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Defining Your Case Through Four Vexingly Simple Questions

Case development offers an excellent (if generally unwanted) lesson in the difference between “simple” and “easy.”

It’s not a complicated question: why give? (And if it leads you to complicated answers, your work may not be done.) Yet simple as the task may be, case development challenges us to probe the depths of our donors’ hearts and minds and capture the essence of our mission and work in a clear and straightforward proposition that anyone can understand.

Thus: simple but not easy…so how should you crack it?

Four Vexingly Simple Questions

We approach case development not as a process of writing, messaging or “selling”—that all comes later—but rather as a process of answering questions. That process can take very different paths for different organizations (a topic for future posts), but we contend that if you can answer the following four questions with simple, clear answers, you’ve worked out the essential elements of your case and laid the foundation for compelling donor messaging and communications.


1. Who are our donors?

“Know your audience,” said every communications teacher ever—and they were right. In the context of case development, this critical first step asks you to define your primary donor audiences. This is different than listing every group that might give to you, and even when it seems very simple, it can generate some interesting follow-up questions:

  • Do your different donor groups need different cases? How different are they from each other?
  • Are there meaningfully different sub-groups within your major donor groups? If you’re targeting alumni, are the alumni from the ‘60s different than those from the ‘80s?
  • How much do you know about your donor groups? And could/should you learn more through analytics, research, surveying, etc?

2. What motivates our donors to give?

This is the most important question, and it should not be interpreted as “why should donors give to us?” (none of our business!) or “what makes our organization so great?” When nonprofits develop uninteresting, lifeless cases for support, it’s most often a result of answering one of those questions instead of the real question—the human question—stated here.

So set aside your mission statement, your branded language and bragging points, and try to imagine the mindset of a person considering a gift to your organization. What is the feeling? What is the desire? What are they picturing in their head?

3. What do our donors need to know?

This is essentially a question of confidence. If you’ve done good work on Question #2, engaged your donor on a human level and earner his or her emotional commitment, what further information does his/her rational brain require in order to “sign off” on the gift?

In some cases, very little. The last time you gave $25 to the local food bank, how much did you look under the hood?

In others, quite a lot. When we work with independent schools on capital campaigns, we know to expect that parent-donors may need to understand everything from how building priorities were chosen and who was involved in the planning process to how the school will manage dust and noise during construction.

In general, the rational case often includes some or all of the following:

  • Credentials: Why should donors trust and choose you?
  • Urgency: Why is what you’re doing so important that it can’t wait?
  • Strategy: How can you demonstrate that you’re focusing on the right priorities?
  • Method: How does your program work?
  • Impact: What, after all, will a gift help accomplish?

The point is not that you have to cover all of this in exhaustive detail, but rather to understand what donors really need to know in order to feel confident in making a gift.

4. What giving opportunities will you offer?

Whether in a campaign or annual fundraising, defining “the menu” of giving opportunities is an exercise unto itself. This might begin from your strategic plan of future priorities; it might begin from the program work you already do every day. Unrestricted giving should nearly always be option number one. Beyond that, you are looking to define the donor’s options in terms of clear and attractive opportunities that cover the range of donor motivations (“something for everyone”) and ideally add up to a reasonably complete picture of your vision for the future.

Note that the list of giving opportunities is not the same as the list of naming opportunities or recognition benefits, though they are related. If you find your case jumping from the big-picture vision to a specific list of naming opportunities, you’ve probably skipped a step in between.

Tough questions, powerful answers.

That’s it. Just four simple questions…but you can imagine how much real thought and discussion each of them requires. We’d love to hear where you go with them, so let us know! And don’t hesitate to be in touch with any questions of your own. Oh and if you want to learn more, listen to our fall webinar Fundraising Communications 101.  

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Andy Brommel
Andy Brommel
About Andy Brommel Andy Brommel leads Campbell & Company’s communications consulting and creative services, manages our Communications team, and serves on the firm’s management team. He also leads our thought...
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