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The Ultimate Way to Communicate with Donors

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communicate with donors

How should you communicate with donors? Passionately!

But I want you to think about this word from TWO perspectives:

  1. Your donor’s passions
  2. Your passions

You see, even the most heartfelt fundraising appeal from you is not going to yield results if you send it to someone who doesn’t much care about the problem you describe.

Just because it’s important to you, doesn’t mean it’s important to everyone.

And this is why fundraising is both art and science.

This is why we make such a big deal about the concept of ‘donor-centered’ fundraising. If you haven’t read Penelope’ Burk’s groundbreaking book on the subject, I recommend you do. It totally changed the way I approach fundraising.

Let’s take a look at some of the art first.

Segment Donors by Their Passions

Use the information in your database to help you communicate the messages your donors most want to hear.

How do you figure this out?

You need to proactively enact strategies to learn more about what floats your donors’ boats. When your donor indicates to you in any way what may be important to them – listen up. For example:

  • They earmark their gift for a particular program
  • They open e-news or blog articles about particular areas of interest
  • They open social media posts about particular subjects
  • They share information about particular subjects with others
  • They attend certain events
  • They join informational conference calls
  • They sign a petition on a particular topic 
  • They give you anecdotal feedback, in person or online
  • They respond to a survey
  • They tell a staff or board member something about their interests (which is why you need to debrief folks who interact with donors)

Pay attention!

Record everything you learn about your donors in your database. And be sure you locate the information in a field from which you can search.


You want to be able to segment your donors by different criteria.

  • Cat donors don’t give to dog issues.
  • Children’s donors don’t give as passionately to seniors’ issues.
  • Veterans’ donors don’t give as passionately to other at-risk adults.
  • Rainforest donors don’t give as passionately to over-all climate change solutions.
  • Scholarship donors don’t give as passionately to teacher salaries.
  • Patient support donors don’t give as passionately to research.
  • Emergency relief donors don’t give as passionately to evergreen needs.
  • And so forth…

All of fundraising is a value-for-value exchange. 

Donors give money; you give back an intangible ‘feel good.’ 

The more you tap into your donor’s passion, the bigger the ‘feel good’ – and the bigger the gift.

Okay. That speaks to your donors’ passions. What about yours?

This is where we get to some of the art.

Communicate from Your Personal Passion

I often say the heart of effective fundraising is passion, passion, passion.

  1. Get in touch with your passion
  2. Enact your passion
  3. Share your passion so your donor can enact theirs

If it’s just a job to you, and not a cause about which you’re particularly passionate, it can be difficult to write a compelling appeal.

Sure, you can include all the elements. A story. A visual. A caption. A clear problem. A realistic solution. The donor becoming the hero. A specific ask for a specific purpose. A ‘P.S.’ that shows compelling urgency.

But the appeal can still fall flat if there’s no passion beneath the prose.

Can’t you tell when people are faking it? When their heart isn’t really in it?

Do whatever it takes to get in touch with your passion for your cause.

For development staff, this may mean:

  • Get out in the field to witness your program in action.
  • Sit down with program staff to learn about their work on a daily basis.
  • Schedule storytelling times where staff share sorrows and triumphs.
  • Have a ‘mission moment’ at board and committee meetings where select beneficiaries attend and share how they’ve been helped.

For board members, this may mean:

  • All of the above.
  • Read scripture or other readings that inform your sense of moral/religious obligation.
  • Read up on the problem your organization addresses.
  • Talk to other board members about their experiences.

Armed with passion for your cause, enact this passion by making your own gift.

It is my firm belief everyone working in development should make a philanthropic gift to the best of their ability. This doesn’t mean you have to match what board members are giving. It does mean you should walk the talk. 

If you feel giving to your nonprofit is out of the question because by virtue of working there you’re already ‘making a sacrifice,’ that’s a big chip on your shoulder that’s going to come across. If this is the case, it’s an issue that must be addressed first. You need to move folks (yourself included) from a place of distrust or hate to a place of love. 

Which brings us to the critical importance of developing a culture of philanthropy (translated from the Greek to mean ‘love of humanity’). A culture in which everyone understands the mission doesn’t move forward without philanthropy – what Bob Payton of the Lily School of Philanthropy defined as “voluntary action for the public good.” It’s not about the amount of money. It’s about what’s in your staffs’ hearts. 

The art of fundraising is connecting with what’s in your own heart.

Share the opportunity to enact passion with others. 

Now you’re ready to ask for money to further your mission, vision and values.

Whether you’re writing an appeal letter or asking for a gift in person, speak from your own passion. 

Describe the problem – or opportunity – in a manner that makes it crystal clear how important it is for the donor to join you in this mission. Because, if they don’t, something incredibly bad will happen. Or something incredibly good won’t happen.

Connect Like a Loving, Passionate Parent 

Do kids want to be sat down for a long speech? 

Do they want to settle in to hear an angry, cautionary tirade?


Neither does your donor.

Do kids want you to send them a 20-page letter when they go away to college?

Do kids want you to write them a term paper to explain the birds and the bees?


Neither does your donor.

To communicate effectively with kids (and donors) it’s best to:

  • Come from a place of love.
  • Tackle one subject at a time.
  • Use action verbs.
  • Be specific about what you want them to do.
  • Give clear choices; not too many.
  • Clarify just how disappointing it will be if they don’t behave as you’ve discussed. 
  • Sprinkle in some flattery.
  • Remind them how they’ll benefit.
  • Give positive feedback.

Donor-centered wisdom from Penelope Burk:  

Here is some wisdom learned from Penelope, together with quotes from donors Burk surveyed (also here.):


  • The less you tell your donor, the more likely they’ll absorb it. You don’t necessarily need to be wordy to convey your message. Especially with email, research shows many folks stop reading anything below the scroll. Think carefully about your SMIT (Single Most Important Thing you have to tell); don’t wait too long to get to it. Most fundraising appeals I read could stand to have their first several paragraphs eliminated. Look at last year’s appeal. Does the important messaging begin around the third or fourth paragraph?

“Overall, the longer the letters and the more frequent the requests, the less likely I am to donate.”


“I don’t connect with appeals that ask me to “fix poverty” in my community. But if I were asked to provide interim housing for 10 women and their families so that they could leave abusive situations, I could get my head around that and I would feel my giving had more of an impact.”


  • Currency is your best currency. I’ll never forget when I first heard Penelope speak and she said: Donors don’t care about monthly newsletters. They’d rather hear from you when you have one piece of news to share. Real news; not just articles you were forced to write because ‘send a monthly newsletter’ was on your plan. Or appeals you sent because ‘send bimonthly appeals’ was on your plan.

“They send out identical appeals week after week – pages and pages of stuff. It doesn’t inspire me to give; it desensitizes me to their pleas for help.”


  • Show the donor the benefit. It’s an old adage in marketing that you do best when you sell the benefit, not the feature. Too many fundraising communications are feature-dense. We have this program… that service… these offices… those staff… oh, and this other related program… and…. This isn’t what the donor cares about. They want to know if there’s a specific problem they can solve with their gift. Benefits do not mean tangible gifts. The benefit donors find meaningful is the outcome philanthropy can create. And it’s two-fold: (1) the demonstrable impacts that can be created, and (2) the ‘feel good,’ meaning and purpose they’ll get in return.

“I’m more inclined to give when I can see a direct benefit.”

“I don’t need another umbrella, t-shirt or tote bag; I want my donation to go to the cause.” 


“There were two instances this year where I made gifts over and above what I had intended and they both involved personal contact from someone in the development office.”


  • Why a donor gives differs; learning about your donor motivations will pay off. Common motivators are aspiring to fulfill a moral or religious obligation; desiring to honor or memorialize a loved one; wanting to pay back someone who helped you or a loved one; wanting to pay it forward to further a cause you or a loved one may someday benefit from, and family tradition.

“Our 17-year old son, Drew, died by suicide in 2014. Since his death, we donate to some meaningful causes every year in his memory, on his birthday. It is our way of continuing to give a birthday present to our son.”

“I was fortunate that the college I attended was tuition-free. I felt I owed a debt of gratitude for my education.”

“Dad used to let me call in the pledge to PBS when I was a kid. I thought that was a very grown up thing to do. For me, it planted the seed which has grown into a lifetime of philanthropy.”


  • Sadly, giving isn’t always its own reward. When a kid cleans up their room without being asked, they need you to notice and tell them they did a good job. When donors give, they need you to notice and tell them they delivered a specific, positive outcome.

“I didn’t receive any information at all after making a gift to a not-for-profit last year. I wonder what they did with the money and whether it helped.”

“An update on what they are accomplishing with the gifts that I and other donors have already made is actually more effective than another appeal. The updates themselves make you want to give again.”

The Ultimate Way to Communicate with Donors?

  • Passionately.
  • Personally.
  • Paying attention to donor values, interests and motivations.
  • Positive feedback.
  • From a place of love.

Much of what makes the art and science of fundraising effective comes from you, yourself, and each donor, individually.

Always bring yourself, and your passions, to the table.

Always remember you’re speaking to one donor, and their passions, at a time.

donor love and loyalty

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  • Jason

    Very helpful. Thank you for sharing!
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