Stop Showering All of Your Donors with Love!

[Publisher’s Note: This post is part of a series kindly contributed by guest authors who attended the 2016 Association of Fundraising Professionals International Fundraising Conference. These posts share valuable insights from the Conference. This week, I thank Chad Barger, CFRE, Principal of Productive Fundraising, for highlighting the seminar “Relationship Fundraising: Where Do We Go From Here?”]


If you want to raise more money, stop showering all of your donors with love. That’s one of the key takeaways from the AFP International Fundraising Conference seminar “Relationship Fundraising: Where Do We Go From Here?”

I’ve been a longtime advocate for donor-centered fundraising. So, it might surprise you that I completely agree with that suggestion.

Chad Barger, CFRE, Principal of Productive Fundraising, attended the session and explores this key takeaway for us. Chad is a fundraising coach, consultant, blogger, and speaker. He is also a passionate arts advocate and raises vital support for the arts in his community as the Director of the Cultural Enrichment Fund (Harrisburg, PA). Here’s what Chad learned:


“Relationship Fundraising: Where Do We Go From Here?” was presented by a dream team of fundraising gurus: Adrian Sargeant, PhD; Ian MacQuillin; Jay Love; and Rachel Muir, CFRE — if you ever get a chance to see any of them live, do it.

The session reviewed research and case studies on the use and development of relationship fundraising since the concept was first introduced to the nonprofit sector in Ken Burnett’s 1992 book, Relationship Fundraising. There’s ample evidence that relationship fundraising works, and I think the modern fundraiser certainly knows this. It’s no surprise to us that building relationships with prospects and donors leads to more and increased donations.

RelationshipFundraisingHowever, my biggest takeaway from this session was that relationship fundraising and transactional fundraising can coexist in the same development shop.

Your first response might be, “Why would you want to do that? Every fundraiser worth their salary knows that relationship fundraising is the way to raise big dollars!”

Well, consider this: When we say that we only practice relationship fundraising, we are actually not being donor centric. The problem is that we are assuming that every donor wants to build a relationship with our charity. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Some donors give because they attended our event and they felt obligated to give more while there (e.g., the Fund a Need at the end of the live auction). Or, perhaps they gave because a friend asked and they couldn’t say no because that friend donated to their cause the month before. In both of these situations, the donor is happy to help out and make a donation, but they don’t really have a passion for your mission. The donation is simply a transaction to them. It’s not the first step toward a relationship like we fundraisers instantly assume.

It would be a lot of wasted effort to try to transform this transactional donation into a relationship. The donor simply doesn’t want it. The donor doesn’t hate you or think you’re a bad person; they just have a full life and our cause is never going to be a priority for them.

So, we as fundraisers need to get better at recognizing these transactional donors and stop wasting time and money trying to turn them into relational ones.

What’s the best way to do this? Easy … ask the donor what they want. A simple follow up phone call or email thanking them for their donation with an invitation to begin a relationship is all it takes. If they don’t respond (especially after a second prompt), then move them to the transactional side of the house. Still send them a thank you, prompt gift acknowledgment, and a report on the impact of their donation, but that is sufficient. Save the arsenal of cultivation tactics for donors who want a relationship with you and your organization.

Based on this newfound perspective, I’m now in the process of building out two different communication plans for my relational and transactional donors. While this initially seems like more work, I’m excited about the increased time that I will have to spend with my relational donors once I’m no longer chasing my transactional donors and hounding them for a visit. So please give it some thought and see if you too could benefit from stopping the chase and, instead, treating ALL of your donors the way they would like to be treated (not just your relational ones). After all, treating people the way they want to be treated is the core of donor-centered fundraising.


To underscore Chad’s final point, I want to mention the difference between the Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule. Most of us know the former while few are familiar with the latter.

The Golden Rule says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” By contrast, the Platinum Rule says, “Treat others the way they want to be treated.” Of the two, it’s the Platinum Rule that is most donor centric.

When it comes to building relationships with donors, you’ll serve your donors and your organization best by focusing your efforts on the folks who want a relationship.

Over the years, I’ve seen many organizations struggle with this concept. Frequently, when donors give an arbitrary sum of sufficient size, they’ll be placed into the major donor program. Unfortunately, not all of these donors want to be part of a major donor program; they’re happy to give, but they don’t want a lot of attention. When an organization ignores the donor’s wishes (or doesn’t bother to learn what the donor wants), the fundraising staff wastes time and money; as a result, the donors who do want the attention often do not receive the level of engagement they want.

So, learn what your donors want. Then, act accordingly. That’s donor-centered fundraising.

To download the slides from the seminar Chad attended, click here.

To download the Donor Journey Pocket Guide, click here.

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

13 Responses to “Stop Showering All of Your Donors with Love!”

    • Colleen, thank you for your thank you! I’m always happy to share interesting, provocative, useful insights. If you ever have a request for something you wish I’d explore, please feel free to let me know. I take requests.

  1. Platinum rules! Thanks for the upgrade!

  2. Thank you very much Michael, I like when different approaches are linked together. In an ever more differentiating environment, it makes sense to look for those who support you AND want special care and others who are already content the way it is. That’s what the pareto principle tells us in the end, too. Keep your love (and biggest ressources) for your best supporters. My additional advice: But be open for people rising from zero to hero. E.g.: When asking people on your emailing list for support, don’t go only for one-off donations but for recurring donations, too. If you did a good job sharing your causes including successes and losses they might suddenly step out with no prior donation. As might be critical minds who got a good reply from you. So never forget the “I’m in” link.

    • Carsten, thank you for sharing your advice. I’m glad my post resonated with you. While it’s a challenge to identify donors who do and do not want a relationship, it’s even more challenging to identify folks who wish to move between those two categories. Nevertheless, it is important for us to make the effort.

  3. I would add that qualifying donors by asking them if they want to engage with you (and if so, how) is a critical piece of donor-centric philanthropy. This is a great reminder that sometimes being donor-centric means allowing them to *not* engage with you or your organization.

    • Anna, thank you for commenting. Giving the post some additional thought, I realized there’s another issue at play: The organization needs to be prepared to respond appropriately to the answers it receives from donors. Asking a donor if she would like a deeper relationship, having her say she wants one, and then not delivering it would be disastrous. In other words, asking donors about the type of relationship they want with the organization needs to be part of a holistic donor relations strategy.


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