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6 Ways Donor Relations Can Impact Major Gifts

I hope you enjoy this brilliant guest post by my friend and fellow fundraising professional, Colton Withers.

Donor relations professionals are loyal, passionate about their work, and ardent advocates for all donors, be they annual fund donors or major gift donors. That said, in my experience as a donor relations professional turned major gift fundraiser, I've learned they are not always the best at making a case for their incredibly vital work.

In asking donor relations professionals “why do we have a donor relations program?” or “why should we invest in additional FTE donor relations staff?”, you’ll likely hear “because it’s the right thing to do,” “our donors deserve the very best,”or maybe “loyal and happy donors today are major gift donors tomorrow.” All of which are true…but not very compelling in today’s increasingly metrics-driven fundraising landscape.

For those of you who don’t carry a portfolio and/or have senior management who have forgotten what it’s like to work in the trenches, listed below are some ways in which donor relations work directly influences major gift work. Instead of citing incredibly true but idealistic rationale for building your donor relations program, try some of these instead:

  1. Donors will ALWAYS ask me about their endowment reports. Nothing derails a well-scripted major gift ask faster than questions like “Why is there a balance left in the support account?” and “If you aren’t spending the money I’ve given you, why do you need more?” How much is that endowment report worth? The next major gift being asked of that donor.

  2. If they’re on a board, they probably know the ask is coming, but they expect and deserve a rich, impactful experience. Nobody gave a major gift solely because they sat on a board. Conversely, resentment can build with donors who feel like the only reason they are on a board is their checkbook. Make sure you keep these folks engaged and feeling useful, no matter how hard and professionally trying that can be at times.

  3. They will let me know about the time that their gift was improperly allocated. Even if it was 10 years ago. Major gift fundraisers hear about these errors when a six-figure proposal is on the table. To re-tool a well-known idiom, “the ‘yes’ is in the details.” Donor relations professionals are the keepers of these fine details. Is it John, Johnny, or Jack? See below.

  4. They will call me fuming about their mis-spelled name or their improperly addressed letter. FUMING. Or worse yet, throw away a beautiful, carefully articulated solicitation without reading it. No gift made at all. Database friends, you are our only hope *cue Princess Leia/General Organa meme*. Your work may be the most vital in any fundraising shop. We hear you, we see you, and we love you.

  5. They want and deserve a personalized donor experience. If they don’t have to fill out their name and address on a yearly solicitation, they’ll have more time to think about increasing their gift, right?! Maybe, maybe not. But donors who feel “known and loved” by your organization will feel more like part of your family, which definitely plays a role in major gift success. Pre-populated forms, personalized URLs (PURLS), coding preferences (of all kind) into the database, and addressing them as their closest friends address them all bring the donor deeper into the fold and increases the chances of a major gift proposal being accepted.

  6. They are going to feel donor fatigue more acutely and sooner than I think. As Lynne points out, donors need to be thanked SEVEN times for making a gift. Seven displays of gratitude before another ask can be made successfully. A major gift in this campaign (in a world where you are either in a campaign or preparing for the next one) is dependent upon the stewardship of the last campaign gift. Donor relations professionals are purveyors of gratitude and can stop donor fatigue dead in its tracks.

Donor relations is a value-adding mindset that impacts absolutely every part of your fundraising operation. It’s an investment that will pay the highest dividends. You’re the fixer. The keeper of little details that add up. When speaking about your work, be proud in knowing that you are adding value to your organization and not “just writing thank you notes” for the sake of writing them. Major gift fundraisers should love, honor, and appreciate your work. Tell them I told you so!

With gratitude,

Colton Withers, CFRE

Director of Development

Purdue Foundation


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