If you only had time to spend with just one donor, who would it be?

I bet you immediately thought about your top donor – the person who gives the most to your nonprofit.

If so, you’re about average. You’re just like everyone else who understands the 80/20 rule and how time should be spent with donors capable of making the biggest gifts (in other words, your major donors).

What about everyone else? Don’t their gifts matter? Won’t some of them eventually become major donors, too?

There’s a HUGE inequality in how we treat our donors.


The Inequality of Attention

People who have historically given the biggest donations get all the attention. Other donors get scraps of your time, if anything. I call this the Inequality of Attention and it’s rampant across the nonprofit sector.

It’s born out of the notion that major donors deserve the most time so that they feel adequately appreciated. There’s nothing wrong with that. Except that most people get so focused on their major donor cultivation that they almost ignore the rest of their donors.

I believe this is the root cause of the huge donor retention problem we’re seeing. This is what’s causing people to give once or twice then move on to another nonprofit.

Every dollar counts, doesn’t it? Doesn’t every gift matter? major donor cultivation

It certainly does when you’re looking at the budget. When you need money to keep the lights on, every bit is important. But when it comes to building relationships, there’s a definite inequality.

Let me tell you about Carol.

Carol is retired, a widow, and living on a fixed income. She’s given $50 to you every year for the past 5 years. She cares deeply about your cause. But unless she’s left you a big gift in her will, you’ll probably never realize the level of her commitment.

The problem is that she’s flying under your radar.

She may have way more that she could bring to the table if she just felt a little more connected to your organization. She might be the best volunteer you ever had or have strong connections with people who could make game-changing donations.

Doesn’t she deserve the same level of respect and gratitude as the person who gives $5,000 a year? Shouldn’t she get the same kind of appreciation and feel just as valued as your major donors?

Most people doing fundraising are too busy to care. Or too busy to take the time to think through the things they can do to make a meaningful difference to each and every donor, especially those like Carol.

There have been many times that I have made significant gifts to nonprofits. Okay, they were significant gifts to me. Many were stretch gifts to causes that I whole-heartedly believed in. And nearly every time, I was disappointed when I barely got any thanks at all for my contribution. No recognition. No engagement. No deposits in the emotional bank account. I was just one of hundreds, and I felt it loud and clear.

Why do you think some people believe their gift won’t matter? It’s because they haven’t received any reason to think they DO matter.

Guess whose job it is to help them feel good about their donation and believe that they matter?

Yep. You.

If you don’t do something, who will? I know for a fact that if you don’t help them feel good about their experience of giving to your nonprofit, they’ll move on to the next nonprofit that looks interesting.


Giving is an emotional act.

The first gift is given in response to an emotional stirring someone feels. And it’s a test. If you pass, they’ll give again. If you fail, they’re gone.

People need to feel good about their experience with you. They need confirmation that they made the right decision to give your nonprofit money. They need to believe your nonprofit is trustworthy.

And it’s your job, nonprofit fundraiser, to help them get and keep those feelings.

Otherwise, they’ll go find another nonprofit that seems like they’re trustworthy, doing good work, and worthy of a donation.

With limited time in the day, the question becomes how do you give people a good experience and help them feel good about giving when you have to do it on a mass scale? How do you build trust when you’re not working one-on-one but one-to-many?

Donor retention numbers are horrible. If you’re keeping 30% of your donors from one year to the next, that’s considered good. (I think it’s horrible!)

Donor acquisition is expensive. Most nonprofits lose money trying to bring new donors on board.

Doesn’t it make more sense to spend time loving on current donors to keep them from leaving? Isn’t it much more efficient to slow down long enough to create a strategy for communication that strengthens the relationship and gives our donors a sense of confidence in us?

I think it does. I believe if you do what it takes to increase the positive feelings a donor has about their interaction with you, you’ll see a significant increase in retention and in total giving.


ICAN formula

Whose job is it to build relationships with all donors, including major donors? Yours.

Can it be done one-to-many? Yes, it can.

Think about the last time you saw a commercial on TV or a video online that moved you so much you cried. It wasn’t done in a one-to-one format, was it? It was done one-to-many. It was created to give you the viewer a particular experience, then shared in a mass way. It was created with a single person in mind, and the emotional impact was likely felt by you and everyone else who saw it.

You can do this, too. You can give ALL your donors the experience of feeling valued and wanted, without getting face-to-face with every single one.

It takes strategy, planning, and a true understanding of your donors’ needs and wants. It takes time and some thought.

Let me give you a good starting place.

Here are four steps you can take to strengthen the bond, build trust, and ultimately keep people giving longer. All of these can be done one-to-many, and they will require you to slow down long enough to really plan everything out. Good relationships are never built in a hurry. They require thoughtfulness and effort.

Inspire. People need to feel something before they will give. Chances are good your nonprofit is doing amazing, heart-warming work. You’re changing lives (maybe even saving them) and if your nonprofit ceased to exist, it would leave a huge void.

So, share your story. Tell your supporters about the woman who couldn’t get to her kidney dialysis appointments if it weren’t for your transportation program. Talk about the 16-year old who would never learn how to hold down a job if it weren’t for your job skills training program. Share the struggle of a family living in squalor and what it means to them to have a shot at owning their own home. Talk more about why your nonprofit does what it does and less about how it gets done.

major donor cultivation

Confidence. People need to feel confident that your nonprofit can do the work you’re trying to do, that you can manage the money they give you, and that your people are trustworthy.

So, build confidence for your donor. This is not the time for an ego trip about how great and wonderful your nonprofit is. Trust is built is quieter ways. It’s built in openness. Ask people over for a tour. Invite donors to sit in on your Board meetings. Offer to share your financial statements. Give them the phone number and/or email of a specific staff person they can reach out to if they have ANY questions.

Openness builds trust and confidence. Show your supporters you have nothing to hide and everything to share.

Action. The more people get involved with you, the more connected they’ll feel. So, invite them to take action. When people volunteer and see first-hand the work your nonprofit is doing, they will start to see themselves as a part of the team. Listen for the pronouns to change – they’ll start saying “we could…” instead of “you should…”

Give people the opportunity to get involved. Offer plenty of ways they can volunteer that fit into their busy schedule. Invite them to serve on a committee if that interests them.

Invite them to take action that’s worth taking. Think about how millions of people jumped on board with the Ice Bucket Challenge this summer. It was something they could do and it was fun.

Not everyone will take you up on the chance to get more involved, but they’ll remember that you offered. It’s important and it builds trust.

Nurture. In order for relationships to grow, they must be nurtured. And nurturing is your job. You’re in charge of the care and feeding of your donors. It’s up to you to engage them and draw them closer.

Nurturing doesn’t happen by chance, and it’ll never happen when you’re operating in reactive mode. Create a plan for staying in touch with your donors and keeping them in the loop about the outcomes your programs are getting.


It’s time to stop ignoring donors.

You can engage people through newsletters and social media. You can help donors feel good about their experience through acknowledgment and stewardship.

It takes a conscious decision to do it, followed by a thoughtful plan of action.

Should your major donors get all the love? Nah, you’ve got enough for everyone. Spread that stuff around.