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Allison Gauss

How to Wow Donors – According to Science

Nonprofit fundraising can often fall into a predictable pattern: appeal, donation, thank you, repeat.

While it is definitely smart to deliver the engagement and communications your supporters expect, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spice things up once in a while. A well-delivered surprise can reignite passion, strengthen donor relations, and even encourage word-of-mouth about your organization.

In this blog post, we’ll take a look at why and how surprises can be a great addition to your donor relations strategy. We’ll look into some examples from marketing and offer some tips on adding a little spontaneity and unexpected delight to your communications.

The Science of Surprise

Reliability is extremely important to people. We look for it in our friends, partners, coworkers, and the businesses we patronize. But simply doing what is expected of you is a good way to get taken for granted and even forgotten. Sometimes a surprising reward can be much more motivating and memorable.

As an article from the Harvard Business Review points out, we now have the ability to circumvent many of our everyday surprises and uncertainties.

Some examples: We don’t have to find out for ourselves if a movie is good, we can check the reviews on our phones. We don’t need to go to a bunch of different stores to compare prices and find the best deal, we can check prices online and walk into a store knowing this is the best price for a product. We can even track packages in the mail; no more wondering when your latest Amazon purchase will arrive.

While these tools are convenient for consumers, the article highlights how effective surprise can be as a marketing technique. The authors cite a variety of experiments showing the power of the unexpected and even compares the use of surprise in customer relations to someone sending their romantic partner flowers “just because.” Researchers found that surprise conditions lit up the brain’s reward pathways and that surprise “appears to amplify whatever you’re feeling.”

3 Examples of Unexpected Delight

Zappo’s Did What?

Zappo’s, a shoes and clothing online retailer, has a reputation for outstanding customer service. They have well-trained, helpful employees, they accept returns for any and all reasons, and they offer free shipping. However, that’s not what really makes them stand out from the countless other online stores. They consistently go above and beyond what they promise.

Zappo’s policies make free shipping and easy returns expected. What keeps Zappo’s at the top of mind when it comes to customer service is the surprising stories people spread about their interactions with the company.

When a woman needed to return shoes that weren’t comfortable on her injured foot, however, Zappo’s didn’t just take the return, they also sent flowers and a “get well” card. Imagine the customer’s surprise! Nobody expects an online store to care about your injuries. Now that story continues to spread and promote the company.

Team Rubicon Dials their Donors

Team Rubicon is a nonprofit that leverages the skills of veterans learned during military service to deliver much needed first response during the worst natural disasters. When a tornado touches down or a flood threatens a community, they send volunteers to help maintain refugee camps, offer medical relief, and mitigate the emergency.

Their donors expect to be thanked and to see their money used well for impact. When people gave to Team Rubicon to support their efforts after Hurricane Sandy, they probably would have been happy with a short, genuine thank you email. What they got was much more, and a huge surprise.

Donors received phone calls from actual veterans in the field. They got to hear the words “thank you” from the volunteer whose mission they were supporting. Now that’s memorable.

Give to Game of Thrones

What do you think of when you hear someone say “Game of Thrones?”

Dragons? Murderous families? HBO?

What about life-saving latrines in Rwanda?

Not the most obvious connection, but that’s why it was such a brilliant campaign by Blood:Water, a grassroots African organization addressing both water crises and HIV/AIDS. They created a 24-hour fundraising campaign that they called “The Real Game of Thrones.”

The Science of Surprise and Wowing Donors

By making the surprising connection between a television show and a real-world problem, Blood: Water raised enough to build 21 sanitary latrines that will help prevent disease.

Planning Your Own Surprise for Donors

So now you know that surprise can be a great way to connect with donors and get their attention. The question now is,

“How do I do it for my organization?”

A Compelling Story

One way to give donors a pleasant surprise is to deliver a moving impact story out of the blue. Not to promote a campaign, but to simply share something positive. You could do this with a well-written email that includes some great pictures or you could put together a video. The point is give some positive reinforcement and inspiration to donors without their expecting it.

A Donation Matching Period

Another spontaneous way to rally your supporters is to announce a surprise donation-matching period. Send an email blast and post on social media that donations will be matched for the next 24 hours. This not only is unexpected but offers a clear and rapidly approaching deadline to get your audience to take action.

A Pop Culture Connection

Our example from Blood:Water showed that aligning your organization or cause with something unexpected can also be a good way to surprise people. You could draw a connection between a holiday or some area of pop culture. Always be on the lookout for ways to translate your cause into what people are talking about.


Ultimately, a good surprise will require some creativity and spontaneity on your part, but it’s effectiveness at connecting with donors and reinvigorating your audience will be worth the effort. Your surprise might not yield an immediate jump in donations, but like sending flowers “just because,” it can lead to a stronger relationship with donors.

Want to Get the Most Out of Your Fundraising Efforts?

Image Credit: Laurie Chipps

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