Want to Reach Peak Performance in Fundraising?


For every person making a gift to a charity, there is someone who quits giving. With the average industry retention rate at a dismal 45%, it appears only an elite bunch have found the winning formula for success in fundraising.  Experts tell us if we focus on renewing support from existing supporters, we will reduce our one gift wonders and more money will be raised long term.

What is keeping us from getting that second gift?

Here are a few common reasons I have heard.


We can’t raise more money because….

Of the person we hired

Of the person we can’t hire

Our board doesn’t care

Our board is too hands on

I can’t talk to the board

We don’t have time

I am too busy running programs to fundraise

Fundraising is fundamentally about relationship building. So, while some of the blame can be attributed to the reasons above, most charities can’t raise more because they have forgotten what it means to be a friend. At the root of our donor retention problem is the ongoing violation of a simple ideal – we can’t continue to ask friends for something every time we see them or they will no longer be our friend!!

Charities work hard every day to save the world, and yet they stink at friendship. If charities spent less time focused on the need for money and more time acknowledging donors as friends to the organization, the money would come.

At the heart of any friendship is communication and mutual interest. A donor conveys interest when they send in that first gift. Like a new friendship, it starts small and grows over time, but only if it is honored. In my experience, I have seen gifts grow from $25 to $250,000 with a small nudge from acknowledgement. Tragically, cash strapped charities fail miserably at the most fundamental requirement for friendship, communication. This turns these donors into one gift wonders.

If charities spent less time thinking about money and more time thinking about their donors, the money would come.

In her book, Donor-Centered Fundraising, Penelope Burke shares ten real and familiar reasons charity leaders avoid communicating with donors, check it out and see if something resonates with you and your organization. The lack of communication is most likely the real saboteur to your success.

Ten Reasons Charity Leaders Avoid Communicating with Donors


#1 We Don’t Really Want to Hear from Our Donors

Donors want to hear from us. Penelope’s findings suggest that nearly all individuals and corporate donors never receive contacts just to keep in touch. Want to stand out from the crowd? Reach out and say hello and don’t ask for anything.

#2 We Don’t Want/Like to Talk to Strangers

If a person takes out their credit card or writes a check of their own free will, it is a gesture of care. This person is telling you they are aligned with your mission and should not be viewed as a stranger.

#3 They Will Think We Want More Money

If you never reach out in a personal way or share impacts of giving then of course, they have good reason to think you just want more money. Donors are blown away when charities call and don’t ask for money. They love it. There is no such thing as thanking fatigue.

#4 We Feel Overwhelmed By the Number of Donors

It is a nice problem to have too many friends. Fundraising is a team sport and you must divide and conquer or you stand to lose your friends (along with the support for your mission).

#5 We Don’t Know What Will Happen?

Are you ready for this? Penelope’s study indicated 93% said they would “definitely” or “probably” increase the size of their gift. By not communicating with your supporters, you leave money on the table.

#6 They Will Come to Expect It

Oh, sort of like how the charity has come to expect donors to give year after year and has never taken time to share impact? It is good to remember, we reap what we sow, and nonprofit organizations are not exempt from this universal phenomenon.

#7 Thank You Calls Take Us Away from Our “Important” Work

Collectively donors are paying our salaries and keeping the lights on. Communicating and sharing impact should be viewed as mandatory.

#8 We Need Support from Those Outside Development

This one can be heard from development folks in larger organizations where the silo effect is all too common. The last I checked, fundraising is about relationship building. Now that we are all working from home, reach out and Zoom with that program service colleague or data/outcome manager who can help.

#9 We Can Only Ask for Money

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I had a CEO once say to my face “If a donor can’t give us $5,000 we want nothing to do with them.” This egotistical, transaction based approach will get you nothing but the steady churn and burn of donors and fundraising staff.

#10 We Don’t Have Enough Staff to Provide Personalized Communication

One year, I decided to thank every $5,000 donor with a hand written card. It took me half a day to get it done and not only did my hand hurt, I was given sideways looks by leaders in finance and programs for spending the time. When I consider what a $5,000 gift can do, the least a charity can do is to send a holiday card. It is time to change your paradigm, donor communication should be viewed as essential as filling taxes.

If your charity is not actively communicating with its supporters, it doesn’t mean a message isn’t being sent. If you are serious about correcting your ways, begin to filter your decisions to ask for the next gift using affirmative answers to the following questions

Have we honored the past gift beyond a basic acknowledgment letter?

Have we shared the impact of our solution and their gift?

What more do we know about them? Have we connected in a personal way?

Have we done our part? Do we have the right to ask again?

Quit wondering how to improve fundraising, talk to your donors, honor their current giving and the funding will come.

Burk, Penelope. (2003). Donor-centered fundraising : how to hold on to your donors and raise much more money. Chicago, IL :Cygnus Applied Research

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