Does WIIFM really work?

by Marcy Heim on April 24, 2019

WIIFM – What’s In It For Me.

You may be seeing this acronym for the first time. But many folks believe this question drives almost every decision made from the moment we wake up andWIIFM?instinctively check our phones to when we finally switch off at bedtime. They believe WIIFM is the subconscious mantra guiding our every action and impacting what work to prioritize or even bother to do at all. And they approach building relationships the same way.

I worked for a university dean who carried a small notebook. In it, he made an entry for everyone he met…and what they could “do” for him. He would star those who could help him the most.  If he didn’t bother to enter a name…well, enough said about the future of THAT relationship!

David Collaborating with AmyandaConversely when our entire family visited son, David, at Berklee College of Music – Valencia, Spain campus, we met scores of his musical classmates as they combined for impromptu performances. At one point I ask, “What are their musical plans and how might you fit into them?” thinking post-college life. Shocked David answered, “Mom, first we get to know each other as people and musicians. We support each other’s talent. It’s not about what they might do for my career, it’s how our collaboration synergistically becomes something amazing.”  He is his mother’s son.

Do you see how these stories change the questions we ask? “What’s in it for our donors to give to us–and give big?” or “What’s in it for companies to sponsor us?” becomes “As we build authentic relationships with those who share our values and interests, what mutually beneficial partnerships and investments can develop?”

It may sound similar, but it is remarkably different.

As someone who believes in the power of our words, I have never been a fan of WIIFM. WIIFM lives in a mindset that uses words like “cultivation” and “solicitation” and then ponders why volunteers feel fundraising is “unpleasant” and “manipulative” with the goal being to “get into their wallet” or “loosen the purse strings.” It’s a place of selfishness and self-service.

Generosity and WIIFM cannot live in the same place.

In my new book, “Unleashing a Lifestyle of Generosity,” I challenge that we function from a place of Me First – ALWAYS Me First and then, “If it can help you too, well that’s great.” It’s subtle. It’s a mindset. Many would rather roll their eyes and say, “Just tell me what to do to get them to give me money (or whatever you seek).”

Generosity can’t happen with WIIFM because it’s a one-sided relationship.

It doesn’t work in fundraising and it doesn’t work in life.

For almost 80 years Harvard has been conducting the “Harvard Study of Adult Development. “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment,” said Psychiatrist George Vaillant, “But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

They learned that genes are good, but Joy is better.

Genes are good, but Joy is better. 

Researchers have poured through data, including vast medical records and hundreds of in-person interviews and questionnaires. “When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50” said researcher Robert Waldinger in a popular TED Talk “the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains. And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time.”

What does this mean for Major Gift Relationship-building?

Your donors experience SO many “solicitors” who approach them with a mindset that all “those wealthy people” care about is what’s in it for them.  One fundraiser described a major donor this way, “Well they have everything you could want so I guess now they figure they can help someone else out – probably just want the tax deduction.”

You have an authentic major donor relationship when:

  1. You genuinely respect your donor, her wealth, her accomplishments, her opinions, her beliefs and can describe why your organization is important to her.
  2. You understand what shared goals you have with your donor – better the community, give back out of appreciation for what you have amassed in life, feel good about helping those you help, take advantage of a favorable tax situation, be part of a group that helps you improve your status or simply just belong – and you can describe these.
  3. You can talk about what you can do together. How your synergy creates something bigger than either of you can do without the other and you see both pieces as equally valuable for success.
  4. You talk about your donor the same to their face as you do back at the office.

When we go WIIFM-land we bring judgment around why someone gives. How is that different than, “My son cleans up his room when he wants something.”  Or, “You emptied the dishwasher. What do you want?”

True generosity fosters empathy and attachment that proclaims, “I have enough to share. I want to help. I want to do some good.” The very definition of philanthropy is “love of mankind.”

It’s why development professionals who foster genuine relationships raise more money and are also happier in their roles. They stay longer in their positions which leads to deeper and more relationships, more joy and, yes, lots more money.

How we manage stress, whether our bodies are in a sort of chronic ‘fight or flight’ mode, is impacted by how we approach, talk about and prioritize our personal and professional relationships. This is a challenge now in our profession with overwhelm and exhaustion popular words to describe our lives.

When you look at your donor relationships, how do you feel? With what spirit are you approaching them? Are you wanting to serve, wanting to create that remarkable synergy? When you hit 50, or if you are there already, how do your relationships impact your longevity?

Happy Birthday Ken in Spain

Our kids all flew into Valencia, Spain, where David is in school, to celebrate Dad’s milestone birthday. They took off work, got dog-sitters and put in extra time to make this time. We walked (and walked), played cards, ate paella, hit the Berklee recording studios, met David’s friends, and celebrated Dad’s day with gluten-free cake. I’m certain our activities didn’t nearly meet everyone’s personal “wants” but I’m equally certain if Harvard’s research is correct, we added years to our lives.

Embrace your professional and personal relationships as opportunities to foster your walk to 80. I want you to be a successful advancement professional, AND to be joyful all along the way. Decide and believe that people come from a place where what is in it for them, is what is in it for them AND others!

Invest in JOY®



Marcy Heim is a trusted authority in the development profession and helps organizations and educational institutions boost their major gift programs through artful, long-term relationship building that dramatically increases fundraising success while promoting increased staff job satisfaction. To receive a free chapter from Marcy’s book, Empower Your Board to Serve as Effective Development Ambassadors, click here.

Questions:  Contact KK Konicek at

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