Serve or inspire? That is the question

Written by
Richard Turner
August 24, 2017

Inspire is often a misused word in the fundraising world. You often hear organisations saying they set out to ‘inspire’ their donors.

It’s often seen as a basis for recruitment or retention of donors. Yet true inspiration goes way beyond that. If you check out the definition of inspiration you will find something like this:

Inspiration - fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.

Whilst that can apply to the act of making a donation doing ‘something creative’ suggests so much more.

At SolarAid we asked ourselves the question: how can we truly inspire donors? The answer was obvious – but it took a donor to make us see it. At an award event where I had taken an example of a solar light with me someone asked if he could ‘buy’ it off me in return for a donation. He gave me £60 for a solar light that cost less than £10. And at that moment he also became an advocate for our mission – to eradicate the dangerous, toxic, kerosene lamp from Africa and replace them with a safe, affordable clean solar light.

So now when someone donates to SolarAid they are offered a solar light – stating that it will help spread the SolarAid story if they show others. We added a tag to provide a bit of information about our mission. It was leap of faith at the time started as a result of a chance encounter with that donor at the awards event.

A solar light offered to supporters when they donate to encourage them to spread the story.

Then the magic started to happen.

I recall how we had a run of new donors from the same sort of postcode. We couldn’t understand why until yet another new donor called and donated £50. Can you tell us why you are choosing to donate to SolarAid we asked? ‘Ah yes, its Dorothy from the top of the street – she is knocking on all doors and saying we should support SolarAid.’

But it started to go beyond donor get donor.

Inspired with her solar light another donor approached her company and proposed SolarAid as the charity to partner with, securing an initial donation of £25,000. Another supporter helped approach a foundation she knew. She was so inspired she wrote the application and even did the presentation to the foundation’s trustees nine months later – securing a grant £250,000.

And why is inspiration even more important? As the examples illustrate you just don’t know who people know in this increasingly connected world. An inspired supporter can open the doors to a company or a trust, or simply their neighbours (who in turn may be inspired). And your story is stronger coming from others. This way you make use of their ‘social capital’ too. The social capital they have with their friends and contacts will be greater than the social capital you have with their friends and contacts, so set them loose to engage them on your behalf.

SolarAid were fortunate to have such a tangible item to provide in the shape of a solar light. But think of it as a means for people to tell your mission. For example, Charity: Water inspired their donors to donate their birthday and used that as the basis to help spread their story. Find out how your supporters talk about you – that could give you clues on what you need to do to inspire them.

Of course, you need a reason behind it all, i.e. your ambition, your impossible dream, your WHY. That way the story your supporters spread is rooted in your mission and is consistent. It ensures that the same core message is spread.

We can choose to ‘serve’ donors, so we keep them, or we can choose to inspire donors so they spread the word, and not only keep them but involve them. In today’s connected world you are missing out if you don’t explore the latter approach. It’s no longer about how can I get money out of you, at a time when everyone is now a channel it’s now about how can I inspire you to spread our story.

Richard Turner was chief fundraiser at SolarAid from 2011 to 2016 and is a senior consultant for Alan Clayton Associates.

You can download the project Richard compiled for the Commission on the Donor Experience – Supporters as Champions of your Mission here

To help find your WHY check out the Great Fundraising Masterclass run by Alan Clayton Associates. 

About the author: Richard Turner

Richard Turner

Richard Turner was chief fundraiser at Solar Aid from 2011 to 2016 and is senior consultant for Alan Clayton Associates. 

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