Donor Insights: Relationship building, make it personal

publication date: Jul 20, 2016
author/source: Anonymous Donor

This article is the first in what we hope will be a monthly series of donor insights. This month our inaugural donor chose to remain anonymous. If you would like to offer feedback please email Hilborn Editor, Kimberley MacKenzie at

As the President of a private foundation I have had the opportunity to meet a lot of fundraisers. Some of the charity CEOs or major gift officers in Canada that I most like and trust have made our relationship a personal one. I’ll come back to “like” and “trust” shortly, but for the moment I’d like to talk about the relationship that these professionals have forged.

I can tell you of one CEO who owns three rescue dogs and juggles with her partner the trip home for the noon hour dog-walk duties each day. Another, CEO of one of the largest hospital foundations, is so modest that he veritably hides in the shadows as he shines the light on his staff, doctors, and researchers.  A third, in a candid conversation, shared (only after I asked her!) what she learned about herself, her family, and close friends during breast cancer treatment and recovery. What do all these charitable sector professionals have in common (besides me I guess)? They understand that building a donor relationship is every bit about sharing their personal values, passion, and integrity as it is about demonstrating their professional skills.

By comparison, six weeks ago I had a meeting with the Director of Development of the Faculty of Medicine at a large university. This person was new in the position and this was a first meeting. By way of background, the private foundation of which I am president (alas, not my money!) has been very generous to this university over the years, something on the order of $5-6 million. Nevertheless, to this person, this meeting was all business. Clearly this was an opportunity to gather info for the next ask as soon as possible. Each question or topic was ticked off on their notepad as we progressed. I quickly realised I was seen as the gatekeeper to the foundation chequebook, while I saw them as needing to meet fundraising targets. In short, no relationship was built in that meeting! Certainly any funding application will be fairly reviewed like all others, but in a competitive funding situation, wouldn’t you want any little advantage? 

Why “like” and “trust” in relationship building is important.

Let’s be frank, developing a donor relationship is still about the next, and hopefully, bigger gift.  Major donors know this and they recognise the usual questions. You likely ask the same questions. Why the donor gave? What the hopes and expectations for their gift at work are? What is their preferred communications channel?. But after those ‘transactional questions’ you’ve only proven that you can gather information while the donor still hasn’t learned enough about you to develop trust. In much the same way that there is information you want to learn about your donor, there should be information you should want the donor to learn about you, you the major gift officer, the CEO, the donor stewardship associate. The relationship is reciprocal.

To any donor you are the face of the hospital, agency or university you represent. But does the donor trust how you represent your charity? Do they trust that their gift will be used as you specify? Do they trust that you will deliver respectful stewardship? If you are sure your answer is yes then you are in good shape, but if not, you need to work harder to earn their trust.

What works for me

First, recognise that building a donor relationship, any relationship really, is a two-way process and it takes time. Second, don’t rush to pitch your mission or make the ask. Pretend just for a moment that you’re on a date where nothing spoils the mood faster than rushing!  If you are a manager and you have hired staff as much for personality as for their skill then don’t put handcuffs on those ‘people skills’. Mentor inter-personal skills in balance with professional development. If you are in direct donor contact, such as major gifts or donor stewardship, beware those little voices in your head, you know, the ones that say “always be professional”, “stick to the script”, “don’t joke around”.

When you get right down to it, all fundraising is personal and donors want to know whom they are dealing with!              

An avid reader of Charity eNEWS, this month’s anonymous donor is currently serving as the President of a private foundation and is responsible for providing millions of dollars in funding. He/she has also volunteered as a member of the board for many organizations and has secured/asked/closed many millions of dollars in gifts to various charities. If you would like to provide feedback on this article please email our editor at

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