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Joanne Oppelt

About Joanne

Fundraising Success: Foster the Relationship (Part 4)

This is Part 4 of my six-part weekly series on achieving fundraising success for your nonprofit agency. In this fourth installment, we discuss how important it is to foster the relationship.

In a Nutshell

This is Part 4 of a six-part weekly series on achieving fundraising success for your nonprofit agency, contributed to the CharityChannel professional community by Joanne Oppelt. Joanne is the author of several popular books on the subject, published by CharityChannel Press. Please scroll down to see Joanne's bio to learn more about her books.

It's Vital to Foster the Relationship

Usually, when we think about fundraising, we think in terms of the types of fundraising we do: capital campaigns, planned giving, major gifts, special events, direct mail, proposal writing, corporate contributions, government contracts, social networking, newsletters, and the like. We focus on the vehicles we use to raise the funds. But fundraising at its core is not about the vehicles we use to raise money.

Power Your Organization's Fundraising, by Joanne OppeltAs I explain in my book Power Your Organization’s Fundraising: How the Partnership Paradigm Will Change Everything, the crux of fundraising is about the partnerships we develop. It is not about the money. The money is just part of the transaction between the parties in a relationship. The money is probably what your organization needs and what you were hired to raise. But even though money might be the focus of how you are evaluated, it is NOT the end all and be all of the relationship. The end all and be all of the relationship is how well you meet the other parties’ needs and expectations.


Fundraising Is Not about You Getting Money

Fundraising is not about you getting money. Giving money might be the donor’s transaction, but the partnership is not about the money. It is about the relationship. It is about what you have promised to them for interacting with your organization. It is about promoting your organization’s mission. It is about your organization living up to its promises to the community. It is about you entering into an exchange with a donor: I will help you to feel good about helping your community if you donate to my organization. It is a mutual exchange based on a trusting relationship. Your organization might measure your effectiveness by the dollars you raise, but your job is NOT about the money. It is about coming to agreement on the exchange mutual benefits and then delivering on your end of the bargain. It is about the relationship you foster. It is about the partnerships you develop.

Partnerships are a two way street. Partnerships occur between two entities because each partner in the relationship gets something from it. The formation of a relationship is based in meeting the needs of all parties involved. How well are you meeting the needs of your funding partners? Have you asked your donors what their needs are? Do you know their values and dreams? Do you listen, really listen, to what your donors are telling you? Do you know what motivates them? Do you know what they hope to get out of their relationship with you and your organization?

As fundraisers, we are horrible at meeting our donors’ needs. According to the AFP 2011 Fundraising Effectiveness Survey, there was only a 27 percent new donor retention rate in 2010. This means that only 27 percent of new donors felt their needs were met through association with the agency they gave to and 73 percent did not. Think about that. Seventy three percent, almost three quarters, of new donors do not get what they hoped for out the relationship they established with the organization they gave to.

Why is that? Why are we so horrible at meeting our donor’s needs?


Number one, we don’t listen. We focus on the money, not on the donors’ underlying values and dreams. We focus so much on meeting our financial goals, that we don’t take time to develop relationship. A relationship, remember, is a two-way street. Do you have mechanisms in place where your donors can initiate interaction with you and give you feedback? How responsive are you to their feedback? How well do you listen to what they’re saying? Can you identify the values and needs behind the feedback, even if it is negative? Do you really know your donors’ needs? They will tell you if given a chance. Do you listen?

Number two, we don’t communicate. Often it takes us weeks to get a thank you note out. Then, when we do thank the donor, we focus on the money transaction which satisfied our need rather than whatever the donor cares about and values. Many times, our donors only hear from us when we need money. What about what we did with their gift? How do they know what they are a part of, how they’re contributing to what they cared about enough to make a donation? Do we value our donors in the same way they value our cause? Most often, we don’t. And if we do, we don’t let our donors know that we do.

Putting donors’ needs first is hard, disciplined work. It means building relationships, which takes time. It means communicating to them in terms that they find compelling, not you. It means sharpening your listening skills and listening first. It means reading between the lines to their underlying values and concerns. It means accepting them for who they are. It means being true to your word and following up with donors. It means having a vision for the long term rather than settling for short term results. It means being invested not in a process, which is easier to manage, but in people with all their glorious strengths and weaknesses and unpredictability. It is hard work to be donor-centric.

If you want to attract donors, meet their needs first. Make sure that what you’re asking them for does not take away from them being able to meet whatever needs they have. Get to know your donors and what’s important to them. Understand their values. Listen to them and what their dreams are. Put them first, not your organization. Build a relationship that starts with them and what they want out life, rather than your need to raise money.


The variety of donor needs, the way donors best hear you, and the way they want to be asked is why your organization has a varied revenue mix. Make sure the fundraising methods you pick are based on the needs of your donors, not what’s easiest for you to implement. And make sure the communication channels you choose to reach those donors are based on their preferences as well, again, not on what’s easiest for you to do.

And remember, when you appeal to donors, approach them in the way they want to be approached, not just what’s easiest for you. Use language and terms that they use. Choose communication channels that they prefer. Use pictures and images that have meaning to them. Get their attention enough to invite them to be a part of the something special that’s happening because of their gift.

People give to people. More accurately, people give to people they trust. Not only must your organization live up to its promises, so must you. For people to trust you, you must have a relationship with them. Asking people for money, then, is not about the money, it is about the relationship you have built with your donors. If you focus on the money you are trying to raise, you will not be very successful. But if you focus on developing mutually fulfilling relationships, you will be successful beyond your dreams.

There is another reason to put your donor’s needs first. If you meet someone else’s needs first, they are more likely to, number one, trust you and, number two, respond in kind. Personal connection matters. The stronger the relationship between you and a potential partner, the more your feedback will mean to that partner. Emotional connections are important because that’s how we relate to one another as human beings. Success in forming partnerships, especially partnerships with donors and volunteers, depends in large part on how well you can make those emotional connections. The more you hone and practice your communication and relationship-building skills, the more successful a fundraiser you will be.

But remember you need more than just a personal relationship if you are to succeed at garnering the resources you need for your organization to carry out its mission. You need to meet individuals’ personal needs. And to do that, you need to listen to your donors to find out what their needs are. You don’t know unless they tell you.

Remember, donors do not give to your organization as much as through your organization. Focus on what really want, what their underlying hopes and dreams are and what they hope to accomplish through their partnership with you. Donors enter into a relationship with you because they think they will receive something of value to them. Give them the value they seek.

If you want to increase your fundraising effectiveness, work on listening to what your donors value. And then communicate to them how what they value is being achieved through their relationship with you.


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