Knowing Your Donor is Critical to Securing Donations

It took me about six months to learn one critical thing in fundraising:

Knowing the donor is critical to securing a sizable donation. 

Unfortunately I learned this the hard way. I joined a non-profit as Executive Director and was thrown (literally) into the world of fundraising. I had limited fundraising experience, and no relationship with the non-profit’s donor base. So, I did what any logical person probably would have done—I introduced myself, laid out my vision, and asked the donors to keep on giving.

I eventually had time to do some research on who our donors were, and whether we were challenging them effectively with our solicitations. I discovered one donor who’d been giving $250 annually for YEARS actually had the capacity to give much more. He was a wealthy business owner in Chicago, and also connected to others that I hoped would become donors further down the road. So, I set up a personal meeting with him, laid out my vision for the next two years, and asked him for a $25,000 donation toward our building capital campaign.

What I expected to be an easy meeting quickly turned sour. He gave me a litany of reasons he didn’t believe in supporting buildings and made it clear he was only interested in funding programs for inner city youth. I sat there stone faced and listened. Then he told me directly: “If you improve the program you’re currently offering, I will increase what I give.

If I had known this man didn’t support building projects, I would have approached this conversation differently. Long story short–the meeting ended with him declining my $25,000 ask, but instead contributing an amount that was considerably less.

I didn’t leave it there. After I recovered from what felt like a humiliating experience, I spent the next six months targeting the messages he received to highlight ways our program had improved. I focused on new additions to the program, and testimonials from our program’s participants–telling how the program had impacted them. I also kept asking for his support so that we could continue the path of improving our program, and identified specific ways we planned to do that.

I didn’t hear from him again–my messages were sent via email and snail mail, but I kept making sure he heard from us—at least on a monthly or 6-week basis. About nine months after our initial meeting, he sent me a $20,000 donation. Not the $25,000 I’d originally asked for, but a $20,000 contribution was still a considerable amount.

This experience taught me the importance of researching donors. Don’t assume people will give toward whatever you ask for. Learn where their passions lie and what they feel strongly about. Doing this could have saved me an embarrassing meeting—and maybe I would have secured that larger donation several months earlier. Nevertheless, the lesson I gained from it was invaluable.

Listen to your donors. Learn their passions. Ask what they support, and research the amount you should ask for so that you’re challenging them appropriately. I told you that this donor had been giving $250 annually for YEARS. If I hadn’t researched him–and solicited the larger gift–he could have easily stayed at the $250 level.

Do your homework before you make the ask.