Out of the mouths of donors

The following list of dos and don’ts for working with major donors comes complements three couples whose generosity is legend within Anabaptist circles. When they speak, fundraisers listen. And speak they did at a recent Mennonite Foundation-sponsored conference on fundraising. Here’s my summary of their heartfelt and helpful advice.


  • respect their time and schedules. Be clear about the purpose of your visit. Chit-chat is great, but there’s got to be more.
  • take time to build relationships. It’s not just about the money. Donors are people, too. Wealth tends to marginalize and theirs can be a lonely life.
  • be honest and transparent, especially when a project doesn’t work out as hoped. Get back to donors ASAP with an explanation.
  • help donors uncover their passions. Folks new to being able to give big may not yet know their own hearts.
  • narrow the approach to a short list of projects. A donor call isn’t a fishing expedition. A targeted ask shows you’ve listened during past visits and have returned with giving opportunities that fit their profile.
  • offer opportunities for donors to see the results of their generosity. Reports and photos are great, but when it comes to grabbing a donor’s heart, there’s nothing like a close encounter with a hoped for outcome.
  • show grace for different ways of looking at life. Recognize that not-for-profit and for-profit folks don’t always run on the same track
  • make sure your numbers add up. Most major donors are good at math, so be careful in explaining project costs.  


  • try to change their minds. It won’t work. It will annoy.
  • assume ongoing support. A presumptive attitude is a real turn off. That first-time gift may lead to subsequent gifts, but not always. Sometimes a one-time gift is just that – one time.
  • try to take the relationship with you to a new job. It’s confusing when last year you sang the praises of one cause and now you’re back representing a “new love.” It makes you look fickle — and unethical.
  • project a pseudo-relationship. It’s great to express gratefulness, but tamp down the gushing and groveling.
  • come with too great expectations. Respect that donors are likely supporting many causes at one time. Unless you’re dealing with a Gates or Buffet, there are limits to what most people can give each year.
  • push for a quick decision. If your organization needs the money today, you should have asked several months ago. Last minute appeals communicate poor planning on the part of the organization.


  1. Rebekah provided lots of great wisdom and advice in this article. Ignore it to your own peril – – embrace it for profitable results and positive relationships.

  2. These are great. As a former Major Gifts officer, I can certainly underscore the last “Don’t”. Pushing for a quick decision is counter-productive! What is the old adage about the number of zeros in a desired ask amount & the correlating number of personal visits it may take to move the gift discussion there? Turns out that’s pretty accurate, in my experience.

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