Gateway Gifts

on in Fundraising

Donor attention wanders.

And to add to that, there are many reasons someone makes a first gift that have little or nothing to do with the cause:

  • A child – or an animal – in a picture looked unusually appealing.
  • Someone asked them whom they didn’t want to say no to.
  • They saw a video on Facebook of a friend dumping water on their head and it looked like fun.

Can some of these one-time “toe-barely-in-the-water” donors be turned into ongoing supporters?

And do these entry gifts (often for small, token amounts) do any good?

According to recent evidence from the ice bucket challenge one year out, both answers are yes. 


According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, just under a quarter of the 2.5 million ice bucket challenge donors requested ongoing communication from the ALS, and its national fundraising this year is running $500,000 a month ahead of pre-ice-bucket challenge levels.

Clearly, some of those people stuck around.

And according to recent findings explored by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, a research breakthrough – funded by dollars raised through the ice bucket challenge – has occurred with a gene therapy approach that holds promise not only for ALS treatment but for other chronic diseases as well.

Kristof posits that the often scoffed at “slacktivism” – people “taking action” without getting up from their chairs, thinking they’ve changed the world – is actually the beginnings of philanthropic awareness: “Think of armchair activism as a gateway drug,” writes Kristof. “It exposes people to causes and sometimes gets them hooked. And while it doesn’t always solve problems, it tends to build awareness of crises — a necessary but not sufficient step to getting them resolved.”

The lesson for the rest of us? Get that first gift, no matter how small. Then view it as a tryout – as if the donor on the other end is testing the waters, exploring how it feels to give (in general and/or to your specific nonprofit). Treat that first gift as an introduction, a door opening, rather than a definitive announcement of interest.

And then cultivate, cultivate, cultivate, to awaken that first-time donor’s sensation of how good it feels to make a gift that truly makes a difference.

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