We were recently preparing a proposal for a prospective client and realized that there is significant overlap between scientific principles and fundraising. For many who are not familiar or comfortable with fundraising, the practice can feel like a foreign experience, a string of unrelated activities that make no sense to the uninitiated. That said, if you scrutinize fundraising under a microscope, you begin to notice patterns of behavior. These patterns are akin to birds migrating south for the winter or the twists of DNA’s double helix. Here are five patterns we see consistently in our work:


  1. On average, it takes 12-18 months from the moment a prospective individual donor is identified to the time she makes a gift of at least $10,000 to the organization. This may seem like a long time, but given such factors as scheduling, deliberating, and negotiating, this timeline should not be rushed. It is a lot like dating: you do not want to rush through any of the steps or else you risk the object of your attention losing interest.


  1. Different people are motivated by different features of your organization. Some donors will support an organization because it has the most innovative approach for solving a problem. Others will have an emotional connection to mission. Still others will be inspired to make a gift because someone they admire invited them to do so. Sometimes donors give for personal reasons – a need to meet people, recognition, something associated with a loss. The key to success is in determining what motivates a particular prospect and providing that person with information that appeals to that motivation.


  1. You get only one “at bat” – make it count. For people with the capacity to make a significant gift, you will likely have only one chance to make an impression. That does not mean that you will ask them for money the first time you meet them (that would be akin to asking someone to marrying you on the first date). Rather, what this means is that when you first meet with a prospective donor, treat that meeting like a data collection inquiry and the first step to building a relationship. Ask questions. Don’t sell. Get to know them. If the prospect doesn’t like you or the organization you represent – or doesn’t believe that you were listening, they will not likely want a second date. Your aim with that first meeting is to earn the right to continue the conversation – and ultimately submit a funding proposal for their consideration when the time is right. Remember that people who qualify as major donors are pitched by numerous good causes (philanthropic and political) on a regular basis.


  1. Donors don’t give you money because you ask them for it: they give because they see how they can fill a need. We did not ask for some of the most meaningful gifts we have received. These gifts were the result of educating our donors about the need, engaging them in the work that our clients do to address that need, and those donors seeing how they are uniquely situated to fill that need. As a result of that work, the donor ultimately decided to make a donation without us asking specifically for it – and the amount of the actual donation exceeded what we had in mind.

Once you observe and recognize these patterns, you are able to leverage them to raise funds for your organization.