Motivation – Why Do People Say YES?

Motivation – Why Do People Say YES?


19 January 2021


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


I’ve been thinking about motivation. Why do donors give? Why will donors say YES?

We spend WAAAY too much time imagining people saying NO to the point that we are terrified of that possibility. What would happen if we spent that same time imagining people saying YES, and then working to create that possibility.


Motivation is one of those subjects that has a ton written about it. Why do people do anything? The writers talk about different kinds of motivation. Not everyone is motivated to do things in the same way.

Some people are risk averse. Some are risk tolerant.

Some people make snap judgements. Some need to mull on something for hours – or even years – before they take action.

Some people are motivated to act because of incentives. And the incentives might be positive (rewards) or negatives (punishment).

Some are motivated by social consequences – again positive (recognition) or negative (shaming).

And some are motivated by conviction – these people are hard to stop.


As a thought experiment, consider an Olympic balance beam. The official dimensions are 4 inches wide by 16 feet and five inches long.

Say I put one down on the floor and asked you to walk its length. Many would walk it just for the challenge. Some might walk it eventually after having carefully weighed their chances of making the full length. Others might walk it if people they cared about were watching. (The famous “ice-bucket challenge” was successful because of this principle.) Still others might not walk it at all. No way!

But balance beams are not normally put on the floor. They sit on supports, 4 feet off the floor. Same request – walk its length. And probably same result, with fewer agreeing to the challenge in each category.

So, we change the incentives. You walk the beam, and I’ll give you a hat, or a tote bag, or a coffee mug. Or we’ll include your name in the Annual Report or on the donor wall. (Or we’ll agree not to mention your name in this context, ever.) Does that help? It will for some.

Now imagine that the beam is placed between two buildings – still 4 inches wide, still 16 feet long. But now 50 stories above the ground.

Please consider walking the beam.

It is ridiculously easy to imagine you saying NO. And all the reasons for you being justified. And using that awareness to justify never asking you in the first place.

It’s really difficult to imagine you saying YES. We’d need to tap into your convictions.

  • Would you do it for $25,000? How about $1MM? How about $10MM?
  • Would you do it to save children? Elderly? Plants and animals? An entire species?
  • Would you do it to keep some magical piece of land from being developed? A river from being polluted? An ancient forest from being cut down?
  • Would you do it for love?


You get the idea. The bigger the ask, the bigger the motivation needs to be. And the more emotional the decision-making becomes.


In fundraising, we understand this intellectually, but we consistently ignore it.

  • We talk about raising money to meet event goals or because its our organizational anniversary.
  • We consistently reach for incentives that might have been necessary just once.
  • We talk about membership gifts and other donations as if they were prices instead of gifts.
  • We say NO for others by not actually asking.


Last week I wrote about finding three new major gift prospects to work with this year. Change the number to meet the needs of your organization. Use the idea to start a major gift fundraising program or to add to your existing program.

For each person, imagine asking for a specific amount of money on or about a specific date in the future. Imagine them saying YES – why will they say YES? And dedicate yourself this year to creating those circumstances, that possibility.



I’ve been thinking this week about motivation. Why will Board members help raise money? Why would they say YES?


Cheers, and Have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by Anatoly Kalmykov courtesy of Pixabay.



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1 Comment
  • Carol Abrahamzon
    Posted at 08:50h, 19 January

    Attitude is everything. I always expect people to say yes and most often they do. We just ran our 2020 retention rate and it was 85% in a year of immense uncertainty. My assessment it that most of our donors are motivated by conviction – and you are right – these people are hard to stop.