understand your donors

Ever wonder what your donors are thinking?

Sometimes, we slip into a mindset of “them and us.” Where we’re the insiders who work and donors are the outsiders who give. And while both are important, they must be different, right?

Maybe not so much. And your fundraising success may depend on how well you can avoid that mindset.

There’s no doubt, though, that your perspective on your organization and its work is likely to be different. You know who leaves the kitchen a mess. You know who swipes the pens. You know who gets on with the ED and who doesn’t.

Donor don’t need to know that.

You also know, up close, the barriers you and your colleagues face in making your mission happen.

Donors probably do need to know that.

But how can you get into your donors’ heads? How best to tell them about the work and ask them to offer the help you need? Here are some suggestions to help you understand your donors.

1. Be a donor yourself

This might seem obvious to you. (I hope it does!) But the best way to understand your donors and how they think is to be a donor. Pay attention to what makes you want to give. How do you feel?

And when you do give, what makes you feel appreciated? How do you know your gift made a difference?

And what bugs you? There are great lessons to be learned, both positive and not!

To really understand philanthropy, you need to be a participant, not just an observer. And remembering, via your own experience, how good giving can feel is important for you.

Your goal? Learn what makes giving a joy. Then share the joy with your own organization’s donors.

2. Ask donors what they think

Have you ever tried a donor survey? Not to gather quantitative information – but to offer donors the chance to tell you what they think. People like to tell you what they think!

It’s not that hard to do. What you can learn is invaluable! Make it as easy as possible to respond. And unless you know your donors prefer online communications, send a survey in the mail. (There’s something about the people who will sit down and fill this out that also clues you in to their feelings about your organization.)

First time I tried one, I learned that what my organization emphasized wasn’t at all what mattered to our donors. I overhauled our donor communications from that moment on!

3. Call and talk to them

You probably can’t call every donor personally. But make it a habit. Call to thank them for a recent gift. Call a new donor to find out what spurred the gift.

Once you get by the initial guarded response (thank you, robocalling spambots), you will probably have a delightful conversation. And now you have a personal connection with that donor. That means something on both ends of the phone.

You can also organize a board Thankathon. Not to ask for money, but to thank donors. (Say that right up front!) Create call sheets for each donor to be called and ask the callers to take great notes.

While your board may start off giving you the side-eye at the idea, by the end of the evening, they will probably be feeling great. Gratitude makes everyone feel good!

4. Invite them over

Have you invited donors to come see your work as it happens? Or to a casual event with a speaker about some aspect of your mission?

Keep it simple. This isn’t a gala. In fact, casual makes it more comfortable for your donors as well as easier for you. But don’t hide behind the bar. Get out and talk. Not just about the organization or your mission. Get to know people as people.

(Flash back to the first suggestion. Wouldn’t you feel better being loved for who you are as well as what you give?)

Don’t make this even about fundraising. No asking. Just thanking and chatting. You will have the chance to make human-level connections. (This donor shares your love of chocolate. That one has the same kind of dog you do. This one’s son went to your college.)

Donors will also have a chance to meet other people who are passionate about the cause. Encourage those relationships! They’re a web that strengthens your organization.

5. Pay attention to what they do

Sometimes, what people say and what they do are different. So think about the quieter ways your donors may be telling you something as well.

One example: say you have email addresses for most donors on your list. (Yay!) So you’re ready to suggest cutting back on your mail program and depending more on email.

But wait!

Before you go there, look at how they choose to contact you. Are they giving in response to a mailing? Do they interact with your emails, clicking links, making gifts?

You may have asked them to help you use less paper. So they want to seem cooperative. But when they consistently respond to mail, you know that it’s still the preference.


Donors are people, too. And people who also care about your cause are good people to know. To treat them better and bring them closer, take the time to learn what matters to them.

If we want donors to understand us, we have to start by understanding them.
This eBook will review some great donor discovery steps, best practices, and questions you should ask to build rapport with and understand your donors.

As part of Bloomerang’s Content Donation Program, $100 was donated to Grace Cafe, Inc.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Mary Cahalane
Mary Cahalane is Principle at Hands-On Fundraising where she focuses on improving fundraising results through great communication and a donor-centered mindset. Previously, she's worked for various nonprofit organizations as Director of Development, Development Manager, and Development Consultant.
Mary Cahalane

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