As a new student in the philanthropic studies master’s program at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Maarten Bout told Dr. Dwight Burlingame that he flat out refused to do a thesis, an option offered to master’s students. “It will take too much time and I don’t know what I would write about,” Bout told Dr. Burlingame. Several years later, Bout stood in front of Dr. Burlingame and others and defended his thesis. During the years in between, Bout, like many others at the school, found a topic he was passionate about and knew that research would help answer his questions.
It started with the class Altruism and Health, taught by Dr. Sara Konrath. The class was studying how empathy from doctors impacts patients recovering from sickness when Bout, a major gifts officer with Maurer School of Law at IU Bloomington, had an idea. “There’s a parallel between fundraisers and medical professionals in terms of visits (either donor visits or patient visits), so does fundraiser empathy impact donors in the same way as doctor empathy impacts patients? In addition, I wanted to know how fundraising organizations evaluate the success of their fundraising programs. We have money data and visit data, but we don’t have information on the quality of the relationship between the fundraiser and donor, even though the industry itself is relationship-based.”
With these questions in mind, Bout turned to Dr. Konrath. A social psychologist, she brought the research expertise that Bout was looking for. Between his professional, fundraising experience and Dr. Konrath’s evidence-based research, Bout transformed his idea into a full-fledged research study and thesis.
It started with the contact reports, or the notes fundraisers keep on their visits with donors. “If we could analyze those contact reports, we could extract how the fundraiser felt about the relationship with the donor and how the relationship developed. We wanted to know what fundraiser behaviors led to the right outcome, which is the highest level of satisfaction of the donor with their giving and the highest level of organizational support that could be expected from the donor,” Bout explained.
Limits on the study initially appeared. “The only evidence we currently have that we could analyze how the relationships developed are the contact reports, the number of visits to the donor, and the amount of money raised,” Bout said. “The contact reports at first seemed very factual and technical, without much evidence of empathy,” Dr. Konrath added.
However, they were able to develop a way to discern meaning from the contact reports. First, Bout analyzed 30 reports, looked at each one sentence by sentence, and categorized those sentences. Initially, he came up with 159 categories, which he and Dr. Konrath boiled down into 16 themes that could be searched for across their full dataset of 381 contact reports. The first five are based on the fundraising cycle – qualification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship, as well as an additional category titled ‘follow-up.’ The eleven other codes focus on cognitive empathy (the ability to understand others’ perspectives), emotional empathy (expressions of care), and donor context (personal facts about the donor).
After searching for these themes in the contact reports, plus using a computer-based linguistics analysis, Bout and Dr. Konrath discovered several key findings.
1. Donor-focused topics were more commonly reported in contact reports than fundraising-related topics.
Fundraisers are actively looking to find a connection between the values of the donor and the values of the organization. “You can’t go into a meeting with a donor asking for money without first establishing and developing a relationship. That’s an idea that The Fund Raising School has been teaching for years that was backed up by this research,” Bout explained.
2. High percentages of empathy and donor context in the donor contact reports.
Fundraisers illustrated empathy (cognitive and emotional) 65% of the time. Reporting on donors’ personal details came out 20% of the time. In comparison, fundraisers only mentioned things related to the organization 37% of the time. In other words, fundraisers are focused on the donor rather than themselves or the organization. The core of the profession is other-oriented, and finding out donors’ values and what matters to them.
3. Higher empathy correlated with a higher amount of cumulative giving.
When comparing cumulative giving between the fundraisers who scored low on cognitive empathy and those who scored high, the higher cognitive empathy was, the larger that cumulative giving was.
More cognitive empathy is associated with higher cumulative giving. However, this is correlational. “We don’t know if having more cognitive empathy leads to bigger gifts over time, or if people who are already giving larger gifts are getting special care and attention from fundraisers,” Dr. Konrath said.
4. Subtle differences on the way fundraisers report the activities of male and female donors.
For interactions with women, fundraisers reported more cultivation activities, whereas with men, fundraisers reported more stewardship activities. In other words, women are getting courted for gifts, while men are getting thanked.
5. Differences in empathy between direct interaction with a donor (e.g. in-person visits, phone conversations, and events) and indirect interaction (e.g. letters and emails).
“We found higher levels of cognitive empathy during direct interactions, and discovered higher levels of emotional empathy in indirect interactions. In essence, fundraisers have two different faces, as described by Dr. Beth Breeze in 2017’s The New Fundraisers. One is external and focuses on emotional language, while the other is internal and demonstrates a high level of organizational skills. Fundraisers are skilled at being able to communicate differently depending on the situation they are in,” Bout said.
The Future Plans
Bout has already altered his way of approaching fundraising due to the study he undertook and results he found. “I’m looking at it from a more evidence-based perspective and analyzing the law school’s donor pool in a different way,” he said. “I’m looking at the behavior of individuals who participated in student groups and as volunteers and seeing if we can come up with characteristics of those donors whose motivation to give is higher. Then, we can use different approaches to see what effects they have, which will then inform our future endeavors.”
But Bout and Dr. Konrath don’t plan on keeping the information to themselves. “One thing I’ve noticed is the differences in how individual fundraisers conceive of themselves as writers of these contact reports. If these contact reports show the development of the relationships between fundraisers and donors, much more attention should be paid to these contact reports and how they are written because they give an impression of how the relationship is working,” Bout explained.
As a result, Bout created a template contact report, which features every one of the themes. “It’s long because it includes all of the themes, but this gives an example of a contact report with high levels of emotional and cognitive empathy and donor context.”
They also plan on presenting their findings and key ideas at a Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) conference in the fall. Bout said, “We want to take the information we have and talk about it in the language of people who need to know about it.”
Dr. Konrath, with assistance from the Director of The Fund Raising School Bill Stanczykiewicz, is also developing a course on empathy for fundraisers. “It’s about teaching fundraisers important skills in the relationships they have with their donors. Relationship-building is essential,” Dr. Konrath said.
Through the study, Bout and Dr. Konrath have illustrated what happens when practitioners and academics work together. “We need to find the behaviors that influence successful fundraising,” Bout said. “We want to have evidence to base our decisions on. These findings, along with earlier studies, also support what The Fund Raising School has been teaching for years. We know that these techniques work, we just didn’t know why.”
In addition, the diverse perspectives of Dr. Konrath and other faculty members helped shape Bout’s perspective and understanding of research and philanthropic studies. “I’ve absorbed learning from many different disciplines and used it to inform my own thinking as a fundraiser.”
On May 12, Bout graduated with a master’s in philanthropic studies. In April, he successfully defended the thesis he thought he’d never write. “I found a topic that I felt very passionate about. As fundraisers, we have responsibilities to our donors to fulfill their wishes, and I believe that this research will help fill in gaps of knowledge on how we can better do that work.”
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