Collecting Stories From Your Donors

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I’m a donor. I imagine you are too. I expect anyone who works in the philanthropic sector to be a financial donor.

Think about your experience as a donor. Have you ever been asked to tell your philanthropic story? Have you—as a fundraiser or board member or executive director—ever asked a donor to tell her story?

Surely this is one of the most important activities you can do as a nonprofit, invite a donor to share his feelings about giving to you. Certainly this is one of the most meaningful conversations a donor could ever have, sharing her hopes and dreams.

So what are the questions you want to be asked, as a donor? What do you want to ask a donor? Think about that. Jot down your ideas for questions. Ask a donor what she wants to be asked. Ask another donor what he wants to be asked.

Put together a list of questions: questions you identify, questions suggested by donors. Start out slowly and gently. If the donors are receptive—and I imagine they will be!—ask deeper questions.

This is your job, finding out why donors give. This is your joy, learning why donors give.

Think about this: Do you know what your donors like the best about you—and what they don’t like? Do you know their interests and disinterests? Do you know their feelings about the cause? Do you know their hopes and dreams?

It’s your job to know all this. More importantly, it should be your wish to know all this.

Reach out and ask. Interview your donors. Collect their stories.

Giving to charity is a very personal act—one of the most meaningful acts a person can make. I hope you want to understand why. I hope you care enough about your donors to find out why.

Always remember: Your organization is the conduit by which the donor achieves her aspirations. You are the means by which the donor lives out his dreams. Keep in mind, the donor can find another conduit, another organization. That’s why you must nurture relationships effectively, or lose your donors. Read my past columns here and here about donor-centrism and the donor retention crisis.

You collect their stories to demonstrate you care. You collect their stories so you can better nurture the relationship with them. You collect their stories to use in your newsletter and your annual report and in your solicitations and on your Web site (with their approval, of course).

Here’s another idea: Type up the story and send it to the donor. She’ll be so proud. I’ll bet she shows the story to her family.

Start right now. Write up the questions and schedule the appointments. And collect the stories! Assign board members and staff to interview donors.

Here are some questions that I want to ask and be asked. How about you?

What interests you most about this organization? What is less interesting to you?

Why does this cause matter to you?

Why did you give your first gift to this organization? (Thanks to Richard Radcliffe, UK legacy consultant, for this question.)

What do you tell others about us? How do you describe this organization to others?

If you could change the world, what would you do? (Or another version: What changes do you believe would make the world a better place?)

What would you like to pass on to future generations? (Another version: What would you like to pass on to the next generation, e.g., your children, your nieces and nephews, other children?)

Who have been the leaders and mentors in your life’s journey? Why and how have they affected you?

How does your philanthropy reflect your values?

If you had a personal mission statement or slogan, what would it say?

How do you want to be remembered?

I’ll say it again: It’s your job to collect the stories of your donors. You treasure the information because you treasure your donors. You honor their stories because you honor them. You respect their interests and disinterests because you genuinely respect them.It’s appalling how few organizations ask donors to share their philanthropic stories. It’s sad to think about all those donors who want to be asked why, and aren’t. What are you going to do about this?

For more information about conversations with donors, see Keep Your Donors: The Guide to Better Communications and Stronger Relationships [].

  • Julie Bornhoeft

    In the midst of the holiday chaos, I took a few minutes to read the NQ newswire and found this gem from Simone. Reminding us the why of our work and the gifts we receive when we do our job well is truly appreciated.

  • Laura Maurer

    Thank you, too, Julie for summing up my feelings about Simone’s article.

    It was refreshing and I mean that in the most basic way…I feel re-freshed in my desire to better understand charitable giving from both ends. Thank you!

  • Aaron Lester

    Hello Julie and Laura. I’m sorry for the delay in my response – some computer glitch. Thanks for your comments. By focusing on our donors – their interests and feelings – we are rejuvenated. By listening to their stories, we understand their aspirations and we’re humbled and inspired. As my partner Tom Ahern says: “Fundraising is not about funding your agency. It’s about realizing the donor’s dreams and needs.” So we refresh ourselves as the professionals. And we must engage our CEO and staff colleagues – and our board members – in this experience of philanthropy. Happy new year.

  • Thaler Pekar

    These are certainly important questions to ask donors. To elicit true stories that may share additional, vital knowledge as well as explain otherwise complex information and relationships, consider asking your donors to “Recall the first time” they gave to your organization, or “Tell about a time” that they felt really connected to your organization.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thanks, Thaler, for your comments. Richard Radcliffe, UK legacy consultant, says the most important question to ask a donor is: Why did you FIRST give to our organization? My website has lots of other questions to ask donors. And I’m adding your question “Tell me about a time that you felt really connected to our organization” to my list of questions. Thanks.