Don’t let informed attributes inform your fundraising

I recently ran across the phrase “informed attribute,” which I’ve learned involves saying something is X, but without showing it to be so. We bump into informed attribute all the time while reading fiction or watching television.

It’s a convenient trope of writers too lazy to fill in the back story of their characters. The author slaps on a label — good or evil, smart or silly, energetic or lazy — and then leaves the rest to the imagination.


Beyond annoying a few readers or viewers, the practice is relatively harmless in fiction. However, when informed attribute shows up in our interactions with living, breathing human beings, we’ve almost always got a problem.

We find it oh so easy to write off (or exalt) entire groups as this or that, and without a shred of evidence to back claim. At its worst, its most vehement, informed attribute fuels racism and every other “ism” out there.

But even in benign usage, informed attribute can trip us up — including in fundraising.

I feel a bit sheepish writing this, having recently posted an article about differences in men and women as donors. Fortunately, the claims cited in that earlier post were backed up by a research study.


More often than not, however, we simply repeat as gospel truth a claim about donor preferences, practices, or profiles without seeking proof. I’m betting you’ve heard, said, and/or acted on one or several of the following statements. (True confession: I have.)

  • Millennials aren’t as generous as their boomer parents.
  • Boomers are less committed to organizations than their “greatest generation” parents.
  • Most of our donors are 60 or older, so we don’t do much with social media.
  • Women spread their giving around with small gifts to many causes.
  • Men give the big money.
  • Older donors tend to stick with the causes they’ve always funded.
  • Major donors are like giant oaks. Most start with a tiny gift.
  • Our volunteers are also our donors.
  • We haven’t gotten into online giving because our donors are all older.
  • Today’s donors won’t give to support operating.

You can likely find a story or two to “prove” every one of these claims. Some of the statements may even have multiple research studies behind them.

However, before swallowing an informed attribute hook, line, and sinker, I encourage you to test what’s implied against the preferences, practices, and profile of the good folks who support your organization.

Dig for the back stories within your donor base. Watch yourself for stereotypes and sweeping characterizations of constituent categories. Check your assumptions. And when approaching fundraising as ministry, listen for God at work in givers’ hearts.

In a word, confirm. Then use what you learn to inform your fundraising.

For more donor preferences, see:

GenXers or gray hairs, which will it be?

To see ourselves through donors’ eyes

Out of the mouths of donors

What's your take on this topic?

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