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  • Debra A. Gill

Donors are the Best Teachers

Learning from those who give.


I’ve learned a great deal from my peers in the fund raising industry but the best teachers I’ve had over the past 36 years have been my donors.

Have a drink ready when the guests arrive. This isn’t about getting people liquored up, it is about making them immediately comfortable. And it doesn’t just apply to beverages but readily accessible snacks, easy to find coat racks, restrooms, appropriate music, and other necessities that put people at ease at events – large and small. (JT)

Say thank you immediately with a personal phone call. Nothing is more impactful than picking up the phone and thanking a donor for a gift – of any amount – just received. First, donors like being called when we aren’t asking for money. Secondly, the courtesy of confirming the gift was received solidifies our gratitude and paves the way for the next contribution. A bonus is having the opportunity to visit with your donors, discovering the inspiration behind the gift, and perhaps parlaying the conversation into a face-to-face meeting. Importantly, call your donor by the name they want to be called, in person and in writing, noting that some prefer a formal title and some their first name. (GM)

Don’t forget the donors who give the most often, even if they don’t give the most. Because of our perpetual quest to raise more funds and increase the size of gifts received, it isn’t uncommon to lose sight of those who have helped sustain our organizations with consistent, if not transformational, support. It is essential that we nurture gifts of all sizes and the donors who make them. Properly stewarded, one day these donors may be the source of our largest estate gifts and we all know the adage – it is much easier to keep an existing donor than to find a new one. (JR)

Take the time to visit. We’re all tremendously busy these days and it is easy to feel that we just can’t take the time to sit down for an entire focused conversation with a donor – particularly those who have a lot of time on their hands. Since our job is a relationship job, no amount of time visiting is too much time if that’s what pleases the donor. Getting out of the office and face-to-face with our donors is the most important aspect of our work. (ES)

You’ll never know unless you ask. The number one reason donors don’t give is … because they aren’t asked. I once made a significant 7-figure ask of a donor and her response was to smile and say, “well you’ll never know unless you ask.” While she didn’t give as much as she was asked for, she gave an enormous gift and there is no way she would have stretched to that level if I hadn’t been bold with my invitation. (ML)

Ask donors for advice. Most donors really value being asked for their opinions. Seeking input on funding priorities, positioning, creative recognition, event enhancements, and the like helps donors feel like they are part of your organization, which they are. Some of the best ideas that I’ve implemented over the years were inspired by discovery conversations with donors, helping to refine messaging and customize programs to entice participation. (SH)

Let me decide if I want to give. Just because a donor has given to another organization doesn’t mean they won’t give to yours. You may find out that one of your lead prosects just made a lead gift to a different charity. Don’t panic. Review and refresh your strategy and move forward – let the donor decide if they want to make the gift. The surest way to get a no is not to ask. (WH)


Thank you for paying attention. As we get to know our donors, we will learn all kinds of things about them that should be noted in their donor record and incorporated into their approach strategy. Dietary and music preferences, ideal meeting location, interests and involvement, familial situations and other personal details are all essential to creating a customized and thoughtful donor experience. (KG)

Keep former board members informed and involved. Board members give of their time, talent, and treasure. They attend meetings, respond to requests for assistance, and ideally, serve as impactful Ambassadors, Advocates, and Askers for our organizations. When their terms are complete, don’t forget about them. Keep them engaged with at least one annual activity that updates them on your activities, introduces them to current leaders, and seeks their input. Loyal board members are hard to come by and those who feel “dropped” after their service lead to missed opportunities. (LZ)

These are just a few of the tidbits of wisdom I’ve collected over the years. Being an active and observant listener can create a deeper connection with the humans who sustain our organizations. All we must do is pay attention.


Alliance Philanthropy’s philosophy is to inspire staff, volunteers, and board members for all types of not-for-profit organizations to raise funds enthusiastically and passionately - at maximum levels - in support of their missions.

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