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In a recent article, Theodore Wagenaar offers a donor’s perspective on giving. Fundraisers would do well to take heed.

Listening to what your donors have to say and how they like to be treated might actually make you a better fundraiser.

Oftentimes, donors prove the truth of G.K. Chesterton’s famous line in Orthodoxy: “thou shalt not know thyself.” For instance, donors tell fundraisers how they want to be communicated with, only for their behavior to prove these claims demonstrably false.

That is why we need to listen to donors carefully but also remember that actual self-knowledge is rare.

Sometimes, however, donors have helpful feedback, and their advice should be heeded. In a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article, Theodore Wagenaar shares his thoughts on why the 2022 Giving USA report showed a steep decline in giving: “I believe more nonprofits need to listen to what individual donors like me say they need.”

Mr. Wagenaar has horror stories of donors unthanked, inquiries unanswered, and more. Some of the organizations he supports certainly have not stewarded his generosity well.

But let’s not focus on the negative here. What is Mr. Wagenaar’s advice to fundraisers?


1. Focus on many gifts instead of, or in addition to, megagifts.

Batting 1.000 so far, Mr. Wagenaar is right on point. While harpooning a whale will no doubt be a boon to your fundraising, relying on that tactic is not a sustainable strategy. Not only will you neglect your small-dollar and mid-level donors, to Mr. Wagenaar’s point, you’ll end up with an extremely fragile revenue source should your “strategy” succeed. Ask yourself, if your largest donor backed out right now, what would the result be? Total catastrophe? Would you make it through the year? Stave off this possibility by building a robust donor pyramid, with a strong foundation of low-dollar and mid-level donors, and yes, a few big fish.


2. Focus on the long game.

Mr. Wagenaar goes two for two. Planned giving matters! And, to my first point, the most likely person to make a planned gift to your organization is not the wealthiest person but rather the person who has been giving to you the longest. So, take the time to communicate with and cultivate all of your donors. You never know which one of them is poised to write you into their will.


3. Get to know your donors.

Mr. Wagenaar writes, “Find out about their lives, their backgrounds, and what drives their passion. Do more listening than talking.” As an MGO, if you do most of the talking in your donor meetings, you are doing it wrong. Mr. Wagenaar’s advice is spot on. You need to get to know your donors to help advance their mission and yours! After all, as fundraisers, this is what we do. As my colleague Austin Detwiler put it, “when we are fundraising, we are trying to show people that we share their patterns of thinking.” In order to do this, we need to know donors’ patterns of thinking. Get to know your donors.


4. Respond promptly.

Mr. Wagenaar emphasizes, “Most of the donation receipts I get take at least a month to arrive, and some take more than two months. Acknowledge the gift by email the day it’s received, so donors don’t worry about post-office delays. The official receipts can come later.”

If you have ever waited more than a day to acknowledge and thank a donor, you are not alone but you need to stop. Frankly, it’s as simple as setting up an automated email to make sure that thank you always happens. And, for gifts in a fundraiser’s portfolio, a database report should be delivered by email at the end of each day for gifts made that day. Thank those folks before you leave the office every day.


5. Issue correct, detailed receipts.

I really hope this isn’t a problem you have. If it is, get it under control. These things matter. Your error is not only problematic for your donor, it will also cause a donor to lose trust in your organization.


6. Limit, or find alternatives to, galas.

Mr. Wagenaar writes, “Galas have their place but tend to highlight the social divide between your donors and clients.” On this point, I will give some pushback. Mr. Wagenaar is particularly interested in organizations helping underprivileged youth. So, for his interests, this makes sense. If you are a poverty alleviation organization throwing black-tie galas, I could see how that could be a bad look. That being said, you as a fundraiser need to ask yourself, for any event: What is the purpose of this event? Are you trying to raise funds? Is it an opportunity to bring people together? Is it programmatically oriented?

If your goal is to raise money, which is at least the stated purpose of many galas, you should actually make money on the event and communicate that win to donors. I imagine that if an organization told Mr. Wagenaar that their black-tie event raised $1,000,000 over and above the costs of the event, a figure that pays for X, Y, and Z programs, he’d have no issue with the event at all.


7. Be transparent about where donations go.

This boils down to good communication with your donors. Prepare a compelling and nicely designed proposal for your donors that explains how their money will be used. Prepare impact reports for your donors at a cadence that is helpful to them. Stay in touch with them on a regular basis to keep them connected to the your organization’s work.

That might sound like a lot of work, but these sorts of reports can and should be templatized, while leaving room to customize the content to fit a particular donor’s interests. If you prepare donor plans and stewardship templates at the beginning of each year, you can maintain regular, personalized communication throughout the year in an organized, systematized way.


Mr. Wagenaar’s advice in this piece provides wonderful insight into how to retain and upgrade your current donors. It’s not every day that a donor tells you what they want and means it. Fundraisers should perk up their ears and use this advice to inform how they communicate with their donors.

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