8 Valuable Insights from a Major Donor

I recently had the opportunity to spend some quality time with a major donor. He was kind enough to visit with my graduate students in the “Advanced Fund Development” class I teach at Drexel University. Daniel (not his real name) shared a number of valuable insights about how some philanthropists think.

I thought you might like to learn what Daniel had to say since it might very well help you when working with your own donors and prospects.

Daniel and his wife personally contribute generously to a variety of nonprofit organizations and serve on a number of nonprofit boards. Daniel also administers a family foundation established by his parents.

Daniel told the class that he believes “donors see their giving as an extension of themselves.” He indicated that the more involved he is with an organization, the more personally he’s connected, the more likely he is to donate. In addition, he said that he is motivated by the notion of “giving back.” If he, or a family member, has benefited from the services of an organization in a significant way, he’s more likely to contribute.

However, for Daniel, it’s not all about involvement and reciprocity. He needs to also have confidence in an organization’s leadership before he’ll provide a significant gift. Two of the things that help build his confidence in the leadership are:

  1. the quality of the organization’s products or services,
  2. the demonstrated efficiency with which the organization provides those products or services.

One of his sources for information about organizational efficiency is Guidestar.

If an organization has a good relationship with a prospective donor, Daniel doesn’t really believe there’s much of risk in accidentally asking for too much. He says, “People aren’t really offended by being asked for too much if they were properly cultivated first.”

Daniel understands nonprofit organizations. He expects to be asked. If he’s asked for too much, he simply lets the development professional know. He doesn’t get offended because he assumes the development professional has made a good-faith attempt to ask for something appropriate. Sometimes they miss; sometimes they hit the target.

When discussing particularly large or complex gift arrangements, Daniel doesn’t rely on the expertise of his development contact. Instead, he turns to his lawyer for advice. While he wants his development contact to be knowledgeable, he has no expectation of or need for that person to be an expert in the area of complex gifting.

Organizations that approach Daniel should also understand that he and his wife consult each other before making philanthropic commitments. While they don’t necessarily support all the same organizations, they’re both involved in most philanthropic decisions.

When he gives, Daniel really doesn’t expect to receive any tangible benefits. Daniel says such benefits or little recognition gifts are not very important to him, though they’re sometimes nice. What’s more important to him is access. For example, when he contributes to a theatre company, he enjoys the opportunity to meet the actors and directors.

While Daniel likes having the option to meet with a development professional, to visit an organization’s home, or to observe its programs, he doesn’t usually require a lot of hand-holding before making a philanthropic decision because, in part, he doesn’t have the time for it.

“Someday, I may have more time, but I won’t necessarily want to spend it with a development person,” he says with a smile. He’s happiest when organizations respect his time while giving him the option of how much contact he will have.

Much of what Daniel shared with my students was nothing new. Researchers have found many donors feel the same way. But, his insights serve as terrific reminder for all development professionals.

When working with your major donors and prospects, keep these tips in mind:

1. Remember that major donors see giving as an extension of themselves. Their philanthropy reflects their sense of identity. This is particularly true with planned giving. So, be sure to demonstrate how their gift fits into their life’s story.

2. People are more likely to contribute when they are involved with an organization. They are especially likely to contribute when they, or a loved one, have received a valuable service from an organization. Consider creative ways to involve prospective donors with your nonprofit. Think about what you can give donors for little or no cost to the organization but of high-value to the prospect.

3. People are more likely to give if they have confidence in an organization’s leadership. The greater the confidence, the more likely that gift is to be larger. Help prospective donors get to know the organization’s staff and/or volunteer leaders. Demonstrate how efficiently the organization delivers high-quality products or services.

4. Do not be afraid to ask for a donation. But, make sure you’ve properly cultivated the prospect first. If you do, you’ll be more likely to get a gift. And, if you accidentally ask for too much, you won’t be in danger of offending the prospect as you would if you asked too soon.

5. Many major donors have their own expert advisors. While they want you to be knowledgeable, they don’t need you to be a tax and estate expert. If you can work collaboratively with a donor’s expert advisors, you’ll be helping the advisors better serve their client and your donor.

6. While one particular spouse might be your prospective donor, you’d be well served to remember that both will likely play some role in the gift-making process. So, determine at what point it might be worthwhile to cultivate the other spouse and involve him or her in the ask process. This is also true for gay and lesbian partners.

7. People don’t usually give because of the little trinket you give donors. Some may appreciate receiving what you offer, but it’s generally not high up on their list of motivators. And, some may actually resent the expense of being given a recognition item. Instead, what many major donors want is greater access. So, think of ways to make that happen.

8. Recognize that major donors are busy people. Don’t waste their time. Remember, just because they don’t want to meet with you doesn’t mean that they don’t care deeply about your organization. Be available to major donor prospects on their terms. Give them options for contact and involvement. Even if they don’t take you up on your offer to visit, they’ll still appreciate the gesture.

In short, Daniel was suggesting that organizations will benefit if they are donor centered. He’s not saying you have to be donor centered. He’s just saying his support will tend to go to those organizations that are.

That’s what Daniel and Michael Rosen say… What do you say?

19 Responses to “8 Valuable Insights from a Major Donor”

  1. Excellent post today, Michael. It is important to have frank and honest conversations with potential donors when cultivating relationships for gifts, major or minor. The first meeting should always be exploratory in nature, the gift seeker should take the time to ask as many pertinent questions as possible. A development professional needs to seek out the donor’s motivations and interests in the organization and its mission to form a strategy to engage them more before asking for that major gift. The development professional needs to involve the spouse/partner in the conversation, and in fact, other members of the family when possible. During those conversations, ask their opinions about things like plaques and gifts given to donors. Most are not interested in getting such things, and would prefer a heart felt thank you and further engagement and involvement rather than a trinket. In the end, both the donor and the organization will be rewarded.

  2. Michael, thank you for your thoughtful blog! This translates well to the grants world which–like other major gifts–is reliant on cultivation. This is excellent information I have shared with the rest of my team of grant writers. Thank you for always providing unique insights from your personal experience. Yours is one of the few blogs I follow religiously!

  3. Could not agree more, and this has been my experience with donors as well. They actually want to be asked after they’ve been properly stewarded. When we don’t ask they become confused and sometimes even offended. Did we not think they were good enough/important enough/caring enough to give? Great post, as always, Michael.

    • Claire, thank you for sharing your perspective. Interestingly when it comes to planned giving, 89 percent of people say it’s ok for a nonprofit to ask for a planned gift. However, only 22 percent say they have been asked. So, if donors are telling us it’s ok to ask, why aren’t we asking more? The nonprofit sector certainly should. Of course, the asking should occur only after good cultivation as you’ve pointed out.

  4. Nice post. Well written and engaging. Thanks for sharing the story. I agree with your overall analysis. I actually believe these are strategies/insights that would work well with important donors regardless of giving level.

  5. Great post. Enjoyed reading this evening. The post was right on the mark. Many of the donors that I have had the pleasure and opportunity to work with have “mirrored” the insight that was provided in your post. I have always enjoyed the candor and insight that donors relay once you reach a level of comfort with them and they with us.

    That class at Drexel had a great opportunity to look into the eyes and heart of the donor, a great learning experience in this special calling.

  6. Hello Michael,

    I like the perspective you have, and “Daniel’s” point of view is typical to many donors in the US. Now, what I’m concerned about is that most of the above points are only valid in the US context where there is tax exemptions and overall support for non-profits.

    What I’m trying to work on is to support NGOs in the Middle East to raise funds in countries where there is no tax exemption on personal or corporate donations/gifts. This means people and companies have less of an incentive to donate and, if they are going to donate, it will have to be either a cause they deeply believe in and they have very good faith in the leaders of the NGO OR for propaganda/marketing purposes.

    So, for example, a company in the US might donate a certain percent of annual profit to have tax exemptions…that’s motivating for them and produces a win-win situation. Whereas in the Middle East, a company that chooses to support an NGO will be doing so mostly for marketing purposes to have their logo/name on the posters, merchandise, roll ups…etc.

    In this context, and from your experience how do you suggest NGOs fundraise in non-US context?

    Awaiting your feedback,



    • Afif, thank you for taking the time to comment. The issue you have raised has been raised by other international readers. Rather than addressing the issue here, I’m working on dedicating a future blog post to the subject. Thank you for helping to inspire this future article.

  7. Reblogged this on C.I.A: Colleagues on a mission and commented:

    This post was shared with our Major Gifts team and it was interesting to read comments about the aspects resonating with the various team members. We all agree it’s important to treat our donors as insiders-providing them with access and information to make them feel valued and a part of the team. Working for a University, it may be a bit easier to engage donors as part of the community, they invested in an education with us, spent transformative years on campus, and are proud of the degrees earned. However, I wonder if we are providing the appropriate information to instill confidence in leadership? When tuition becomes the topic of discussion, are we reminding the audience of the due diligence to raise the price only when absolutely necessary, and the hard work of the Board of Trustees, President and fundraising team to off-set those costs? Are we remembering to fit our needs with the donor’s identity and connection, rather than simply stating a need? Are we stewarding as we would like to be stewarded?

    • Traci, thank you for letting me know that you re-blogged my post. I’m honored that you found it valuable enough to share with others.

      One of the challenges for all nonprofit organizations is defining “community.” Another challenge is making people feel like a valued part of that community. With colleges and universities, core “community” is easily defined, as you’ve noted. So, the challenge becomes how to manage those community relationships. Effectively communicating values and the rationale behind actions is important. During the Great Recession, many well endowed universities came under fire from the mainstream media for raising tuition rather than tapping “rainy-day funds.” The media rightfully questioned what the purpose of such a fund is if it’s never touched.

      The questions you’ve raised are good and valid. All colleges and universities should reflect on those questions periodically. The answers will help ensure that the best is being done to effectively manage relationships.

      • Thanks, Michael, so very true.
        I work for a private institution, and we are criticized for raising tuition in the 80s (excessive increases, but keeping up with the national status quo).

        Keep up your great work!



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