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The Surprisingly Smartest, Donor-Centric Fundraising Strategy

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When fundraisers get together to talk about donor-centric fundraising strategy they tend to focus a lot on giving gratitude and engaging in cultivation. Rightfully so. However, if that’s all you do, you’re missing something HUGELY important.

There’s something more donor-centric than wooing.


In fact, I run a fundraising training session for boards entitled “I Gave Because You Asked.” It’s so simple. So common sense. And… SO true.

How do I know? Whenever I ask groups of volunteers why they don’t give, by far the most common response is “No one asked me.” Light bulb! This should bring to mind the famous quote from Canadian hockey great Wayne Gretsky:

100% of the shots I don’t take don’t go in.

Two Ways Nonprofits Get Donor-Centered Fundraising Wrong

I find a widespread misunderstanding about the notion of what constitutes being donor-centered. It derives from two misconceptions:

  1. Assuming people don’t want to be asked.
  2. Spending all your time on cultivation, assuming folks will give spontaneously as a result.

Both of these rationales short-change your would-be donors. Why? In a nutshell: Philanthropy (i.e., “love of humanity”) is about love, not money. Donors have love to give but don’t always have an object towards which to direct their affection. They’re, in effect, love-starved.

Think of your job, as a philanthropy facilitator, as becoming the object of your would-be donor’s affection. Their much-yearned-for love recipient.

Sure, donors may have other loves in their lives. Their families. Their jobs. Their friends. Their hobbies. Even other charities. But it’s not for you to decide that’s all they want or need. In fact, if you’re familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs you know people have varied needs over different phases in their lives. Needs for community, belonging, self-actualization, and other kinds of purpose.

The Joy from Philanthropic Giving is Special

MRI studies show when people merely contemplate giving it lights up the pleasure centers in their brains. Giving brings a warm glow of satisfaction, akin to eating chocolate.

You’d probably agree that bringing a donor a gift of chocolate (unless they’re allergic or diabetic) is a donor-centered gesture, right? Then why isn’t asking also a donor-centric act?

It’s not ‘donor-centered’ to deprive would-be donors of their warm glow opportunity.

Philanthropic Giving Makes People Happy!

Giving brings meaning and fulfillment on a high level. It’s something for which our brains are hard-wired.

So stop considering your own needs and consider your donor’s needs. I don’t care if you’re afraid to ask. Get. Over. It! If you don’t, you’ll never succeed in this business. It’s simply not okay to wash your hands of the need to ask.

It’s like buying up a bunch of merchandise people are clamoring to buy, stocking your store with the stuff, sending out flyers announcing you’ve got the goods, watching as people line up to see, touch, taste, or otherwise sense your wares, and then… never opening the doors for your sale so folks can actually satisfy their cravings.

Nonprofits do the same thing when they create programs that offer meaningful solutions to relevant problems, then populate their website with information describing these initiatives, then create marketing messages driving people to the website, social media, events, and so forth, and then… never quite get around to making a direct, specific ask to invest in the change would-be donors want to see and be an integral part of.

You may think you’re saving people money by not asking to “take” something away from them.

But you’re forgetting fundraising is a voluntary, value-for-value exchange. If you don’t let people exercise their choice to spend their money in ways that bring them joy and satisfaction, you’re not being caring. You’re being mean.

When You Ask You’re Not Taking, You’re Giving

And what you’re giving is opportunity.

The value of that opportunity will vary from donor to donor. And it will mean different things at different points in their life. The more you listen to donors, and endeavor to learn what floats their particular boat, the better you can tailor your ask to elicit a response that will give your donor the biggest value payoff possible.

Truly donor-centered fundraising takes into account your donor’s needs.

Consider your ‘Donor’s Hierarchy of Needs.’

donor-centric fundraising strategy

In your donor’s journey towards feeling really joyful about their engagement and investment with you – be it awareness building, cultivation, solicitation, or ongoing stewardship – consider your donor’s perspective at that point in time. What do they need/want to hear from you?

At some point, to get them to that ‘warm glow,’ you’re going to have to make a direct ask – the more targeted and personal, the better.

Don’t Say “No” on Others’ Behalf

Stop making excuses for not asking.

I often hear staff or board say things like:

  • “Now’s not a good time to ask, as she’s going through chemo.”
  • “Now’s not a good time to ask, as he just became a widower.”
  • “Now’s not a good time to ask, because she just lost her job.”
  • “Now’s not a good time to ask, as they’ve got two kids in college.”
  • “Now’s not a good time to ask, as he just got home from the hospital.”


Do you treat donors like they can’t think for themselves?

People are perfectly capable of saying “no” on their own behalf. And you can’t assume anything. You know what they say about the word “assume,” right?

Someone who is going through a tough time, for whatever reason, might welcome the opportunity to bring something good into their life! They might enjoy the personal interaction that comes from being asked to give. In fact, this might be precisely the time they most need to become involved in something larger than themselves. If not, they’ll tell you. Don’t deny donors their opportunities.

Don’t Just Woo

Imagine this scenario:

You take an interest in a new date. You want them to woo you. They do, and you begin to think about them more. The more interest you develop, the more you want the wooing. Pretty soon, you want some active engagement. Maybe you’ll go on an overnight trip. Maybe you’ll meet the relatives. More wooing, but there’s a step-up in intensity. It feels purposeful.

It seems to be moving forward towards something. Something exciting, meaningful, and transformational. You get to the pivotal point where you’re ready to be asked to make a commitment! And then?

The now significant-to-you person doesn’t ask. Your journey plateaus. It goes nowhere. It is ‘nice,’ but also a bit confusing. What was this all about? You begin to doubt yourself. To feel unloved. Unworthy. Unimportant. Maybe there’s something wrong with you? Maybe you’re not the right fit? Maybe you’ve misinterpreted the signals, and this isn’t what you thought it was? That’s how donors feel when you cultivate, cultivate, and cultivate, never getting to the ask.

Of course, you do have to do a fair amount of wooing. But you can’t just be wooing. There’s an end in sight, right? And it’s not just you who wants to get there. Your donors want to get there too.

Donors can’t get where they want to go without you.

Beyond the Woo

Once the mutual love is established, it’s time to call a spade a spade.

Love can’t remain unspoken.

You have to say “I love this organization. I love you. You love what we do. Let’s get together!”

This type of conversation is not to be feared; rather, it’s to be embraced.

Philanthropy gives people purpose. And purpose gives people joy. Philanthropy facilitators are, as my teacher Hank Rosso said, the fundraisers who “teach the gentle joy of giving.”

If all you do is cultivate, cultivate, cultivate, never getting around to the ask, you never get around to the joy.

It’s Rude Not to Ask

If you, or any of your staff or volunteers, think it’s rude to ask, think again. Really, it’s rude not to.

It’s like talking up a magnificent party you’re hosting, telling your friends all the coolest people will be there, and then… you never invite them to join you. Are they supposed to know you’re waiting for them to invite themselves?!

To meet donor needs and desires, you can’t leave them in the dark about what you want from them. That’s what ad nauseum cultivation does. It leaves folks wondering about your purpose. If you don’t ask them to help you solve a problem, how can they possibly feel good about your encounter?

Your job is to inspire investment through direct, purposeful, and joyful asks that enable the donor to enact their values and find fulfillment.

Don’t pussyfoot around. That’s not donor-centric.

Tell and show donors where you’re headed. Talk to them about their philanthropic interests. Ask for their advice and feedback. Don’t pretend you’re not ultimately going to ask for a philanthropic gift.

What’s the point otherwise, and why are you wasting everyone’s time?

Think about your donor. Always. What’s in this for them?

Commit to their happiness.

Meet their needs!

Donor-centered Fundraisers Get inside Their Donor’s Head

Darwin posited that a caring, empathic community cares for its members. You’re in the community-building business. Commit to your members’ happiness. Because when individuals within a community are happier, that’s also good for the health, welfare, and survival of the community.

Your job as a nonprofit leader is to give would-be donors the power they have trouble finding on their own.

To facilitate people’s best instincts. To help people turn their feelings of helplessness and despair into acts of helpfulness and hope.

When you’re able to do this, you also help your would-be helpers.

You know the old adage: “Ask and ye shall receive.” I would add a corollary for fundraisers: “Ask and your donor shall receive.” That’s the height of donor centricity. Give to your donors by asking them to give.

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  • Kristine Frankenberry

    One of the most well-written pieces I've ever read with respect to Asking. This speaks to me on many levels, and I hope it will also for our leadership. Thank you, Claire.
  • Chrystal Rivers, MBA

    Wonderful article! I like the comparison of dating especially. That's a new perspective that is very relevant and closely relates to "wooing" in the fundraising journey. You have to make the ask and offer up a commitment promise that is vibrant, not boring, and potentially long-lasting.
  • Eric Bryant

    It's no different than marketing for any other type of for-profit business. You have to know your customer, inside and out. I think nonprofits sometimes have a bit of a deficit in sales and marketing knowledge. But you have to know your customers (donors) intimately, in order to really provide them with superior service and motivate them to love your brand. And yes, as a nonprofit you do have a brand. Business is business - whether it's for a for-profit or nonprofit.
  • Mary Cahalane

    Love it! It's so true. And while I totally understand the face to face ask jitters, I see organizations doing this even with written communications. Yes, you asked six months ago... do you really think the donor even remembers that request? And then, taking it to an even more micro level - how many appeals never even ask? They imply, they obliquely suggest, they hope. And they don't get a response. Surprise! Thanks, Claire, for another terrific piece!
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