Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during June-1996, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

One of the hundreds of things I am curious about is how people concerned about social justice, who would be on the alert for signs or racism or homophobia if they heard a sentence beginning, “Arabs are…” or “Gay men are…” will let go unchallenged sentences beginning, “Donors are..” In fact, some of the people most sensitive to other kinds of oppressive attitudes and comments will themselves tell stories about “the donors” as though this group was of one mind and type.

Three incidents that have happened to me or people close to me in the past year illustrate some important points about how to deal with the people who make your work possible financially. These stories are all true, but I have disguised key identifiers to protect the guilty and the organization that were involved.


Karen becomes a member of an organization in 1981 with a gift of $25. She believes in the work of the group and also likes the people involved. She becomes involved with the group, talking about its work with friends and colleagues, and asking people to give money to the group in lieu of birthday presents to her. She becomes friends with several staff and board members. Over time, in a very natural and well-done way, one board member and one staff member ask her to increase her gift — first to $50, then to $500 for a special anniversary, then to $1,500. Karen is well-paid professional, but this gift of $1,500 represents a stretch for her and makes this organization the recipient of the bulk of her charitable giving.

In honor of the group’s 20th anniversary, the organization’s development director, now a good friend, asks Karen to consider giving $5,000, as the group is building a small reserve fund. Karen agrees to give this amount over three years.

Two years later, Karen has moved to another state and the development director has left the organization. It is at this point that problems begin. Karen is by now the third-biggest individual donor to this group, yet after the departure of her friend on staff, she receives only newsletters and form letters from the group, including a form letter reminding her of her pledge every few months. Karen will fulfill her pledge because she is a woman of her word, but she feels less likely to keep on giving since the group has made no effort to stay in touch with her in any meaningful way.


Stephen is on the board of a small public foundation. The foundation raises money and gives it away to organizations working for social change. Stephen is a long-time activist and has never earned very much money. Many of the people involved in the foundation have inherited wealth and gift sizes tend to be large.

Knowing it is important for everyone to play a part financially, Stephen pledges $200, to be paid $50 a quarter. A staff member tells him that the foundation doesn’t really need such small gifts. “Giving money is for the donors, not for activists,” he is told. When he expresses surprise at this, he is also told that small gifts are not really worth the effort of administering.

Stephen brings the situation up with other activists on the board who concur with staff: “Let the rich people pay for this. Why should we give money?” Stephen disagrees: “Everyone should be involved in both giving and raising money because it gives a greater sense of ownership. Who owns this group, if only people with inherited wealth are encouraged (or even allowed) to give? Also, some of the ‘donors’ are also activists, and give a lot of time to social change work.” Finding little support for his views, Stephen fulfills his term on the board and leaves the organization.


A major policy disagreement leads Frances and three other board members to resign from their organization. Frances is a long-time supporter of the group, and was once chair of the board, but she is hurt by the lack of support for her right to disagree that she receives from the board members who remain. She has a high paying job and usually gives $5,000 a year to the group. She pays her yearly pledge shortly after she leaves the board, but tells the executive director not to contact her for a year. She will continue to support the group, but he does not want to be in touch for awhile.

A few months later, the organization gets into a financial bind and a board member suggests that the organization ask Frances for an extra $5,000. The board member offers to ask Frances herself. The director approves this idea on the condition that Frances receives a letter outlining the financial bind and showing that the organization knows it is coming back too soon, but hopes Frances will understand the circumstances. The board members agree to write such a letter and follow up.

She gets very busy, however, and does not send the letter. Instead, she writes a quick note and sends it by overnight mail to Frances. “Frances, we are in a bind. Can you help with an extra $5K? I hope you’re not mad anymore. I’ll call you tomorrow to get your answer.”

The letter is mailed on a Friday; on Saturday morning Frances gets a message on her answering machine: “I’m calling for your answer to my letter. It is very important that I find out soon. If I don’t hear from you today, I will call you tonight.”

Frances is angry and shocked by the informality and rudeness of the note and the call, so does not call back. True to her word, the board member calls at 11 p.m. “I waited as long as I could,” she starts. “What’s it going to be?” “You make it easy for me,” Frances replies. “No.”

Learn From Their Mistakes

If these were just isolated incidents, I might tell them over coffee with other fundraising colleagues so we could all shake our heads in disbelief. Unfortunately, however, I hear, see and even experience versions of these way too often. I also hear stories like these from other fundraisers. So, if anything like this has ever happened to you or your group, or you want to make sure it never does, here are some lessons you can apply.

  1. Build relationships with donors among many people in your group. In Karen’s case she had a sense of belonging to the group that was facilitated by her living in the same community. However, organizationally, she only had one real contact in the group, the development director. When that person left, there was no official person assigned to keep in touch with Karen and to continue to make her feel part of the group. An organization needs to have a list of its most important donors — people who give the biggest gifts, people who give the most time, people for whom the group is their largest gift, people who promote the group to others, etc. A staff person (the development director if you have one) needs to keep track of these people and make sure that they are known by several people in the group so that if any staff or board member leaves the group, there is a logical contact person. Karen’s file was passed on to the new development director, but without a commitment to keeping in touch with major donors and key players, it is easy to see how a new person could put donor contact on the back burner. After all, you have a donor regularly paying a rather large pledge. It could seem better to spend the time looking for now donors and ignore the ones you have. But, of course, this is false time economy and will result in the loss of some very important donors.
  2. Remember the point of having individual donors, which is not just to raise money, but to have a team of people out in the world who care about your group. They give credibility to the group and they bring in their own friends. The money they provide can be spent on whatever the group needs, not just specific programs, and they require very little reporting. A broad base of individual donors gives an organization freedom, community support, and a degree of self-sufficiency with their money. To maintain that base means remembering that fundraising is all about building relationships, and not about simply raising money. In Stephen’s case, a board member offers (clearly unsolicited) a decent-sized gift. Aside from the rudeness of turning down any gift, the organization has no commitment to building relationships with their donors. Steven’s gift could increase over time — perhaps he will someday earn a high salary like Frances or even inherit money. By not valuing his $200, the organization loses that and anything else he would eventually give, plus the gifts of all the friends he tells the story to. The donors to this group whose gifts are valued will soon realize that they are only valued for the size of the gifts, and will also begin to drop out.
  3. Screen volunteers carefully. The director of the organization Frances was involved with exercised poor judgment in a number of ways, but most particularly when she gave the go-ahead for this particular board member to contact Frances. She knew that Frances had felt unsupported by board members who remained on the board when she left, and should not have used such a person to approach Frances. Also, it is likely that this board member has a history of harebrained schemes, or of committing to tasks she does not complete or completes badly, as in this case.
  4. Use common sense. Of course, the director referred to in #3 had already messed up when she allowed Frances to be contacted by anyone. She made an agreement with Frances and she needs to keep it. If Frances is the only one that anyone can think of who can give an extra gift in their hour of need, this group is really in trouble. Just because Frances seems to “have the money” does not in itself mean she should be asked. Again, in this case, there is no commitment on the part of the group to a long-term relationship with the donor. In dealing with Frances, the only contact that should have been allowed is a letter from the chair of the board expressing her concern and apology that Frances felt unheard and felt that dissenting opinions were not desired. Even if most board members disagree with Frances’ interpretation, the chair can still apologize for whatever led her to think that and ask for a dialogue. If Frances still wishes to remain incommunicative for one year, that should be respected.

Donors are Individuals

Donors are not water faucets. They do not wish to be turned on for money and then turned off until more money is needed. Donors are not a homogeneous group about which broad generalizations can be made. Since everyone involved with an organization purporting to care about it (volunteers, board members) ought to give money and/or time above and beyond the call of duty (staff), any reference to donors should be taken to mean everyone involved in the organization.

Building a broad base of individual donors is for groups that want freedom from funder strings, and that value stability, accountability to their community, no overdependence on one source of money, and strong positive relationships with a wide variety of people. Of course, you say, who doesn’t want that? In fact, I think many groups don’t want it, because they don’t want the work involved.

It is important for organizations that rely on all or in part on donations from individuals to discuss at board and staff levels just what is entailed in doing this kind of fundraising. What responsibility does the group have to these people? What kind of a group has individual donors and how can the group maintain good relationships with these people?

Coming up with honest, serious answers to these questions and implementing a fundraising program that reflects relationship-building as the key element of fundraising will result in a strong organization that has the money it needs from people happy to give it, and to give of their time and expertise as well.