What Donors Want: Engagement Strategies for Every Generation

I hadn’t seen white index cards since fourth-grade math class—until our VP pulled one out of his jacket. He skimmed it with his finger, holding it long-ways with the blue stripes running up the back.

Despite readily available technology known as the printer, he insisted on carrying a handwritten index card of his day’s agenda in his breast pocket. While the rest of us were Blackberry-ing our vCards to prospects, he was out there driving to a donor visit without even a GPS.

We thought he was old school. But now, looking back, I know who was the fool.

No one was ever late for an appointment with that VP. Why? Because there was no way to tell him you’d be late. No one dared stand him up. When an appointment was set, it was set.

I laughed out loud when it finally hit me, years later, that he was younger than the donors he was meeting. He wasn’t the technophobe I thought he was; he just knew his audience—donors of the mature generation who respected titles and authority, who believed “to be on time is to be late,” who set an appointment and kept it. He planned his style around them, and he raised a lot of money for realizing it.


As giving continues to fragment by channel, it’s become even more critical to understand the philanthropic preferences of each of the four giving generations—just as my VP did. While you can’t abandon your smartphone and only keep an index card in your pocket (no matter how blissfully stress-free it sounds), you do have to adapt your style to that of your donors in order to be relevant.

You have to be as fast as your donors—as reverential, as carefree, as team-oriented, and as individual. And you have to know when to be which of those, when it matters.

Matures value loyalty. Boomers love big-picture thinking. The MTV Gen Xers can smell a gimmick a mile away. Millennials appreciate empowerment.

These are broad brushes, but what’s important is to develop a foundational strategy that leverages the right channels with the right audiences. Too often, we implement whatever works best for our organizational processes rather than what really speaks to a donor.


A stewardship strategy, for example, might involve a three-part story:

  1. A message about how your organization plans to use the donor’s gift
  2. A testimonial from a grateful beneficiary
  3. An inspiring message about a life changed


Did you imagine the first step was a thank-you letter and receipt? An email with a video?

Was the second step a phone call? A typed message in a direct mail #10 envelope?

What about the third step? Was it a single photograph with a caption? A personal meeting?

Channels are not strategies. They are delivery mechanisms that appeal to people of different ages, in different ways. There’s no reason why you can’t use some channels for some people and other channels for others.

Using a cookie-cutter, single-channel approach simply does not work if you’re trying to appeal to donors across all four generations. And what does not appeal to donors does not get the attention it deserves.

Join us for a webinar on “Engagement Strategies for Every Generation” next Wednesday, June 22 at 2 PM EST to discuss how you can start to plan for what donors really want.


Allison Lewis Lodhi, CFRE, is the founder and chief strategist of Indelible Strategies. She has consulted with diverse organizations on leadership and strategic issues, revenue generation, and relationship-based fundraising, and has been an invited speaker on emerging trends at AASP, ADRP, AFP International, and CASE, among others.

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