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Don Hughes
CEO Great Plains Christian Radio

Psychology of Charitable Giving




What lies beneath the exterior of the intricacies of the human mind in emotional impulses that causes an individual to share a portion of their hard earned capitol with a not-for-profit organization?  After all, around one-third of income has a charitable application through taxes to supply for the elderly, education for children, sustenance for the underprivileged and the institutions for social order.  We could argue that our taxes meet the Biblical directive found in James 1:27, “Pure and undefiled religious before the God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble.”  To consider why our donors give can provide insight into having a deeper and more stable supply of funds for growth and future outreach.

My daughter Amy earned a double masters in family counseling from John Brown University and now has letters after her name of which her father is very proud, Amy Hughes Beene, MS, LAC, LAMFT.  My son-in-law, Jeremiah, had his educational endeavors interrupted by a tour of duty in Iraq, but has now resumed his studies in psychology at the University of Arkansas.  I have requested of both of them that they engage in clinical studies of reasons for charitable giving for their doctoral dissertation as it sure would be helpful to dear ole Dad in assisting me in being more effective in my efforts for Great Plains Christian Radio.  However, I must admit if given the choice of the performance of research or a second grandchild I think all that would benefit from such studies on charitable giving would be waiting a few years longer.

So, at this point you will have to settle for some observations from someone who, over a period of more than forty years, has prepared hundreds of fundraising campaigns and observed how people respond.  Galileo was the father of observational astronomy maybe I can lay claim to at least The Father of the Observational Psychology of Fundraising; however I don’t think I will put it in my resume.  I get plenty of fundraising appeals in the mail myself.  Instead of absorbing the information being shared I find myself critiquing their appeal.  When going through the mail I have a throw away pile and items that need my attention.  My wife, Polly, when going through the “keeper” stack came across an appeal letter and asked if she was to send a donation and how much.  I told her, “No, it was a great appeal and I wanted to steal it, ahhhh, no, excuse me….I would use it as a vehicle of research for insight into a future fundraising letter.  Maybe I will send them a donation if their appeal letter works for us.” 

For my proffer on the “Psychology of Charitable Giving” let us journey to a college football game to peruse the assemblage  of fans as this seems to resemble the primordial pool which fostered the basic building blocks of life as the evolutionists claim. This gives you a visual image of those that support your organization.  You will notice the collection of individuals close to the front sporting a unique assortment of costuming and hats and also in many cases facial and body paint.  This represents your rabid constituency for whom you can do no wrong.  They are with you no matter what.  They will call and pledge support even when you are not having a fundraising event.  If the team effort begins to fail they will develop excuses for you, i.e., “The refs need glasses!”  However, as you look around the stadium you realize there are many more attending without the colorful temperament and regalia.  Your survival will need more than this first group of individuals we examined.

Our examination of the capacity crowd at this college football game reveals those that not only buy the expensive tickets, but also will make an annual donation for the privilege of being able to buy the most expensive seats.  The previous group we examined showed great enthusiasm and also perhaps the desire to give sacrificially, but they may be lacking the ability to give significant gifts.  However, this second group represents not only a devoted constituency, but also one with significant financial ability to make larger contributions.  The fans located in the end zone would represent supporters, but they are more conservative, perhaps out of necessity, in how much they pay for the tickets.  They would represent those that are consistent in support, endorse the organization, but they are involved in other things as well.  The upper deck fans would represent those that are keen observers.  Personally, I have always felt that if you really want to watch the plays develop, defense and offensive strategy and the skills of the players that the best place to do this is the upper deck.  The support of these individuals is consistent, but also academic.  You can expect some constructive criticism from the group.  In addition to these four groups there would be those at home that perhaps listen to game on the radio or catch the final score, fans none the less, but perhaps would never attend a game.  It would also be difficult to get these individuals to initiate a contact with you.

You can divide your listening audience or constituency for your ministry the same way.  View the patterns of giving for each individual, family or businesses and design your fundraising appeals based on the giving personality profile.  Yes, it is a little more work, but you will increase giving and become more efficient in use of funds for postage and printing.  There can be those occasions when a “one-size-fits-all” newsletter is appropriate; however there should be those mailings during the year that appeal to people as individuals and not as a group.  You can have an ongoing effort to contact your donors by phone, not to ask for a donation, but just to say “thank you” and ask them if they have a prayer request.  Make the effort to send donors mail that has a different look, i.e. hand addressing the envelope and use a stamp.  There are bulk rate stamps that can create a different impression than the printed bulk rate insignia.

Allow me for a moment to be a critic of one of the most used or maybe I should say abused forms of fundraising for Christian radio, “Sharathon.”  Your understanding of this criticism can be the gateway to meeting the funding needs for your broadcast ministry.  I illustrated through the football game of the variety of approaches to the same situation.  Through a “Sharathon” you appeal to only one personality type.  My observation is that “Sharathon” leaves out perhaps as much of two-thirds of your potential donors.  You need to understand there are personality types that are not going to call and make a commitment on the phone.  You need to ask yourself what you can do to make listeners more comfortable in making a contact with your ministry.  Can you instead offer a gift for them to be able to receive free?  In doing this you identify a listener by name and address and can include them in future mailings.  In this technological age there are those that feel very comfortable with an on-line gift or electronic fund transfer.  Attracting such a person to your web site would be the way to appeal to this type person.  Work on development of communication with potential donors as it is rare that trust and the family feeling needed to make a donation is developed quickly.  What steps can be provided to draw people into taking personal ownership of the ministry and follow with a donation. 

One interesting thing I hear often on Christian radio is, “We are non-commercial.  You will never hear advertising on this station.”  Oh, really, what is wrong with advertising?  Selling needed items and services to people is honorable work which is pleasing to the Lord.  With such activity you provide for your family, create jobs for others which further creates economic interaction and provides funds that can be given to your organization, churches and other mission endeavors.   If you don’t want to air commercials because you perceive some negative impact that is fine, but don’t create the image that there is something wrong with making money.  I can tell you that saying you air no advertising is offensive to many people who have the ability to make donations. If you are a commercial station - sell advertising.  If you are a NCE station engage businesses in underwriting.  If you don’t, I feel you are harming the body of believers as a whole.  If you attract Christians to your station, but do not allow Christian business people to access that audience you force them to go to the non-Christian stations to advertise their products.  This harms the exchange of funds within the body of believers.  Even if your ministry does not involve broadcasting, develop business partnerships and publicize businesses that support the work with a newsletter or internet acknowledgment.

Very often when presenting the gospel to someone we make an effort to reason with the person through a mutual point of interest.  We work to answer a heart felt question.  It is somewhat like Paul’s message in Athens, found in Acts 17, when he told them to consider the statue they had “To the Unknown God.”  The next time you are at a sporting event, out shopping or driving in traffic look around you at the people and ask yourself what style donor they might be and how you might issue an appeal that makes them feel comfortable in making a gift.  What can you communicate that would involve that individual as part of the family where they take personal ownership of the ministry?  What can you do to have them be a cheerful giver in not just writing a number on a check, but becoming involved personally? 



Don observed forty years in broadcasting in 2009.  Great Plains Christian Radio consists of seven full power stations and thirty-six translators. The flagship station, KJIL, has been named Station of the Year most recently by NRB and in the past they have received that honor from GMA, NAB (Marconi), Focus on The Family and the Kansas Association of Broadcasters.  Don Hughes and his wife Polly have been married for thirty-one years and they have six children. 

Don Hughes can be reached at