Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Sep/Oct 2011, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

In my 25th Anniversary Article for the Journal, “A Life in Fundraising,” I commented that when Lisa Honig and I founded the Journal we never imagined it lasting 25 years. Since then, as the Journal continues, I have been neither publisher nor editor, but I am a happy subscriber.

Much has changed in the nonprofit world through these years, but there is one element of fundraising that has not changed, and that is the need to see fundraising as essentially a process of building relationships. Perhaps the most useful thing I can contribute to this anniversary issue is to remind us all of what that means.

The notion that the purpose of fundraising is not to raise money but to build relationships continues to get lost in the sheer overwhelm fundraisers face in doing their daily jobs. Ironically, were this principle to be put into practice more con-scientiously, fundraisers’ jobs would become easier.

The principle is this: “Don’t seek a donation, seek a donor. Don’t look for a gift, develop a giver.”

A good illustration of what it means to develop a giver comes from a story adapted here from my book, Fundraising for Social Change (6th edition).


Feeds her cats, kicks off her shoes, and sits down to glance through what little snail mail she still gets. Most she considers “junk” and throws away, but one piece of direct mail catches her eye. It’s from a program that helps lower-income women find work. Gina is attracted to their mission statement: “We believe in the power of women to change each woman and the potential of each woman to give all women power.” Because Gina generally supports women’s causes, she opens the letter, reads it quickly, and decides to send a small gift. As she waits for her dinner to cook, she writes out a check for $35 and puts it in the return envelope that came with the appeal.

This impulse gift does not represent Gina’s true giving ability nor does it say much about her commitment to or even knowledge of that organization. Now the program must try to get Gina to give again so that she begins to be a regular or “habitual” donor.

In a few days Gina again comes home tired, and again feeds her cats and starts her dinner. In her mail, she finds a short, personal thank-you note from the program. “How nice,” she thinks. She again feels good about her gift and the name of the organization is more firmly planted in her mind.

Over the next few months, Gina receives a copy of the program’s newsletter. She looks at their website and “likes” them on Facebook. About three months later, Gina receives another letter from the program. This letter thanks her again for her previous gift and asks if she can make a special, extra gift to help buy playground equipment for the children of the women at the program to use while their mothers take classes and get coaching on job skills. Gina is touched by the request and sends $50.

Again, she is personally thanked with a note that specifically says, “Thanks so much for your extra gift of $50.” Gina appreciates that the organization notices these extra gifts. Another special request comes three months later, but Gina has had some extra expenses so sends nothing.

Three months after this—now nine months since her first gift—Gina is invited to an open house and tour of the program. There she meets the director and some board members, including some graduates of the program. Everyone who attends is asked to leave a check in a jar by the door if possible. Gina gives another $25.

Over the next two years, this pattern is repeated. Gina comes to a few events. She volunteers with the phone-a-thon in response to an e-mail asking for people who can give an evening during the week. She joins the group’s e-mail list for action alerts, and from time to time calls her congressperson or signs a petition to advocate for better services and more funding for work-preparation programs.

By now, Gina has moved from being an impulse donor to being a habitual donor to the organization, giving whenever they ask if she can. She sees herself as a part of this organization. She forwards e-mails from the organization to friends and asks her family to donate to them instead of buying her birthday presents.

Now Gina receives a personal letter signed by a board member asking her to consider becoming a monthly donor by contributing $25 per month. The letter thanks her for her past support, talks again about how important the programs are, and asks her not to make a decision until the board member calls her. Gina now has to think about the organization: How important is it to her? Does she care enough to have $25 charged to her credit card every month? Can she afford it? What will she want to find out from the board member to help make her decision?

Whatever her decision, Gina has moved to the next level, that of a thoughtful donor. She may thoughtfully decide to give $25 a month or to give $100 once by check, or she may continue to give small gifts a few times a year, but she has had to think about her giving. After talking with the board member, she joins the monthly donor program.

Over the course of about three years, Gina’s relationship to the organization has gone from impersonal giving by mail to

a little more personal (attending events and volunteering for short-term projects) to very personal (being solicited by a member of the board).

More years pass, during which Gina continues to be a regular donor and occasional volunteer to the organization, and her annual giving increases during that time. Now the group decides to buy a new building that will allow them to save money by bringing all their programs on-site. In addition to state, federal, foundation, and corporate funding, the group must raise $250,000 from individuals. Their capital campaign asks each of their donors for a capital gift in addition to their annual gift. Because she is both a reliable volunteer and a steady major donor, Gina is asked to serve on the capital campaign committee. She now knows several board members and the executive director and development director. Gina agrees to serve and decides to give $15,000 that she inherited unexpectedly from an aunt. She is happy to find a meaningful way to use this money.

After the campaign is completed, Gina is invited onto the board and decides to join it. When the organization institutes

a legacy giving program, Gina changes her will so that the program receives a major portion of her estate.

Working with the Right Donors

Most organizations have relationships with some of their donors that are similar to the relationship this organization devel-oped with Gina. These relationships often turn into friendships between the donor and some of the organization’s key staff and volunteers, and it is possible that no one even quite remembers how the relationship started or progressed. But an organization needs a program that systematically builds relationships with donors, as the work-preparation program did with Gina.

As your organization recruits more and more donors, it has to figure out which donors might respond the way Gina did and which donors really don’t want to do more than send a donation once or twice a year. Here are two examples from my own experience to illustrate why someone may or may not become a thoughtful donor to a particular organization.

I have given to one organization for about five years simply because the development director, who attended one of my trainings, asks me personally for a donation each year. He writes a letter (not an e-mail) and follows up by phone, trying two or three times until he gets me. He is a lovely person and very committed to his cause, and I hope his organization, which does important work well, raises a lot of money. However, theirs is not work that I am particularly drawn to, so in response to his requests to increase my gift, I finally told him, “I admire your persistence and I appreciate the work your group does, but it will never be one of my top ten organizations. The amount I donate now is likely to be the most I will give this group.”

On the other hand, I have given money off and on for about 30 years to an organization whose work I really care about.

I go to some of their events and I tell friends about them. As the years have passed, I hear less and less from them. During years when they received a lot of foundation funding, I didn’t hear from them at all. I would see members of their staff and board at different events, so I felt connected, but they were not always on my list for giving, which I realized was because they hadn’t asked. Once I said to the then-new executive director, “I have been giving this organization money for years, yet I never have received a personal letter or any request to give more.” In response, she said, “Our database is kind of screwed up. I don’t know what to do about that.” I thought to myself, “How about fixing it? Or getting a new database? Or how about saying, ‘I will call you next week to discuss what we are doing and to ask you for a bigger donation once you hear about our new work.’ ”

Neither of these organizations will get very much more money from me, one because I don’t care enough to give more and the other because they don’t care enough to ask for more.

Every organization will leave some donors behind and will make mistakes. You will pursue people who respond to your persistence but not your cause; you will leave donors off the list who love what you do and would give you much more money. You will spell names wrong and forget that Mary and John are divorced or Joe has died. But you will do this far less often and with far fewer consequences if you build into your organizational culture the importance of relationships.

Keep the following points in mind:

  • Donors have a variety of really good organizations to give their money to. Few donors can give to every excellent organization, so most will choose the ones that pay attention to them. Among the half-dozen or more organizations most givers support, they tend to give most to the ones where they know people and they feel noticed.
  • Organizations generally do a good job of getting donors to give for the first time and thanking them, but they often abandon their donors in the search for new donors or when they win foundation funding. In this way, they bring donors in only to drive them right back out again.
  • Although an organization may use personalized letters and e-mails to solicit donors, it must remember that personalized is not the same as personal. Personal means knowing the person in question, not just making them think you have addressed them personally.

Building Relationships as a Cultural Enterprise

Every staff and board member should operate from two principles in developing relationships:

Having a lot of donors is more important than having a lot of money. Having lots of donors can lead to lots of money, but there is even greater value: having lots of donors means having lots of people who can write letters to the legislature, show up at demonstrations, ask other people they know to become donors. Your donors are ambassadors for your organization; the more you have, the more you can mobilize that energy.
Donors, being people, respond to genuine interest in who they are. Keep a list of questions in your mind to ask donors: how they found out about your organization, what other organizations they think do really good work, how long they have lived in the community, where they grew up, and so on. What separates good fundraisers from great ones is curiosity. Good fundraisers want to find out what the donor knows about their organization and fill in the blanks, get more excitement going, and ask for more money. Great fundraisers want to find out more about their donors because they love to know all the kinds of people who are attracted to their organization.

Five Practical Ways To Build Relationships

Building on these two principles, here are five practical things you need to do to honestly say that relationship building is central to your fundraising practice.

  1. Flag those donors who seem most interested in your work. Pursue those people who give often, who give for years at a time, who write personal notes on Post-its that they attach to their checks, who come to events. Spend 60 percent of your time with the 10 percent of your donors who are most interested in your work. Most, but not all, of these people will be major donors, but some will also be long-time donors, donors who give frequently, and people who are not giving to their capacity.
  2. Have a team of volunteers to work with donors. A strong donor program cannot be entirely staff driven. Give your volunteers a portfolio of donors: “These are your twenty people to keep in touch with, invite to events, e-mail with breaking news, and ask for money.” One staff person can maintain good relationships with 50 to 75 donors at the most. But one staff person coordinating just five reliable volunteers can build relationships with 200 or more donors. A national organization I talked with recently has 60 volunteers on a Resource Advisory Council. Each volunteer gives their own gift and is responsible to raise $5,000 or more. Each has a portfolio of 5 to 20 donors; among all of them, they keep in personal touch with about 750 donors giving $500 or more. This committee raises more than $100,000 a year. Most of these volunteers were found on the donor database. They were donors who gave $500 or more and were asked to increase their gift and to become involved. They all do something to raise funds for the group.
  3. Be a donor yourself. Yes, it’s a cliché, but this is critical! You and everyone who deals with fundraising needs to know exactly how it feels to decide how much to give to your organization. Watch your mind as you choose between amounts you can really afford. Could you have given $100 but you chose $50 instead? Why? Do you think one of your programs isn’t well managed? Or is it that you need to send as much money as you can to your recently unemployed sister who is in danger of losing her home? Donors have the same concerns you do. Being able to say (or just know) that you are asking someone to do something you have already done and felt good about is very different than asking someone to do something you haven’t done and won’t be doing.
  4. See your donors (and your funders) as human beings. Far too often I hear condescending remarks about donors from development directors, along the lines of “The donors love that cheesy heartstring stuff.” Someone told me recently that a proposal I had written needed more “puppies and kittens about to get gassed” to “really get the funders going.” (The work had nothing to do with animals.) It is hard not to get cynical sometimes about donors, but when you feel that some of your donors are too demanding or your funders are “out of it” (a comment I hear often), you need to take a couple of hours off. See a dumb movie. Read a trashy novel. Get a massage. When I feet irritated with donors or funders, I have to remind myself that without these people the organizations I work for would not exist. It’s important to get back into feeling good about your organization and all the people who make your work possible.
  5. Remember that people change. Your organization may be a donor’s favorite for a few years, then not. Like friendships, relationships evolve. Someone who was your closest friend in college may be a person you write to once a year now. A donor who loved your organization when it was starting out may feel you have gone too mainstream as you have gotten bigger. On the other hand, someone who questioned whether your organization’s could deliver on your program promises when you were small may now be impressed with your growth and want to help more. These changes are why you always need to bring in new donors and you cannot take it personally if a donor stops supporting you (if you have done everything you can to find out why).

The first thing I ever learned about fundraising is that is it is not really that hard. It is hard work, to be sure, but it is not hard to understand. Can you tell the truth? Can you make friends and keep them? Do you care about something? Are you interested in people? Then you can raise more and more money from more and more donors every year.

Kim Klein is the founder and publisher emerita of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal. Her classic book, Fundraising for Social Change, has recently been updated in a sixth edition, available from josseybass.com. Kim can be reached at kleinandrothconsulting.com.


  • In 1981, we were in the midst of a recession spurred by U.S. monetary policy and an energy crisis. In 2011, we are slowly coming out of a recession fueled by the subprime mortgage crisis exacerbated by rising oil and food prices.
  • The amount of money given to charity by private sources was $60 billion in 1981 and $290 billion in 2010. The United States Gross Domestic Product was $3 trillion in 1981 and $14.7 trillion in 2010. Both grew 5 times larger.
  • Of the money given to charity by private sources, 83% came from individuals in 1981 and 73% came from individuals in 2010.
  • The fundraiser’s job has become increasingly professionalized over the years. In 1981, the Association of Fundraising Professionals boasted 2,500 members and now they have almost 30,000.
  • 1981 was the first year that the word “Internet” was mentioned and MS-DOS was released by Microsoft along with the first IBM PC. In 2011, 90 percent of our subscribers report using Facebook regularly.