Bring your donors into the life of your organization is a dictum at the heart of American Philanthropic’s approach to relationship fundraising. We say this not because it is the most efficacious means of increasing the lifetime giving value of your donors, even though it is. No. We say it because when someone gives a gift of money to your organization, it represents more than a mere financial transaction. It embodies a belief in your mission—what you intend to do—and trust that you’ll do it as you’ve represented it. In other words, a gift is an act of faith propelled by motivations as varied as the individuals who make the contribution.

Organizations that respond to this distinctly human act in a relational rather than transactional way, honor the nature of the gift and the donor. We encourage fundraisers, therefore, to think hard about the ways that they can uniquely recognize the sentiment and individual behind the gift rather than only the monetary value of the transaction, especially as their organizations scale and as digital giving makes interactions more impersonal and less humane. If the only thing a donor receives from your organization after making a gift is a computer-generated, IRS-approved gift acknowledgment receipt, your organization may be communicating—often unwittingly—that it’s not worthy of the gift. It also undermines future fundraising prospects—big time.


Bringing donors into the life of your organization is, of course, a two-way street. Donors must be open to the possibility of learning more about the charities or causes that they support. As it turns out, studies show that the overwhelming majority of them are open to that relationship when you acknowledge, include, and involve them. In fact, problems usually begin when donors feel like they are left out of your organization or taken for granted, when they’re kept in the dark, or when their gift becomes an expectation—a transaction to help round out the year-end budget. I’ve never known a donor who does not want to know more about the work, the people, and the mission that their contribution supports.

I learned about the importance of getting donors involved in the life of your organization not only as a fundraiser but also as a donor. When I was the president of a charitable foundation in Santa Barbara, California, one of our primary goals was to increase graduation rates for Certified Nurses Aid programs among the state’s community colleges. When we began supporting these programs, we (like most foundations) wrote checks on our terms, supporting things like scholarships that we thought would assist students. Everyone seemed satisfied with the grants and reports from the schools indicated great enthusiasm and gratitude for our funding. But graduation rates showed little improvement.


It took us years of actually being involved in the programs, visiting schools, getting to know the faculty, leadership, and the students themselves to understand why graduation rates were not improving and why our grants weren’t helping. Once we emerged from the hollow ramparts of our online portal and grantmaking “best practices,” our long, informal, and often seemingly superfluous conversations, paid off.

Slowly, we learned that students who enrolled in CNA programs often experienced “trivial” financial hardships stemming from a flat tire, a sick babysitter, and so on—and that resulted in their missing school and, subsequently, being dropped from the program. A forty-dollar flat tire repair may be inconsequential to some. But for many of the students enrolled in the CNA program, it could wreak havoc on their finances and cause untold damage to their long-term prospects. And most students didn’t like to talk about their financial hardships. They’d learned that lack of economic wellbeing in America is often regarded as a character or moral flaw, something to be ashamed of. That’s why stubbornly low graduation rates weren’t correlated with the reality on the ground. It took being involved in the program in a time-consuming, personal, and humane way to discover this.

Once we understood the problem, it was easily remedied by making an off-the-record grant that didn’t go through the official and bureaucratic college channels and that could be used at the discretion of the nursing school’s director to support students in ad-hoc financial crisis. To be effective, it had to be done sub rosa and without administrative oversight so that needs could be met on demand—by making a call to the nursing director—without having to go online and fill out a form and wait to get approval. A relatively small grant targeted at the actual problem did more to improve graduation rates and the lives of students than the “big” institutional grants that had started our giving and that were the subject of press releases and photo opportunities.


Only by being involved in the life of the schools and the people who populated and administered them, were we able to understand how our giving could actually be helpful and make a real difference. And we never would have learned this sitting behind our computers processing grant applications and reports through our digital grantmaking portal, analyzing IRS 990 forms, or by scanning Charity Navigator. To give meaningfully we had to be meaningfully involved in our giving. We had to involve ourselves in the lives of the organizations and people that we supported.

COVID-19 has provided organizations with the opportunity to settle for a transactional approach to fundraising: after all, in-person events, site visits, and casual meetings are not possible in most places. It is important to resist this temptation and try to discover ways to welcome and bring your donors into the important work your organization is doing: to understand the individual motivations and aspirations behind each individual’s gift and recognize and honor them. For many organizations, this begins with a simple phone call. Likewise, donors and charitable foundations alike will discover greater effectiveness in their giving by answering the telephone when their grantees and would-be grantees call.

If you'd like to learn more about engaging grantmaking foundations, join Jeff Cain, along with American Philanthropic's managing consulting for writing and communications, Iain Bernhoft, for an "In the Trenches" master class on Thursday, March 11th from 1:00-4:00 Eastern. Register here and use the code CIVILSOCIETY for a 20% discount!