“Treat Every Donor Like A Major Donor” Is Terrible Advice


An interesting phrase occasionally pops up in presentations, blog posts and even marketing slogans. You’ve probably seen a variation of it:

“Treat every donor like a major donor.”

Most of the time, it comes from a good place. It’s well-meaning.

It’s also awful, terrible, bad advice.

Well-meaning! But terrible.

What they’re trying to say

It’s clear that what the phrase attempts to convey is a culture of donor-centricity. Treat every donor well; shower them with appreciation (quickly), communicate impact, steward them, solicit feedback, etc. etc. – all those great things that you should do for donors to keep them committed, regardless of gift amount.

However, simply equating those things to the activities of a major gift fundraiser is problematic for a number of reasons.

Why it doesn’t work

Here are a few reasons why the phrase doesn’t hold up to basic scrutiny:

1) If that phrase were accurate, we wouldn’t have major gift fundraisers.

We would just have fundraisers.

Major gift fundraising isn’t easy, and not just anyone can be good at it. It takes years to fully master.

Saying “treat every donor like a major donor” just isn’t fair to major gift fundraisers.

2) Major gift fundraising takes a lot of (different kinds of) work.

Why isn’t it fair? Major gift fundraisers do some very special things for their current and prospective donors. Things you probably wouldn’t do for every donor.

Don’t believe me? Ask yourself if would you do the following for a $10 first-time donor:

  • create a personalized, documented plan on your next 5-10 moves with them
  • wealth screening
  • fly out to see them
  • take them out to dinner
  • hold a VIP event for them
  • name a building after them

3) Major gift fundraising takes time

“Treat every donor like a major donor” rushes the process. Using the $10 example from above, that donor may not be ready to be cultivated for a large gift (that’s why it’s not feasible to jump right into moves management).

Instead, create a donor communications plan that stewards them and generates more loyalty. Once they have been retained and start to show certain signals, you can think about considering them as a major gift prospect. The best major gift prospects aren’t just strangers with financial means. They’re people who have stayed loyal to your organization over time.

4) The phrase breaks down when you switch out the nouns.

Still don’t believe me? Try switching out the nouns.

Does the phrase “treat everyone like you treat your spouse” make sense? No, it doesn’t. I should definitely treat everyone well, but there are things I do for my wife that I don’t want to do for a strange, casual acquaintance, co-worker, friend, or other family member!

5) Not every donor wants to be treated like a major donor

This is probably the most important point.

“Treat every donor like a major donor” lumps all donors into the same wants and needs.

“Some donors may feel uncomfortable with a fundraiser aggressively requesting a meeting, asking personal questions or researching their philanthropic interests” says Rory Green, Associate Director Of Development at Simon Fraser University.

Indeed, some may prefer to give semi-anonymously. Some may prefer different communication channels; ones that don’t lend themselves to effective major gift cultivation.

Final thoughts

So remember, “make every donor feel special” and “treat every donor like a major donor” are not the same thing.

Yes, make all donors feel special, appreciated, like they are making a difference. Thank them quickly and personally. Communicate impact. Solicit their feedback. Invite them in for a tour.

Major gift fundraising isn’t just “the best kind” of fundraising. It’s a different kind. So let’s be fair to major gift fundraisers, who work hard to master the singular strategies and tactics that make them successful.

Proper donor data management is tough, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. That’s why we’ve created a new eBook: Data That Changes The World – Your Guide to Building, Maintaining & Leveraging an Effective Nonprofit Database.


Steven Shattuck

Steven Shattuck

Chief Engagement Officer at Bloomerang
Steven Shattuck is Chief Engagement Officer at Bloomerang. A prolific writer and speaker, Steven is a contributor to "Fundraising Principles and Practice: Second Edition" and volunteers his time on the Project Work Group of the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, is an AFP Center for Fundraising Innovation (CFI) committee member, and sits on the faculty of the Institute for Charitable Giving. He is the author of Robots Make Bad Fundraisers - How Nonprofits Can Maintain the Heart in the Digital Age, published by Bold and Bright Media.
Steven Shattuck
By |2017-06-10T18:41:12-04:00November 10th, 2015|Donor Management, Major Gifts|


  1. Mary Cahalane November 10, 2015 at 1:21 pm - Reply

    Great points!

    I’m not a major gifts person – don’t have the personality for it. But I admire my friends who are so good at this work.

    Treat donors well, even the small ones. (There’s no excuse for treating them poorly!) But direct response fundraising is very different from major gifts. And Rory’s point is especially good – some donors would be totally put off with the major gift treatment!

    Thanks for another good one!

  2. claire axelrad December 7, 2015 at 1:15 am - Reply

    Good points. I believe Penelope Burk was the first to come up with this phrase: “Treat everyone like a major donor.” She didn’t mean it literally. I believe what she meant was to treat everyone as if they have the POTENTIAL to become a major donor.

    This starts with your gratitude program. It’s super simple. Be prompt. Be personal. Report back at least once on the outcome of the donor’s gift — before you ask again. Not every charity even does these three things. They send a perfunctory receipt. It’s delayed for weeks or even months. And they don’t report back on outcomes at all.

    The other thing I believe Penelope intended with this phrase was to say “think about how you’re treating your donors, and test out different ways of treating them.” So, maybe call 1 of 5 donors who give $100+ to thank them. Then see if, after a year, these donors respond at higher rates or with higher gifts than those who weren’t called. If so, invest more resources in this sort of strategy.

    Of course you can’t do “moves management” with every donor. And probably only about a third of your donors would even want you to try to develop this sort of relationship with them. Perhaps the phrase should be changed to “Care about every donor, regardless of gift size.” Thanks for this post!

  3. […] instance, a great example of this comes from an article written by Bloomerang, where they point out the major downsides of treating every donor like major donors.  One point being that not all smaller donors are ready to be prepped into giving larger gifts, […]

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