This post is part-one in a two-part series titled “You Don’t Know Your Donors”

This is how major gifts messaging goes bad. Read on and see how it happens. So very sad and frustrating.

A donor gave $1,000 to the organization during the last quarter of 2020. It was a generous gift. And from what we know about the donor, it was a gift that had high relational and information-reporting expectations. Expectations like:
  • “I expect to be contacted, not only to thank me, but to uncover what I am interested in.”
  • “I expect to be told how you are addressing the problems I am interested in.”
  • “I expect to be told how my giving is making a difference.”

None of that happened. Instead – it was crickets. Total silence. Not a peep. And that was over 12 months ago.

Then, the first week of December 2021, the form letter arrived. No reference to the previous year’s gift. No info on how the donor’s giving made a difference. No clue that the organization even knew the donor.

Instead, it was a pitch for the year-end fund with a request for $35, $50, or $100 for a “renewal” contribution. Pure and simple, it was a transactional request for money that demonstrated that the organization did not know the donor.

The result: the donor went away. And the organization not only lost out on a solid relationship that would have made a difference now and into the future – they lost out on the immediate revenue which easily could have been another $1,000, or, with the right offer, could have been $10,000.

Why does this happen? Because the leaders and managers of the organization have been trained on and subscribe to a fundraising strategy that is purely transactional. They do not know the donor.

As you know, Jeff and I believe that if front-line fundraisers “aim for the money,” they may get some, but they will not “get” the donor. That is not good. We believe that the objective of major gift fundraising – the core objective – is to “get the donor.” And your major gifts messaging needs to align with this. If you get the donor because you KNOW the donor, the dollars will follow. Major gifts work is about a focus on donors, not dollars. It is about building a relationship, not reaching into your donor’s pocket. (We believe in this philosophy so strongly that we actually wrote a book about it.)

And if the core objective is getting to know the donor, the core strategy needs to be centered on capturing the donor’s heart and understanding their passions. It is NOT about getting the money.

I know this is counterintuitive, which is why so many people have a difficult time understanding it – much less implementing it. “How can I do all this relationship and passion stuff,” the front-line fundraiser asks, “if I am getting so much pressure to get the money and reach goals?”

I know. And I understand.

But what we are trying to communicate, when we say things like “know the donor” or “serve the donor” or “understand her passions and interests,” is how you should think and what you should do on the journey toward getting the gift. The old thinking, as evidenced by the approach to the donor I talked about at the top of this blog, is to focus on the gift, talk about the gift, and collect just enough data and info on the donor so you can get the gift. To be candid, it is a self-centered, self-interested activity on the part of the organization and the front-line fundraiser. It does not really, truly concern itself with the donor. It is simply about the money.

And while that will work for a while, it is a short-term strategy because the donor, in their heart, will know that that is all you really care about. It will hurt them, and they will not want to stay with you. That kind of activity is not relationship-based.

Think about it this way. You know what it feels like not to be known. What it feels like to be used. You see all the smiles, hear all the chatter – you even experience some “moves” on the part of the other person to make you feel good and valued. But in your heart, you know they don’t really care. You know it. How does that feel? Pretty bad, doesn’t it?

That is why Jeff and I are suggesting you get in touch with how you feel when you are treated this way. Because if you can get in touch with that, and you couple that awareness with your intellectual understanding on helping your donor be a partner (not just a source of cash), then you will get on the right path to success in your job as a front-line fundraiser.

Major gifts, done right, is about knowing the passions and interests of the donor and, from that platform, launching and maintaining a partnership with the donor to get something done that both of you (the organization and the donor) are interested in. It is about mutuality. It is not about you doing something to the donor. It is about doing something with the donor. There is a huge difference.

Here is what “doing something to the donor” looks like:
  • Pretending you really care about how the donor feels about the organization, while most of your questions are about their gift or giving preferences. The amount of their gift, the frequency of their giving, how do they prefer to talk about their giving, etc. Don’t get me wrong, this is important information, but it might be good to start with what the donor is interested in accomplishing. What do they care about? What is there about the world’s need that the donor wants to do something about? That is what is important.
  • Spending more time inquiring what it would take to get a larger gift or a more frequent gift, rather than figuring out what the donor wants to accomplish in our hurting world and serving that interest.
  • Asking a donor HOW she decides to give, with a focus on amounts and cycles, so that you can get the gift.
  • Asking questions about age, gender, marital status, and household income. If the donor is on your caseload and you were spending time with them, you would know all the answers to these questions (except for household income which, I think, is not appropriate to ask). Do you feel uncomfortable if, on the phone or at a social gathering, someone just comes out and asks: “By the way, Richard, what is your annual income or your net worth?” Goodness.
  • Putting the heavy lifting on annual fund, membership, and events programs. Most of these types of strategies are transactional. “You give this and you will get that.” It is short-sighted and quantifiably reduces donor and value retention.

Now, don’t get me wrong, much of this information is good to get. But it should be done with the proper timing and in the context of truly, sincerely caring about the donor and wanting to serve their interests and passions – wanting to truly KNOW them. Truly sincere. Not manipulative. This is what I mean.

So, all this great work we do in major gifts is really not about the gift. And any consultant or advisor that tells you differently is working with a major gift strategy that is last-century, transaction-based, and does not work for the long term. You need to put your running shoes on and get away from that kind of advice as fast as you can.

Set your mind today to change how you think about your relationship to your caseload or portfolio of donors. Think of each donor as a unique partner. Focus on what they want to do with their giving. Understand why that is important to them. Then help them do it. This approach will completely change your major gifts messaging and make a huge difference for the donor, for you, and for the cause you both are interested in supporting.

In my next blog – Part 2 of this series – I am going to focus on how to view your major gifts donor and how to talk to the donor through this lens.