I just gave $25 to a person I don’t even know, for a Dance-A-Thon fundraiser supporting a cause I don’t even care about.


Because her mom gave me $25 for a 5K fundraiser a couple of weekends ago. But to be honest, I didn’t care much about that cause, either.

So why participate?

Because my wife works at the charity.

Seems a bit strange, right? Giving time and money to causes I wouldn’t ordinarily invest in. But research shows it’s pretty normal behavior.

At Achieve, when we examine what motivates donors to take action on behalf of a cause, we often start by asking what they really care about. People often mention education, hunger, poverty, homelessness, the environment and charities that protect animals – the list can go on and on. The assumption here is that people will act on behalf of the issues they are most concerned about.

But when we take a closer look at what these same people actually support, we are often presented with totally different causes.

What happens? Why don’t people act the way we expect?

Further research into what really inspires people to give helps answer that question:

There is a difference in what we say we care about (intellectually), and what actually motivates us to act (emotionally).

It’s not that people didn’t give to the causes they first identified – some did. It’s that many folks ended-up giving to other charities because of emotional triggers they never could have anticipated. Many times, we find that what caused them to act was the influence of a friend or family member.

The peer networks of your donors are full of emotional triggers that will influence them to act in unpredictable ways.

You may be surprised to hear a peer network referred to as an “emotional” trigger, but there may not be anything more powerful. Our network of friends, family, co-workers, colleagues and neighbors represents a complex web of deeply personal relationships – one that has tremendous emotional influence over our actions. I ran in the 5K because my wife works for the charity; the mom gave me $25 because her son is dating my daughter; I gave her daughter $25 for the dance-a-thon because she supported me for the 5K. The primary reason for any of us giving to anything in these scenarios is because we’re all part of the same peer network. The causes are secondary, if they ever come into play at all.

You may not like that passion for your mission is not a primary driver, but you can benefit from this dynamic by doing at least two important things:

1) Make sure you include a peer-to-peer component in every campaign focused on small donation strategies. With giving becoming much more episodic, you’re not likely to keep these donors for long. So make the most of the time you have with them by leveraging their peer networks for even more support.

2) While you have their attention, connect them emotionally to your mission. Help them recognize why their friend is so invested in your cause, and you may hold on to them a little longer.

Emotion is a powerful motivator. If you’re having trouble moving people from passive interest to active support, consider these strategies. You may never know what is truly motivating donors to give to your mission, but you can be sure to leverage their networks once they choose to.