The Fundraising Executive

SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT: Six Conversations that You Need to Have with Major Donors

By Eddie Thompson | February 1, 2013 | Donor Communications

talkAs a student at Vanderbilt University over thirty years ago, I served as a graduate assistant to the Department of Educational Leadership. Vanderbilt was hosting a meeting of university presidents to discuss funding issues. In the late 1970s, and early 1980s, our country was experiencing hyperinflation. The cost of living, as well as the cost of educating, was rising faster than universities could raise tuition. The meeting was all about cutting expenses. Among the options being discussed were a freeze on hiring, postponing maintenance, and a slight rise in tuition. Like the current-day austerity movements, the meeting was pretty gloomy as one by one the presidents put forth the best of the bad ideas.

One speaker stood up and outlined a different approach that was working well for his university — fundraising. Feeling a fresh breeze of hope blowing through the room, I leaned over to my major professor and asked if I could write my dissertation on fundraising. After a long discussion about the relative value of research on fundraising in higher education, my dissertation committee finally agreed. They approved an analysis of thirteen universities that were very successful in fundraising compared with thirteen average universities.

Feeling a fresh breeze of hope blowing through the room, I leaned over to my major professor and asked if I could write my dissertation on fundraising.

The basic research questions for my dissertation were:

Why are some nonprofits more successful in raising money than others?

What were the differences between the techniques of the average and the most successful universities?

What are their secrets to success?

As it turned out, six of the twelve characteristics of the most successful organizations related in one way or another to the strength of donor relationships and to the depth in which organizational leaders understood their donors. After thirty years of practice, I’ve learned another important lesson — that each one of those best-practices corresponds to a particular conversation you need to have with a major donor. Below are the first six characteristics and what I have learned about the conversations that go with those characteristics.

1. THE ANALYSIS: The most successful organizations have more meaningful conversations. Great conversations imply that fundraisers listen more than they talk. They have conversations about the mission of the nonprofit to change lives; funding and program strategy; tactical responses to regulatory challenges; opportunities to expand the mission and impact. Conversations set the context for giving, and the request for a gift is part of that conversation. It is an important part, but it is still just a part. More money is raised through meaningful conversations that precede appeals for gifts. A secret of any conversation is not to talk at people, but with them.

THE CONVERSATION: The overall objective of the conversation with major donors is to draw them into the inner circle, making them realize that they are a genuine part of the team.

2. THE ANALYSIS: The most successful organizations made more requests for gifts. The more people you ask to give, the more money you raise for your mission. There is, however, limitation on frequency on which each organization can appeal for donations. We all know that the deeper the relationship, the larger the gift for which fundraisers feel they can ask. Only the most insensitive fundraisers feel comfortable asking for a million-dollar gift from someone barely connected with the organization. In the same way, the depth of donor relationships affects how frequently the organization can appeal without “wearing out their welcome.”

THE CONVERSATION: The tolerance for organizational appeals, both frequency and size, directly correlates with the depth of relationship, the ongoing conversation, and giving capacity. If the large majority of the conversation with major donors is in the form of appeals, that conversation gets old and tired pretty quickly.

3. THE ANALYSIS: The most successful organizations observed donors’ giving patterns. Some donors give in response to an appeal — to some tragedy or simply something that reminded them of the organization. Strategic donors tend to be more proactive and habitual. They give in certain ways (stocks, advised funds, personal or business accounts) and at prescribed times (end-of-year, quarterly from dividends, or in April from their tax refund). If organizations know that a donor gives each July at the end of their business year, they don’t waste time sending end-of-year appeals. Not only is it ineffective, the organizations waste one of its precious annual appeals.

THE CONVERSATION: There is an important reason for each donor’s giving pattern, and the most successful organizations have made it a point to understand what it is and what drives those decisions. How do they uncover all this extremely valuable information? They have conversations on that topic. See Understanding and Upgrading Habitual Donors.

4. THE ANALYSIS: The most successful organizations know what each donor was trying to accomplish. Why does each donor give to your charity? This is different from understanding giving habits and patterns. It is, however, something you uncover in the same way — by meaningful conversations that are not driven primarily by an appeal. It helps to approach every donor relationship with the thought in mind: No one gives without some personal, compelling reason.

When you ask why donors give, many will simply tell you that it is for a good cause. That doesn’t help you much to understand donor motivation. You already know that it’s a good cause, and that there are thousands other good causes in your community. The question is: “Why do YOU give, and why do you give to THIS organization?” The true motivation could be as simple as guilt or social esteem, which is also very important to know. But it could be something as compelling as the family illness or the desire to create a legacy.

THE CONVERSATION: Those kinds of questions, and the discussions they initiate, often uncover fundamental donor motivations about which no one else in the fundraising world knows. And wouldn’t you like to be the one that knows it?

5. THE ANALYSIS: The most successful organizations gave meaningful reports. “Meaningful” is not the same for all donors. For some donors, meaningful reports contain lots of numbers, projections of future growth, and metrics that track program performance. Others are less about numbers; they want to hear about the impact you are having on individual lives.The official organizational report is usually created as a one-style-fits-all tool.

THE CONVERSATION: Fundraisers need to know when to go off script and talk about what interests the donor. But what is it that validates each donor’s decision to give — a qualitative or a quantitative report? If you don’t know the answer, you are likely to miss half the time. It is another great topic for a focused conversation.

The number and significance of pleasant surprises reveal the quality of an organization’s relationships.

6. THE ANALYSIS: The most successful organizations have more meaningful relationships. Just because there is a name, I.D. number, contact information, and a giving history in the organizational database doesn’t mean anyone in the organization has a relationship with that donor. Just because the organization contacts them, doesn’t mean they are connected with your organization. Great relationships lead to very large gifts, while donor lists lead to average gifts. Rarely will donors surprise you with their generosity unless they really feel a connection with the organization, its mission, and its people. Consequently, the number and significance of pleasant surprises reveal the quality of an organization’s relationships.

THE CONVERSATION: “Hello, my name is Eddie. I would love to set up a time to tell you about some exciting things that are happening at our organization!”


Conversation Idea #1: Make the Donor Feel Like a Member of the Inner Circle

Conversation Idea #2. Balance Out the Non-Appeal and Appeal Conversations

Conversation Idea #3. Discover Details About Donor Giving Frequency and Habits

Conversation Idea #4. Uncover the Deepest Motivations About Their Giving

Conversation Idea #5. What is it that validates each donor’s decision to give — a qualitative or a quantitative report?

Conversation Idea #6. Look for the First Donor Surprise and Follow up ASAP!


Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

Copyright 2013, R. Edward Thompson