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“They’re JUST $15 donors.” What’s Wrong Here?

small donors


What a loaded word.

It implies something isn’t quite what it should be. Something is barely sufficient.

It’s judgmental.

And not in a good way.

Do you judge your donors in this manner?

If you’ve worked in fundraising for more than a nanosecond, I’ll wager you’ve heard someone say one or more variations of the following:

  • Small direct mail donors don’t need impact reports.
  • Under $100 donors don’t need special attention.
  • Little gifts get the form letter.
  • Most of our online donors give trivial amounts; they don’t need a mailed thank you in addition to their online acknowledgement.
  • It’s not worth it to send the annual report to those donors.
  • There’s no point inviting small donors to fundraising events they won’t be able to afford.
  • One thank you is more than enough for less important donors.

These phrases are dripping with judgement. 

Judgement that may not serve you well, either in the short or long-term.

These phrases imply some donors matter; others, not so much.

Now, I’m not going to lie.

You should prioritize your work.

You shouldn’t throw any donors out with the bath water.

Alas, inadvertently perhaps, this happens.

How we think, and speak, effects what we do.

And talking about “small donors” as relatively unimportant is endemic in the social benefit sector (notice how I wrote “social benefit” rather than “nonprofit?”).

When you use negative words, or words implying a negative judgement, your words can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Because when you treat donors like they don’t really matter, that’s exactly how they’ll act.

If donors don’t matter to you, why should you matter to them?

Let’s break down the problems inherent in the way many organizations think about donors who don’t give big amounts… yet.

You should show unwavering appreciation for all donations. 

Unwavering means both appreciation directed outwardly toward your donors and appreciation expressed behind the scenes

In other words, don’t talk smack about your supporters behind their backs!


One day early in my career my boss came to my office to have ‘a little talk.’ Uh, oh. She told me I needed to lead my staff by example. And one example she had in mind was what she called “no gossiping.” By me or by members of my team. This meant nipping a bunch of things in the bud:

  1. No whining, generally or specifically. No “Donors can be a pain in the butt,” and no “Mary is so demanding.”
  2. No judging donors for how much they give. No “George doesn’t give enough.”
  3. No criticizing donors. No “It’s so annoying how Jen says she’ll attend, but then never shows up.”
  4. No stereotyping donors. No “All these rich folks expect us to be their servants.” 
  5. No categorizing donors using loaded terms such as ‘small vs. large.’

I’ll admit I got a bit defensive. I told her I and my staff meant no harm. We were merely blowing off steam, at worst. And at best we were simply trying to be practical. Did she really want us to put as much energy into $100 as $1000 donors? “No” she said. “I want you to care about all donors and never assume the worst about them. Show this caring and positivity in how you speak about them. Always imagine they are in the room with you. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want them to hear.”

I confess, I was a bit mortified at the time. Because I saw the wisdom in these words. Today, I like to think about this as ‘words to the wise’ (with me, of course, being the newly wise one). Now I want to pass that wisdom along to you.

Let’s proceed.

WRONG: Small direct mail donors don’t need impact reports.

Yes, they do. 

All donors want to know about the impact of their giving. This is a basic truth, evidenced over and over again by Penelope Burk’s ongoing research. To continue giving, donors self-report that they need just three things:

  1. Prompt acknowledgement.
  2. Personal acknowledgement.
  3. Powerful demonstration, delivered at some time separate from the acknowledgment, that their gift is accomplishing its intended outcome.

A ‘report’ should be a formal announcement the donor is likely to see as something meant specifically for them. Don’t assume merely because you’ve written about your program impact on your website, or in your newsletter, that donors will perceive this as an impact report

WRONG: Under $100 donors don’t need special attention.

Yes, they do. 

All donors need to be rewarded for their philanthropy. Donors, like all human beings, are on a continual quest for meaning. It’s the existential search to be all one can be. 

If you treat the gift as simply a one-time transaction, it will be. To help donors feel self-actualized, and sustain the warm glow that comes from giving, imposes on your charity the obligation to do something proactive to provide connection and a sense of purpose. Simply put, if you don’t pay attention you’re unlikely to get a second donation.

WRONG: Little gifts get the form letter.

No, they don’t.

Nobody should receive a thank you that looks like a form letter or receipt. Did you know that according to one study 21% of donors say they were never thanked for their gift? My hunch is that’s because whatever they received was so pro forma or transactional the donor never perceived it as a genuine thank you letter.

Make sure you follow donor acknowledgement best practices when thanking every single donor. Remember a first-time gift is often made as a test. It’s a spur-of-the-moment decision… a “let’s see what they do with this/how they treat me” sort of transaction. If you want active, thoughtful, and even passionate, giving, put some time, thought and passion into how you thank folks.

WRONG: Most of our online donors give trivial amounts; they don’t need a mailed thank you in addition to their online acknowledgement.

Yes, they do. 

Just because someone gives online, don’t treat them like a second class citizen. Sure, send them an instant thank you email, and forward them immediately to a thank you landing page. But also mail them something. People don’t receive a lot of “good” mail these days, and it’s nice to receive something that’s not a bill or advertisement. 

You can do things with snail mail you can’t accomplish with email. Like adding a personal note. Or sending a token gift. I like gold stars or heart stickers, or maybe a simple book mark. Feel free to get creative.

WRONG: It’s not worth it to send the annual report to those donors.

Yes, it is.

You don’t have to mail an expensive report to everyone. There are creative ways to create online reports, and you can simply email a link to your supporters. [See my Pinterest board: Nontraditional Annual Reports.]

You never want to say “it’s not worth it” when it comes to building donor loyalty. And when you lump a category of supporters under the rubric of “those,” you’re engaging in the exclusionary practice of “othering.” Don’t be party to splitting your donor community asunder. Everyone is part of your family. Don’t shun anyone. 

WRONG: There’s no point inviting small donors to fundraising events they won’t be able to afford.

Don’t assume.

Donors are perfectly capable of making their own decisions. Don’t say ‘no’ on their behalf. 

Get clear on what the real ‘point’ is. It’s building a community of caring supporters who believe in the vision, mission and values your organization enacts. 

Anyone who cares is capable of caring some more. And of spreading the word to other potential supporters. Sure, you may not want to mail an expensive invitation to everyone on your list. But you can certainly email a link to an event invite on your website and even ask folks if they’d like to receive a mailed invitation.

WRONG: One thank you is more than enough for less important donors.

No, it’s not. 

Per an Abila donor loyalty study, more than half of all donors want at least monthly communication (except Millennials, who want to receive content at least twice monthly). Sure, you can overdo it (sadly, political campaigns are notorious for this); very few nonprofits even approach saturation point. And when it comes to showing gratitude, it’s hard to overdo it.

Research shows for gratitude to last it must be repeated. Gratitude sets people up to want to make another gift. Because it makes them feel good. Certainly you’ve heard “out of sight, out of mind.” It holds true for donors. If folks only hear from you once, and then you ask them to give again, they aren’t likely to be feeling warm and fuzzy towards you. 


1. Reframe how you think about donors.

When you find yourself thinking negatively about donors because of the size of their gift, catch yourself. Imagine another way to visualize these supporters. Close your eyes. What do you see? If you see dollar signs (and not enough of them), look again. What can you see now? Perhaps… hearts, hearts and more hearts! When you see love, it’s easier to give love.

2. Rephrase how you speak about donors.

We are what we speak. Words matter. Tone of voice matters. Even when you’re with your colleagues alone, with no donors in sight, be sure you stay away from judging, gossipy terms. They can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Speak in positive, not negative, language. It will seep into how you treat your donors. 

3. Do unto your donors as you would have them do unto you.

Cultivate a generous spirit. Adopt an overarching attitude of customer service — an attitude of gratitude – to show supporters how much they matter to you. Don’t treat donors as wallets — or a means to an end. Donors are an end in and of themselves. The donor/charity relationship is symbiotic. They need you; you need them. Always be thinking about how you can delight and connect with your donors so they feel important. 

4. Figure out what your constituents want and need; then give it to them. 

At least annually, send a simple survey to all donors. Ask about their preferred method of communication. Ask which of your programs is most important to them. Ask if they have some feedback or advice they’d really love to share. Make a record of this information to ensure your donors are really heard. Use the information you receive to develop relevant communications programs for your different donor segments.  

5. Stop gossiping, whining and criticizing!

You never know who may become a future major donor, or a legacy donor. You never know who may refer their friend, family member or colleague. Think, speak and act positively to all donors if you want them to think, speak and act positively towards you. Being negative takes a huge amount of energy. You need that energy! So just banish negativity from your life. Think of all the reasons you feel positive about your donors. Keep a donor gratitude journal.

They’re precisely… wholly… completely donors. Your donors.

Don’t you feel better already?

donor love and loyalty

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  • Kevin

    Thank you for posting this. In the spirit of equity, I have been thinking a lot about how the nonprofit sector treat donors based on their giving level. Let me get something out of the way- I understand time is limited and we have to be strategic about how we spend our resources to ensure services are funded. But we also know income inequality affects capacity to give. $15 is pocket change to one person and a skipped meal to another. What does it say about our values if we give higher-income people more consideration than lower-income people? How do we create a community where loyal small-gift donors are just as included as major donors?
  • Lana Fontenot

    Fantastic article! Thanks for the tips and wisdom!
  • Robin Padanyi

    Claire, you always put so much into your articles! Thank you for taking us on this journey and letting us learn from where you've been.
  • Laurie SIEGEL

    Great article, with many easy action steps. Thanks!
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