Generous giving to a school does not happen by accident or only to schools fortunate enough to be located in wealthy communities. Philanthropy happens when passionate people are invited to connect with a noble cause that they care about in a meaningful way, by someone they know, like, trust, and respect. The secret ingredient here is that the relationship with the donor begins by knowing, liking, trusting, and respecting them first. This requires a certain amount of effort on the part the school leader, development officer, board member, or volunteer who is cultivating the donor relationship.
In an effort to protect our children, we teach them not to speak with strangers, and never to accept gifts from someone they do not know. We have been taught this same important lesson ourselves. Yet once we are thrust into a fundraising role, we are suddenly looking for strangers to speak with about giving money, because asking people we know is just too awkward, too difficult, or too frightening.
One of the reasons that fundraising is difficult is that we misunderstand our role in the process. Our responsibilities are information and education, inspiration, invitation, and involvement. It is not our responsibility to make people give. That decision is between the donor, their family, their private beliefs about giving, and sometimes their financial advisor, but not about the fundraiser. Philanthropy is about interest, generosity, and giving to make a difference. Trying to make someone give when they are not familiar with the cause, don’t understand the cause, don’t know why it’s important, or don’t care about the outcome is more like an institutional mugging than a partnership to do good. Understanding these distinct differences is one of the first steps to building a plan for donor engagement and a culture of generosity at your school.
Who Are Our Donors?
Understanding who is being asked to invest in the future of your school is an important step in developing plans for the future. Donor development begins with those who are closest to the mission of the organization, care most about its success, and have a capacity and desire to invest in its future. They are not strangers. In a school, those closest to the mission are often board members, school administrators, faculty and staff, parents, grandparents, alumni, alumni parents, and local community members. The order of this list is intentional. Those who lead, give first. This is not about an amount of money, but rather about a demonstrated belief that the school is worth investing in.
Giving by leaders communicates that the mission is important and a good investment. If the leaders do not believe in the mission enough to invest in it themselves, then they should consider either making changes or stepping down as leaders. This may seem harsh, but as leaders, we should not ask anyone to do something that we are not also willing to do. Translated into development, that means we should not be asking anyone to invest funds in something we do not see as worthy of investing our own money in.
The next step is understanding what is most important to those donors. What do they care about most? What inspires them? How and when do they most like to be contacted? How will they want to be thanked? Truly understanding and knowing your donors is more than just being introduced in the hallway or at a school event, it’s about understanding what motivates them and how to keep them connected with and passionate about your school.
What Is Important to Our Donors?
This is where building donor profiles can help. Once someone makes an initial gift to your school, a file should be opened to track their giving and to make notes about their interests and passions. This is often done in some type of donor tracking system, but can be done in Excel or some other format for the first year if a school has not invested yet in donor software. I would, however, encourage making that purchase a priority in the following year or as soon as possible. Record keeping gets complicated quickly, and having a good tracking system helps with the follow-up and donor cultivation that are necessary for a growing development program.
There are things that will be easy to capture: name, the date of first contact with your school, their relationship to the school, the date of the first gift to the school and any subsequent gifts, giving patterns, volunteer activities, extracurricular activities of children, etc. There are many options available for tracking donor information, but what about the more intuitive pieces of data, like donors’ likes and dislikes, and how they want to be thanked?
How to Understand and Leverage Donor Segments
While the first and best rule is to ask the donor, this is not always an option in the beginning of a donor relationship. Building frameworks and making a few assumptions in the beginning may help to guide the donor development process in the initial cultivation phase. Prince and File (1994) segment donors into seven categories of how and why they give. Their landmark research can help development officers with some simple frameworks that cover most major donor giving patterns. Listed below are just a few of the basic donor segments provided in Prince and File’s research, and some suggestions for how to use this information.
These donors are often local businesspeople. They give to make a difference in their community and want to know exactly how their money is being spent. Good stewardship is important to them. Their giving is personal and they enjoy investing in things that make life better for their family, friends, and neighbors. This is the largest segment of donors. They appreciate seeing financial statements, but are no-nonsense, bottom-line decision makers. They have often learned more from life experience than formal education. They appreciate recognition for their giving, but prefer that it be done in a circle of their peers. For large gifts, this could mean presenting a plaque to them in their place of business during a small ceremony with their employees, or it could mean recognizing their generosity in front of the local chamber of commerce, rotary club, or other civic organization. They also like naming opportunities, because a long-term demonstration of their generosity is good for business.
These donors are often, though not always, the spouses of Communitarian Donors. They are what I affectionately call, “My Party Girls (and Guys).” They are passionate about building connections and want giving to be fun for everyone. These are often the volunteers helping to organize the annual gala, or the ones pushing to reinstate the golf tournament. Their involvement is active and they want to help make something happen. They enjoy getting others on board more than just writing their own check. They also like to be appreciated for their efforts more than for their giving. Appreciating them in front of their friends and other volunteers is meaningful. For dads this may include inviting them to sit on the bench at a home game and recognizing them as a special guest at the beginning of the game. Flowers are a nice way to say thank you to socialite moms, but flowers delivered in private have only a fraction of the impact of those seen by others. Delivering flowers to a place of business or giving them to the donor or volunteer at the school where they will carry the bouquet out to their car in front of others is more powerful. These visible expressions of gratitude communicate that the donor is appreciated and valued.
These donors are very private about their giving and often choose to remain anonymous. I lovingly refer to this group as my “Stealth Givers.” Their gifts are thoughtful and generous, but they want no recognition, no fanfare, and absolutely no one else to know about their gift. They appreciate having their own values understood and reflected back to them. They like being appreciated, but prefer hearing meaningful stories about how their gift has changed someone’s life or created a new opportunity, rather than having the conversation be about their gift. They appreciate genuine interest in their story or testimony, but will deflect praise and are uncomfortable talking about their capacity or generosity. They want to be known for their kindness, thoughtfulness, intelligence, or character, rather than for their wealth. They want their legacy to be about making a difference, not about how much money they have. However, this group is often one of the wealthiest groups of donors. Dozens, if not hundreds, of individuals and nonprofits ask them to give each year. One of the reasons they give silently is because they do not want to hurt or offend anyone when they opt not to give. They abhor embarrassing displays of any kind, so any approach should be personal, respectful, meaningful, and low key.
It Comes Down to Caring
These are just a few of the ways that understanding donor profiles can help you to communicate with your donors in a more meaningful way. Donors who feel appreciated and understood are more likely to give again. Donors who make repeat gifts are more likely to become loyal advocates for your school’s mission and faithful partners in developing your future vision. You can help your donors make a difference by knowing what they care about, and by caring about them.
Prince, R.A. and K.M. File. 1994. The Seven Faces of Philanthropy: A New Approach to Cultivating Major Donors. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
O’Connor, T. 2011, June. “Increasing Donor Loyalty.” Presentation at the North Texas Christian Leadership Alliance Conference, The Hope Center, Plano, Texas.
Note: This article was originally published in April 2018 and re-published in July 2021.
About the Author
As a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE), Teri works with faith-based nonprofits to help them build meaningful and long-lasting donor relationships. Over the past 25 years, she has worked on projects ranging from $1 million to $1 billion to further the missions and ministries of her clients. She holds an MA in communication and leadership from Gonzaga University, a BS degree in business administration from Barclay College, and BA degrees in music and Bible from Vennard College. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.