Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Making the Preservation Message Resonate with Donors 

12-09-2015 17:35

I am really grateful to be here because I love the preservation movement and I’m one of the people who has benefited from all the hard work that you do. Some of the most wonderful times in my life were spent running around Mackinaw Island with my family and seeing those old buildings and being at Fort Mackinaw and hanging around my grandparents’ 100- year-plus old farm. This was before there was ever Antiques Roadshow, trying to find the treasures that my mother and my two aunts had not already put stickers on.

And when I think about preservation, when I think about being at Mackinaw Island and other historic sites, I get a really warm feeling inside. It’s comforting to be there. It’s a place that really delivers the experience of consistency.

So I’m going to start from a personal standpoint, with the feelings I have about preservation. What would I do if I were in your shoes and had to raise funds for preservation? What if I had to communicate the way I feel about historic sites? What would I need to know tomake it possible?

Engage the Emotions
First of all keep in mind that all fundraising is emotional. All the quantitative analysis, all the designs, all the projections, all the endowment, all the tax planning is secondary.

People make large charitable gifts for emotional reasons and we need to be prepared to appeal to our donors on an emotional basis. It’s not the structure, it’s the story. People will be persuaded as their emotions get caught up in the experience.

Think about all the other causes that you compete with. Where do you feel like you’re missing out? Well, that cancer story is so emotional. That poor child overseas is emotional. How do we compete with that? There is a solution, and we’ll get there.

Identify the Donor’s Motivations
Let’s look at the fundraising experience you create for your donors. Our donors are not going to be solely persuaded by facts. It’s going to be their experience of our sites, the experience of their philanthropy that is going to persuade them to make these gifts. I have sat with individuals who would never betray their emotions anywhere else but in their philanthropy. People find that giving gives them permission to feel. We need to find ways to connect the emotions of our sites to our donor prospects, because the more they feel the more they’re going to give.

Some of the biggest motivations for giving are unspoken. We tend to look at our sites and then look at the outcome of what we’re providing, and think that’s motivational for the donor. I’m persuaded, having worked with many high-net-worth individuals, that there are at least seven unspoken motivations when it comes to philanthropy.

  1. The first is the obvious. People are motivated by charitable intent. They see a purpose that they’re passionate about and they want to give to it. And those are the people that we immediately can connect with and find ourselves able to communicate clearly about the preservation ethic, because they share that with us.
  2. The next motivation is legacy. Sometimes when people make a charitable gift it’s not about you but it’s about their personal legacy, and it takes two forms. One, the internal one: their desire to make a gift that makes them feel they’ve made a difference in the world and that touches their desire for significance. The other is more external: They’re looking for that more public legacy and they want to make that gift to declare to others that they’ve made a difference in the world.
  3. Another one is family. People make charitable gifts because of their family. There are a number of donors who would give to your organization and give to your site if we could find a way to bring their children and grandchildren into the process. We need to show how they would benefit from being connected to your site or to your organization because their concern, their unspoken desire, is to create a platform of conversation and use philanthropy as a communication tactic within their family. The values that your organization represents give them that opportunity.
  4. Another motivation is that people want to be role models. Some individuals want to make gifts because they want to encourage others to give. The preservation match is specifically about that. Those donors are excited about creating opportunities to get others involved in philanthropy.
  5. Next are stakeholders. Those are donors who want to cause change and are interested in creating leverage and knowing that they’ve made a difference in society.
  6. Another motivation is values. Values-driven donors want to see a specific set of beliefs or a specific set of values perpetuated in society. Think about how they can connect with your preservation site, your mission, to further extend their set of values.
  7. And then lastly there are those who want to be experts. When I shared these ideas at the National Trust board meeting in Albuquerque I had one board member say, “Exactly. My connection with the National Trust is because it’s a group that helps me become smarter about the preservation issues I’m passionate about.”

So we need to think about our donors in the context of those unspoken expectations to reach that broader audience.

Consider Age Differences
And finally, giving can be age driven. People have participated in philanthropy over the decades and we’ve traditionally approached donors regardless of their age the same way. That is starting to change significantly. Donors who are in their 70s and older grew up in an era when making charitable gifts was an obligation; giving back to society was something that they needed to do. Our message for those in that senior age group should be one of helping them fulfill that obligation.

For the population aged between 65 and 75, it’s really about significance and the culture. The time that they lived through has caused them to want to know that they’ve done something significant, so you need to tie your site and your organization to their personal sense of significance. And then lastly the baby boomers are always concerned about culture.

So considering the unspoken motivations and the age needs of donors, we need to ask, What’s the opportunity out there?

Prepare to Tap a Golden Age of Philanthropy
We’re entering a golden age of philanthropy, and I know people think we’ve been in it for quite some time, but we’re actually coming into an age when there will be more giving than has been done at any time in history. And that giving is going to be driven primarily by wealthy donors. Major gifts are going to be important, because we have shrinking capacity within the middle class, and more and more we’re going to have to rely on those significant gifts from major donors to keep our organizations going.

And the other key market or philanthropy in this period of time is going to be bequests. We’re going to see a large transfer of wealth from one generation to the next in the next several decades, and being able to tap into that is going to be critical to bridge the financing that organizations need.

Communicate a Positive, Compelling Message
So with those donors and that opportunity in mind, what do we need to do to capture more donors and get them involved in the preservation movement? There are three important messages that we need to think about when we’re crafting our communication to donors. First of all, our message about preservation needs to be future oriented. Second, it has to address a big idea. And third, it must be hopeful.

So given that, what’s a preservationist to do? I’m convinced that preservation is not about the past. I am convinced that preservation is about the future. Preservation is about looking forward and capturing what has happened in the past for the sake of future generations. If history were about the past, it would only have to be written once. History is rewritten with every generation because it’s adapted and communicates to that culture important themes and messages.

The preservation movement is about securing the sites that are vessels of communication, vessels of hope to the future. We no longer should look at what we’re preserving as capturing this in the past, but it’s about looking forward for future generations and preserving the story that a place tells and the values that it communicates.

Why is that important?

First of all, it addresses the objection that we’re all about the past. We’re not. We’re about the future, and how we’re about the future is that we create the opportunity to take great examples of our society, and that experience of something important in our culture, and preserve that as a message and give it as a resource to future generations.

The really big concern among major donors right now is where our culture is heading. There’s this pervasive sense that our culture needs positive messages; it needs to regain its sense of community; it needs to regain this place for a conversation here we can come back together in community.

This also addresses the misperception that preservation is not urgent. Preservation is very urgent because our culture is deeply in need of positive messages about culture.

We’re about capturing those stories and carrying them forward into future generations. Each site captures that story and works together in this great mosaic of collected sites to tell a broad story bout our culture and the positive messages, the positive experiences, of community that we have had together. With these, the next generation will have these resources to work with together to find its own message of culture.

And lastly, it addresses the issue of hope. Preservation is about hope for the future in that we are collecting these stories, we are collecting these experiences at these sites and putting them together to create resources for future generations to talk about, to have a conversation about culture, to be able to experience community together, and to engage each other to discover and develop the future generations’ culture.

I am really excited about the preservation movement. I think it’s extremely important because it provides a necessary resource for the next generation. I think we have a great opportunity to communicate with our significant funders as long as we share with them that our preservation work is a message about the future, it’s a story for community and a basis for conversation, and it’s an example that gives hope to the future and to future generations.

So I’m persuaded that—if we are able to 1) work with our donors and discover their expectations, 2) be age appropriate in our messaging to our donors, and 3) craft our message around the big idea that by preserving culture we are providing a hope for the future—then we’ll make it possible that one day the preservation movement will actually be overfunded. And that would be a good thing.

Publication Date: Winter 2008



Author(s):Jay Steenhuysen

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