the #1 thing to teach donors

That was a trick headline, sorry about that. You really can’t teach donors anything. In fact, that’s the completely wrong way to think. Not only does it not work, it’s dangerous. Donors don’t want you to teach them anything. Ever.

More specifically, adults don’t want to be taught. But adults love to learn. And there’s the tricky part.

You may hear some buzz about teaching donors philanthropy or generosity or stewardship. Maybe you’ve thought you should teach your donors about your cause or your nonprofit’s work or about your ministry. Don’t do it. It’s dangerous. And it won’t work.

Let’s do the “it won’t work” part first. I had a professor, Dr. Wray, who hammered into us the difference between the way adults learn and the way children learn. He’d be so proud, I still remember the terminology (although he wouldn’t enjoy what he’d consider this over-simplification).

The way children are often taught is called pedagogy. That’s the sit down and listen to what I have to say method . . . Or follow along to my PowerPoint deck . . . Or read my newsletter while I tell you what I want you to learn.

With children you can plop them down in chairs and desks and teach them. For the most part they’ll learn. (OK, in all candor, I really have some doubts about this for a lot of kids. I think they’d benefit from an andragogical approach as well, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Teaching adults is called andragogy. With adults they have to need to learn or want to learn to accept your teaching. You can’t successfully start lecturing or teaching adults. If you try, they will shut down and turn off so fast it’s breathtaking. That is the dangerous part if you’re also wanting to market or communicate for fundraising purposes, right?

Sadly, many people will use fundraising and marketing opportunities to try to “teach” donors. That will fail. Not only will it not raise money, donors won’t stick with you to be taught something they did not ask you to teach them.

And there’s the key. Adults don’t want you to teach them something they didn’t want to learn.

Pique an adult’s curiosity and they’ll be googling before you finish your sentence. Did you bounce over to my Wikipedia links and check out pedagogy and andragogy? Most people will . . .why? Because if you hadn’t heard the terms you wanted to know what a real authority said. Or if you did know the terms, maybe you to see what the interwebs had to say. For whatever reason, you wanted to expand your knowledge. You were curious about something. The key is you wanted to. Or I enticed you to. If you didn’t want to know more, it’s my fault, I didn’t tempt you into “learning more.”

That is the key to teaching donors. And yes, you can find opportunities to teach donors. You should try to development their understanding of philanthropy and stewardship. You need to help them understand why you do what you do to make the world better. But, they have to be curious. They have to want to learn what you know. They have to know you are an authority.

How does it work?

Stories. Tell them a story that makes them think. I had a friend tell me over dinner about how he and his family make their giving decisions. It was inspiring and challenging. But, he didn’t teach me, he made me think. While I know he was teaching, he made it about him. And I’m still thinking about it, months later. You have to do the same with your donors. Tell them stories that grab them by the heart. Tell them stories about other donors’ giving. And tell them stories about your work. Tell them stories that make them want to know “why.”

Statistics. There are few things as boring as a bunch of stats. Yet, there are few things that are better “bait” than stats. The right data, presented the right way, will have your donors raising an eyebrow or cocking their heads. With the right study, demographic or finding, you can have your donors hungry to learn more. Infographics are a great way to go. I tell people that “Infographics are the new headlines.”

Strategy. After you’ve grabbed your donor’s interest . . . after you’ve whetted their curiosity, give them a place to go to learn more. Adults are tenacious learners. For a few of our clients, we’re testing content marketing strategies. The best for-profit brands are using content marketing to capitalize on the way the world works and the way adults learn.

So. You can’t teach donors what they don’t want to learn.

And it’s dangerous to try. Dangerous? Yep. Dangerous because of how difficult it is to gain and hold your audience’s attention. You can’t afford to waste a single opportunity with a failed “teaching” opportunity. Plus, if you bore your audience or donors with your teaching, they won’t hang around when you make your case for their opportunity to give.

What about you? How do you “teach” your donors? How do you like to learn? I’m always learning. Teach me!


Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credit: nostri-imago)

Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

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