Empathy: The Key To Responsive Fundraising

All giving is personal. Whether the donation amount is $100 or $1 million, that person is giving as much as they can in that moment to help affect change in the world. Donors should not be punished with lackluster relationships simply because they don’t have the resources to give more. 

Up until now, it’s been impossible for nonprofits to offer all of their donors the same levels of personalization and consideration. With limited communication tools and no way to automate their processes, they had to reserve personal relationships to major donors. The rest of their donors got mass messages and general appeals.

This worked pretty well until the world shifted, and suddenly, it didn’t. Due to developments in technology and communication tools, today’s donor expects a personalized experience and wants to be a member of a community. 

Nonprofits who adapt to these changes will grow and thrive. Organizations that stay handcuffed to the old model will see less and less success from the methods that used to work.

How do you adapt?

Responsive Fundraising.

Where do you begin?


Begin With Empathy: Put Yourself in the Donor’s Position

Responsive fundraising begins with asking an essential empathetic question: “If I were the donor, how would I want to be treated?” If you were an individual donor of your own organization, would you appreciate the way you’re treated? 

Your donors are unique and interesting, with their own reasons for supporting you. When you listen and learn who they are and what they care about, you’re building a relationship. You’re including them in your community and allowing them to share what’s important to them. This inspires generosity and loyalty, but it’s also a lot more human and satisfying for everyone involved. 

What Is Responsive Fundraising?

Responsive fundraising combines modern technology, data intelligence, and donor-centric giving experiences to foster personalized conversations with every donor. 

  • Technology makes it possible to offer every donor an experience that was only available to major donors before. 
  • Data intelligence helps responsive nonprofits offer donors opportunities they’re likely to respond to.
  • Donor-centric giving experiences ensure that donors feel like a valued part of the community, instead of a nameless ATM. 

You can learn more here, but here’s a quick run-down of the Responsive Framework. It operates in three parts that operate simultaneously and continuously: listen, connect, and suggest.


You can listen to your donors in real-life conversations, through social listening, website activity and engagement metrics. You might also survey donors to directly ask them questions that will help you uncover important data about their motivations and interests. As you collect information through listening tactics, you’ll begin to understand how donors want to connect with your cause and what they truly care about.

For example, let’s say that through my listening tactics, I learn that several of my donors are involved because of a personal connection to my organization. They’ve been served by the organization previously, or have a family member affected by the problem we’re trying to face. They want to connect more with others like them. With that knowledge, I might change the way I send information or which events I invite them to. 


Connection is making sure the right person gets the right message at the right time. It’s about conducting an ongoing personal conversation with the donor, wherever they’ve engaged — email, social media, on your website or in-person. This level of personalization would be impossible for more than a few donors without data-driven CRM and automation. 

Since I listened and learned about my personally connected donors, I can put them into a communication flow that skips the things they already know. I could create a private group on social media for them to build connections with each other, if I’ve learned they all use the same platforms. I can respond to what they actually want, increasing trust, loyalty, and the depth of our connection. 


Once you’ve established a connection with your donors, you can use what you learned by listening to make suggestions for opportunities that will interest them. Often these will be giving opportunities, but not always. For my example of donors with a personal connection, I might ask if they’d like to share their stories as part of a fundraising campaign. Other donors might be most interested in learning more about the organization. 

What Does Empathetic Responsive Fundraising Look Like?

You can put your empathy to work at every stage of responsive fundraising. 

Listening with Empathy

Truly hearing your donors is a gift. It’s a gift for them, because it shows them that you value and respect them. It’s a gift for you, because you’re no longer fundraising in the dark. When you listen, you learn what donors really care about, instead of what you think they do. 

Without data, it’s very easy to make assumptions about donors, and consequently, lump them into one big group. Your donors are almost certainly not a monolith–they’re individuals, with their own preferences and interests. You may be targeting your fundraising to an audience that doesn’t exist, or is only a third of your donors! They may have very different priorities than you expected, which is very good to know. Now, you can actually engage them.

The Big Listening Question: Who are my donors, and what do they care about?

Connecting with Empathy

Fun fact: My mother is a very generous and civic-minded individual. There’s a good chance she’d give to your cause if you asked her. 

Unless you called her on the phone, which she will not answer

My mom’s very busy, she has a weird schedule and I really can’t stress enough how much she detests the phone. If you made an assumption based on her age or gender, instead of her actual behavior or expressed preferences, you’d be leaving a lot of voicemail, and my mom would not feel connected to you. 

Other people are the complete opposite. “Don’t send me an email, I’ll never see it. What’s the matter with just picking up the phone?” they’ll ask. If you’ve made the blanket decision that everyone gets email, then you’ll be looking at a lot of unopened ones. 

A responsive nonprofit is empathetic by giving people the connections they want, in the manner they prefer. Instead of trying to make a one-size fits all solution, you use technology to help you create personalized donor journeys, tailoring each touchpoint to fit the individual. 

The Big Connecting Question: What does my donor need to feel connected to the cause?  

Suggesting with Empathy

It’s not empathetic to give people a ton of information they didn’t ask for, because we’re all already overloaded with information all the time. This doesn’t mean you have to wait for your donor to offer you a donation before you ask, it means you respond to their behavior instead of to your ideal donor engagement timeline.

For example, you might find (while listening) that donors read a specific program page of your website, then sign up for your email list. When you send emails that mention the program in the subject line, these folks always open them (connecting). Given this, your potential suggestions could include watching a video about the program, reading an article about the need the program addresses, inviting them to come observe the program, or making a program-specific fundraising ask. 

If you work on major gifts, you already know how this works. You don’t walk into a meeting with a prospect without researching their giving priorities and capacity–it’s how you avoid making an inappropriate ask. With a data-driven CRM and a responsive approach, you’ll have that kind of information about every one of your donors. 

The Big Suggesting Question: What’s the next right thing for my donor? 

Become an Empathetic Responsive Fundraiser

A Responsive Fundraising approach is turns the traditional fundraising relationship upside-down. How do you feel about that? Is it exciting, scary, or a little of both? 

We believe it’s the best way for nonprofits to adapt to the changes of the modern world and donor trends. We also believe you can do it. If there’s one thing nonprofit professionals have an abundance, it’s the empathy that Responsive Fundraising relies on. 

Changing your mindset and giving your donors the power to set their own course is a big step. But if this level of personalization and responsiveness seems like an impossible amount of work, you probably don’t have the right tools. You need a CRM that can handle your data in a way that makes sense to fundraisers, automatically log donor activity and flawlessly integrate with your marketing tools. See how Virtuous can help you become a Responsive Fundraiser with a personal demo.

What you should do now

Below are three ways we can help you begin your journey to building more personalized fundraising with responsive technology.

See the Virtuous platform in action.  Schedule a call with our team for personalized answers and expert advice on transforming your nonprofit with donor management software.

Download our free Responsive Maturity Model and learn the 5 steps to more personalized donor experiences.

If you know another nonprofit pro who’d enjoy reading this page, share it with them via Email, Linkedin, Twitter, or Facebook.

The Responsive Maturity Model
5 Steps to More Personalized Donor Experiences
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