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[ASK AN EXPERT] Where Do You Find New Donors And What Do You Say To Them?

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants advice on where to find new donors and how to approach them: 

Dear Charity Clairity,

Where do you look for donors, and what’s the best way to approach them? 

— Where to Begin 

Dear Where to Begin,

You’ve nailed the two challenges of donor acquisition on the head:

  1. Who do you target?
  2. What do you say to these folks?

This is a difficult question to answer in a brief response, but I’ll endeavor to cut to the chase with (1) five donor acquisition strategies, (2) your case for support, and (3) how to impress. 

5 Donor Acquisition Strategies

I list them in order of “warm to cold” effectiveness.

1. Ask for personal referrals

Consider a “Let Your Friends Be Our Friends” campaign. Ask current supporters to refer new names of folks they believe may have an interest in your work. Begin by asking those closest to you (e.g., board, staff, volunteers and donors) for names from their networks. Don’t forget to ask folks if they’d be willing to add a personal note to the appeals sent to their contacts. Personalization makes a huge difference in rates of response!

2. Leverage in-house lists

Take a look at non-donors who are affiliated with you in other ways (e.g., clients, volunteers, members, vendors, family members of affiliates and even social media followers). Consider how you might reach out by sending them one or more of your current fundraising appeals.

3. Engage in online list-building

One productive strategy is to offer a benefit in exchange for signing up for your email list. It could be a white paper, “how-to” video, tip list or recommendations (e.g., favorite books related to your cause; recipes; things to do on the weekend, etc.). You can also acquire new names by implementing a social media strategy (e.g., by running an online quiz that requires players to give you their contact info in exchange for the opportunity to play, to share the results, or be eligible for other benefits).

4. Exchange mailing lists

Could you trade names with other charities sharing similar constituent bases? Or would another organization be willing to send an appeal on your behalf? Sometimes business supporters are willing to send a “chaperoned” email to their employees, for example.

5. Rent direct mail lists

Consider working with a direct mail broker to purchase lists of folks who give to similar causes. Understand this is an expensive strategy that likely won’t pay off until you’ve retained the donors you acquire for approximately 18 months, so be sure you’ve got a donor acknowledgement and stewardship strategy in place to maximize the value of your investment.

A Strong, Relevant Case for Support

Getting first-time donations is tricky, because you need to create a new market. It’s not impossible, as long as you’re demonstrating a real need and filling it.

Retail Example:

No one knew they needed fidget spinners — until they did. A new market was created, and suddenly everyone wanted to become a part of it.

Nonprofit Example:

Many people didn’t know they needed lawyers to protect the foundation of democracy which they’d previously taken for granted — until the 2016 election and its aftermath came along and threw everyone for a loop. A new market was created for “rage donations,” and suddenly the ACLU was generating $24 million over a single weekend (when their previous annual total for online giving was just $4 million).

What problems do you solve that people may not know are in need of solutions?

Absent a significant external event, getting someone to make a first-time decision to give requires a strong, relevant case for support. I suggest you begin by taking a look at your opportunity. It’s always knocking; you just need to open the door! What do you do that aligns with what is in the news today? What will people likely consider relevant? 

Show a need people agree is an important issue.

Then show why your organization is the best to solve the problem. Then show this again. And again. This requires perseverance, because folks must be brought along a continuum (sometimes called a “marketing funnel“) to get them to the point where they feel comfortable making a philanthropic gift. Often it takes seven impressions or more for folks who’ve never heard of you before to take notice.

Best Ways to Make an Impression

Channel your “case” and establish your relevance with strategic, consistent messaging showcasing your expertise and demonstrating how you help. 

1. Offer gifts of useful content.

If you want gifts, you must give them. This can include research results, checklists, how-to videos, recommended resources and useful tips. Grab examples here.

2. Promote community through testimonials

An essential human quality is the desire to belong. If you can show you have a large community behind you, others will want to join in too. This is one of Robert Cialdini’s principles of influence: social proof. Plus, when everybody is talking about something, others don’t want to miss out. A psychological principle known as FOMO (fear of missing out) is triggered.

Using testimonials short cuts the decision-making process for prospective new supporters, and is a great way to establish your bona fides and trustworthiness. It’s useful to play into natural human instincts when you’re trying to develop a new market.

3. Harness the power of social media

One way to demonstrate your support is through shares, likes, follows and comments. Don’t forget to join in discussions on LinkedIn groups and Facebook Live. It’s a great way to demonstrate thought leadership and get your message across.

Begin with the people already close to you and ask for referrals. Then branch out to others who may be tangentially related. Demonstrate you have something to offer, and you’re meeting a need that requires addressing.

Show how you address that need differently, and more effectively, than anyone else.

I hope this helps you get started!

— Charity Clairity

Have a question for our Fundraising Coach?
Please submit your question here. Remember, there are no stupid questions! If you need an answer, it’s likely someone else does too. So help your colleagues by asking away. Please use a pseudonym, like “Where to Begin” did, if you prefer to be anonymous.

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  • Craig Cline

    You're at the TOP of the Top Drawer list, Claire -- thank you for your excellent guidance!
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