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.