ve made this a continuing habit in my life” – maintenance

Let’s look at the five stages a little more closely and see how they might apply to our work with donors.

Stage One: Precontemplation or I’m not yet thinking about this particular behavior

When we set about to recruit new donors or to ask current donors to deepen their giving, we know that we can’t jump right in and ask for money the first time we meet. Why?

If our potential donor is in the precontemplation stage, they haven’t yet given any thought to our request – really, we probably aren’t even on their personal radar screen. Or, they may briefly have considered taking such an action but decided it wasn’t anything they were interested in right now.

Our job then is to move our prospective donor from the precontemplation to the contemplation stage. Two processes, or tools, that work well at this stage are:

* raising awareness
* arousing their emotions about a problem or for a solution

We raise awareness by exposing our prospect to more information about our cause, our institution or the particular giving option that we are promoting. We can employ hundreds of ways to get our message noticed: radio or TV spots, newspaper articles or newsletters, a carefully tailored brochure, or even a face to face conversation.

But factual information alone usually isn’t enough to move beyond this stage. We need to arouse the emotions that will help our prospect overcome their indifference, apathy or resistance. Vivid examples of need and touching personal stories of changed lives help our ideas grow deeper roots. We are successful in our efforts when prospects want to investigate more closely what this means for them.

Stage Two: Contemplation or I’m thinking about this new behavior and weighing how it will work for me

The contemplation stage most closely parallels what fundraisers call donor cultivation.

At this stage, our prospects are taking stock of our institution and its impact on their personal circumstances. How well do our programs and values align with their beliefs about social problems or community betterment? Can they afford a gift right now? How big? What difference will it make? What will happen in return? Are there other organizations that might be a better investment? Or are there other ways to spend the same money and receive more personal satisfaction?

Our prospects are weighing the pros and cons of action, but so far the “pros” don’t have enough weight. We can help our prospects tip those scales by helping them:

* harness their emotional energy for change
* get more relevant information
* imagine the future once the change has happened

Because the questions at this stage are very personal, more individualized forms of communication are helpful. You can create opportunities for your prospect to experience your program in action, feel its excitement or empathize with the individuals who benefit from your services. Site visits, testimonials from clients or passionate volunteers can be very moving. Testimonials from peers, co-workers, family or trusted opinion leaders can help the individual see how becoming a donor might feel to them. Providing targeted information helps your prospects visualize how your institution can fulfill their dreams of a better world.

Stage Three: Preparation or I’ve made the decision to act and I’m deciding how to do it

You’ve done a very good job of cultivation. Your prospect is excited, confident and ready to give. Now is the time to for them to make the commitment and for you to make the ask.

Make the final act of commitment as safe and simple as possible – don’t place obstacles in the way of giving. This might be as simple as including that reply envelope or accepting a donation by credit card. If your donor is making a complicated planned gift, be sure that they have everything they need for their legal advisor to draw up the final documents.

But first, recognize that there is likely to be some ambivalence that might still get in the way of the final commitment. Be ready to respond to any last minute hesitations and to reinforce the positive consequences of a well-thought-out giving decision.

Stage Four: Action or I’m doing it for the first time

Stage Five: Maintenance or I’ve made this a continuing habit in my life

Congratulations! Your prospect has made a gift. They are feeling great and so do you. How can you make a habit of this great new feeling?

First, make sure to tell them how good you feel. A prompt, personalized and personal thank you is absolutely critical at this stage.

But as every fundraiser knows, one gift from a new donor does not signal a lasting commitment. Direct mail fundraisers tell us that over 50% of new donors never make a second gift. Even donors who have named your institution in their will can just as easily write you out again.

Think of the first gift as a test, a trial run. Your job is to help reinforce for your donor that this was a good decision and that you will fulfill the promise that was inherent in the act of giving.

You can help your donor move from action to maintenance by:

* Providing positive benefits for their action
* Reinforcing their relationship with your organization

In her groundbreaking work Donor-Centered Fundraising, researcher Penelope Burk reports what donors want from our nonprofits. More than anything else, Ms Burk tells us, donors want to know that –

1. their gift was received…and you were pleased to get it
2. the gift was ‘set to work’ as intended
3. the project or program to which the gift was directed had or is having the desired effect.

Reinforce initial acts of giving by providing your donors with meaningful information throughout the year. Show your donors how their gift made a difference. Tell stories of change in your printed or online newsletters, and annual reports. Tailor your communications to your donors’ needs. Invite them again to visit, and if they desire, keep them informed of important new happenings through phone calls, letters or email.

Respect your donor’s wishes for public recognition – it can be reinforcing for donors who want it, and have negative implications for those who don’t.

The value of models
Models work for me because they help bring meaning and structure to what otherwise might feel like random activities. Tested models of change like this one can help provide the conceptual underpinning to our fundraising experiences – why most individuals aren’t ready to make a gift upon first contact, why it takes time to develop lasting donor relationships and why some actions are effective and others aren’t.

A cautionary note: Philanthropy is a voluntary act. As fundraisers we provide support to individuals who are searching for ways to make a difference in the world. We present our own organizations as a voluntary option for achieving our donors’ quests. We shouldn’t use a model of behavorial change to manipulate, coerce or trick donors into giving. As ethical fundraisers, we always place donor interests first.

Approaching personal philanthropy as a process, as a set of stages that we can help facilitate prospective donors through, helps us more effectively focus our activities and sustain our efforts – even on those days when it feels as it we aren’t making forward progress.

As we know in fundraising, “timing is everything.” Prochaska’s model of change helps us understand “what time it is” in the minds of our prospects and donors.

This article first appeared in Contributions Magazine.

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE and her colleague Jonathan W. Howard at Cause & Effect Inc. help nonprofits from the grassroots to international create strategic change for a more just and peaceful world. With over 30 years of nonprofit experience, Cause & Effect helps nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, board development, fundraising and communications needs.