The 3 Things Your Donors Really Want

The season of giving and receiving is here.

Instead of wrapped gifts and glad tidings, however, let’s reflect on the season in a way that speaks to our business. The reciprocal nature of giving and receiving with donors, of building relationships with them that last throughout every season and through the years.

The Fundraising Effectiveness Project reported that while overall donor giving increased 2 percent from 2016 to 2017, donor retention was a cool 45.5 percent. Meaning, more people are giving—but we’re losing more than half of them from one year to the next. Many do not come back to deepen their commitment.

Not quite the gift of the season you wanted to hear?

Here’s good news: Turning that statistic around begins, in part, with you. The first step deserves reflection (about ourselves and our true objectives in fundraising) and then connection (how we build community with our donors).


“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Change begins with one slight alteration in perspective in how we carry ourselves and interact with others. These four qualities serve us well in any endeavor but especially in building donor relationships.

Work with intention: The work you do is important, literally lifesaving in some cases. When you’re feeling weary with work demands, make “work with intention” your mantra, the driving force behind your pursuits.

Respect others: Be kind and respectful to others—even in moments that call for extra assertiveness on your part—and remember that people work, feel and react from very different perspectives. Choose to see an issue from their side, and be open to their words instead of being defensive, or silently figuring out how you’re going to one up them. Working together might yield an unexpected but better solution.

Feel gratitude: Even in the muck of deadlines, proposals and things that can go wrong, things go right. Instead of dwelling in the muck, step out of it and walk into the good. Besides, showing gratitude for other people’s efforts could win you new friends/donors, according to a study in Emotion. Read more about the proven benefits of gratitude to encourage this habit.

Be human: We all make mistakes. Own up to them when they happen. And ask for help when you need it. No one likes to work with a know-it-all anyway.


“We’re all in this together.”

This simple phrase can reshape how you work.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though. Numbers and year-end goals will likely remain top barometers of our annual fundraising “success.” We need them to help solidify why we work with intention.

But when you flip off the numbers and slow down with donors, you’ll find you’re more apt to develop relationships that build a sense of solidarity, or shared intention of invested people. A community. You’ll also make longer-term gains than if you simply viewed donors in terms of transactions and numbers.

KEY THOUGHT: Think development (relational), not just fundraising (transactional). Legacy partners, not one-time donors. It might initially take longer with a relational approach—don’t panic. You’ll see the dividends of patience in years to come.

What donors ultimately want is:

1. To feel appreciated and valued

2. To know that they are worth more than their money

3. To see that their money made an impact

Despite all our methodologies, databases and other tools for success, it boils down to the essence of human nature: We crave community—something to belong to—and want to feel valued for who we are, not what we have. Developing those feelings, that authentic loyalty in donors, doesn’t come from hasty or premature discussions about gift planning.

How you form real, true trust and donor relationships begins with these thoughts:

Give them what they want. Some donors desire one-on-one time with you, or want the facility tour or to speak with a board member or your ED. Others may strike a more low-key approach. Whatever their motivations and desires, meet them where they are, and consider what stage they’re in in the gift process as well as what motivates them to care. Hone your relationship radar to sense when they want more or when you need to pull back with appeals or contacts.

Give them a story they can believe in with all their heart. Make it, of course, a real story grounded in facts, based on quantifiable success (how many people served, how many students awarded scholarships, for example). But whenever appropriate, tell the story through the people, because when we see a face, we connect to the place. Faces also foster community—the sense that we truly are all in this together.

Give them tangible evidence of success. Again, human nature: We want to know that we’re making a difference in the world. Show and tell donors through newsletters, annual reports, accreditations and testimonials, or other endorsements from respected figures in your cause.

Last little thought about the importance of the little things: Both my mom and dad would also say to us kids, “The details are what make the difference.” Look donors in the eye when you shake hands and as you’re talking. And please, put your phone out of sight and your to-do’s out of mind during meetings to give donors your undivided attention.

After all, what you give is what receive.

BONUS: Developing deeper donor relationships enables you to build targeted, effective donor lists and solicitations. Find out how we help clients strengthen donor solicitations and develop targeted mini marketing campaigns in “A Planned Giving Conversation Between Brothers.”

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