One of the most delicate areas to navigate in major gift fundraising is how to use persuasion and influence skills in the MGO relationship with donors. Jeff and I frown on any form of manipulation, which is why one of our guiding principles is authenticity in relationships.
But it’s a fact that there are many of us who are very persuasive – we have influence skills. And the art and science of influence can be used ethically. This belief is affirmed in the writings of Dr. Robert Cialdini, who has written extensively about the ethical use of influence. I have followed Dr. Cialdini’s work for many years.
But my colleague Brady Josephson has taken that work to a new level when he examined Dr. Cialdini’s six principles of influence and reframed them for fundraising, a brilliant application on which I want to expand in these six posts.
The first principle of influence is reciprocation.
The reciprocation principle says that when a person does something first, others are more inclined to do something in return. Dr. Cialdini states that you have to go first. “Give something: give information, give free samples, give a positive experience…” In his application of this principle, Brady says “when people receive something first, they are more likely to give.”
Social scientist Randy Garner published a 2005 experiment that tested whether sticky notes could persuade people to respond to a marketing survey. He sent a third of the surveys with a handwritten sticky note requesting completion, a third with a blank sticky note, and the final third without a sticky note.
The results? Handwritten note: 69% response rate. Blank sticky note: 43% response rate. No sticky note: 34% response rate. So how is a sticky note giving something? This is giving a personal request. It’s saying “you matter” to the recipient. Yes, it’s a small thing – but still very powerful.
You can see how this experiment would apply to communication with your major donor. A handwritten personalized note goes such a long way to validate that the donor means something to you – that he’s not just a “donor” but a real person. It’s a gift.
Here are some ways you can put the principle of reciprocation to work:

  1. Discover and serve the donor’s interests and passions. Jeff and I may have mentioned this a million times, but this is a real gift to the donor. There is nothing more satisfying to a donor than a MGO who says “let me help you fulfill your heart’s desires as they relate to your giving.” This is so much different from a “gimme the money” approach. And it works better, too.
  2. Treat the donor as a person. In our work with clients, we insist that a MGO have a personalized plan for every donor on their caseload. Personal. Unique. Crafted for the donor. This is another way to honor the donor in your relationship. Just last week, I heard the story of a donor who was upset because he had stated that his interest was X, and the MGO sent him materials about Y. Is this crazy? Goodness. Treat the donor as a real person.
  3. Give information. There is nothing like information for a donor. Information on what they’re giving to. Information on the good that has been done with their giving. Information on trends in the areas they’re interested in. This is such an important gift to give the donor. Not many nonprofits do this very well.
  4. Offer volunteer experiences. This was one of Brady’s points, and it’s so true. Giving the donor the ability to use her skills in actual hands-on service is another real gift. And it does a lot of good as well.

There could be many other things you could give your donor in order to put the principle of reciprocation into effect in your relationship. If you have more ideas, please let Jeff and me know. But even if you just put these four ideas into effect in your donor management, it will revolutionize your relationships and significantly affect your donors’ giving.
Try giving as much as you can to your donor today.
This post was originally published on May 27, 2015