Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during June-1988, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Asking major donors to renew their gifts year in and year out can seem harder than getting the donation in the first place. Board and staff members often complain that there’s nothing new to tell these donors and that it’s difficult to drum up excitement for work that essentially keeps on year after year.
The first time you approach a prospect, it’s easy to be enthusiastic about the organization’s work. After all, the project is new to the prospect and, for the solicitor, there is the challenge of moving that person from being a non-donor to a donor. In this situation, one tends to tell the prospect a great deal about the organization. Consequently, when going back to get the donor to repeat their gift, the solicitor may feel he or she has already said it all.
This article focuses on how to go back to donors for repeat and upgraded gifts, and what to say to them when you do.
What Will I Say?
When staff and board members complain that going back to major donors is difficult, that there is not much new to say, that they don’t know how to make it interesting, the problem is not with the organization and its work but with the staff and board people. For some reason — perhaps too much familiarity with the issues, perhaps a sense of the struggle never getting easier or of never seeing any lasting victory — they do not have in themselves the enthusiasm and excitement to convey to the donor. Actually, those are the very people who ought to visit big donors, because the donors will re-excite the staff and board. The experience of many tired staff and volunteers is that visiting donors reminds them of why they’re in this work.
If you are one of these “tired solicitors,” here’s something you can do to renew your enthusiasm for the work. Look at your calendar for the past four months (or if you are a board member or volunteer do this with a staff person) and, pretending that you are an investigative journalist, note one thing that happened during each of the past sixteen weeks that helped your organization fulfill its mission.
Many people find it helpful to organize these notes in categories. For example, if you are with a shelter for battered women, you will probably already have a log of phone calls, perhaps even by category — that is, from potential clients, referrals, and requests for speaking engagements. You might now make a category about life changes that your shelter residents experienced in the two or three weeks they stayed there. And add a further category to document miscellaneous community outreach, such as training members of the police department, working with teachers to recognize abuse in children, and the like.
If your organization’s work does not lend itself to this kind of categorizing, be more creative. Again, keeping track of phone calls is an excellent way to measure your outreach to the community and the community’s recognition of your group as a reliable source of a particular type of information. It can also give you a sense of why at the end of many days you feel you didn’t get anything done. Looking at your calendar, you may also note that you have been to twenty-five meetings in four months. That in itself is not exciting, but what came out of those meetings? Was a coalition formed that will present a more unified and stronger voice at the legislature or city council? Did another meeting result in a petition drive that ultimately gathered 3,000 signatures?
In addition, look through your old to-do lists and note the things completed as accomplishments. This will cheer you up and help you realize that you are getting the work done.
Make up a master list of accomplishments, using the information from your calendar, to-do lists, and information gathered from other board and staff. Now, when planning visits to donors or prospects, you can identify from the master list those things that will be most interesting to them.
Approaching Major Donors Giving $100–499
For most small groups, donors in the $100–499 category will be the bulk of major donors. If you are not asking a donor to upgrade their gift there is no need for a visit to the donor. Even though the money may be a great deal to them, the donor who gives $100–499 simply wants to know that the organization is continuing the work in which they invested. They don’t need a lot of new excitement, or even lots of victories — they don’t expect their gift will have tipped the balance between struggle and success. They know that their gift, while more financially important than a smaller gift, is still small in the context of even a tiny organization’s budget.
The letter to these donors can be one page with just three or four paragraphs. Use the first paragraph to emphasize the very important role of the donor to your organization. In the second paragraph, tell a little about what’s happened during the year. The donor should already be familiar with what’s been going on in the organization by virtue of your newsletter, annual report, and other correspondence. In the third paragraph tell the donor you rely on the ongoing support of people concerned with and committed to this kind of work, and then ask the person to renew. Enclose a stamped return envelope.
If there’s no response to this letter after two or three weeks, then a follow-up phone call may be necessary. An average organization can expect about two-thirds to three-fourths of the donors in this category to renew.
When to Ask a Donor to Upgrade their Gift
If a donor has given the same amount for two or three years, consider asking them to upgrade their gift. Review any information you have obtained during this time about this donor, including the size of gifts they give to other organizations and the degree of commitment they have to your organization, evidenced perhaps by their involvement — attending events, organizing campaigns, etc.
If you have determined that it’s time for an upgrade, a letter followed by a phone call is imperative, and a visit is most helpful. When deciding whether to visit, take into account common sense factors such as how far away the donor lives, whether the amount donated represents a great deal of money to this donor (in which case a personal interview would show the organization’s respect for that size gift), and how much staff and board time would go into renewing the gift. Then decide whether these costs are worth incurring in order to renew or upgrade a gift.
The letter to a donor whose gift you are seeking to increase should begin similarly to the letter to smaller donors. Thank the donor for their ongoing support in the first paragraph, use the second paragraph to emphasize that the organization relies on a solid base of loyal donors, and in a third and possibly fourth paragraph talk about new work the organization is engaged in.
Donors are convinced to give more money not because the costs of the organization have increased because of inflation or rising postage costs — which also happens to be true for the donor’s own personal expenses — but because the organization is doing better work or more work, or is under more intense pressure from opposing interests, or has a chance at making significant progress on an important issue. In those third and fourth paragraphs, describe the nature of the new work you’re engaged in and present the need for more funds.
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Then in the final paragraph, make a statement such as, “You have supported us with a gift of $_____ every year for the past three years. I am hoping this year you will consider increasing your gift to $___ or doubling your gift.” Unless you have strong evidence to the contrary, doubling a gift is about as much as you can expect. Continue with, “Because this is a significant increase, I’d like to talk with you more about our work; I’ll call you in a few days to discuss this with you. Thank you again for your loyalty and generosity.”
Enclose a stamped return envelope with this letter. It sometimes happens that the donor sends a check before you can make the phone call. Wait a week — this gives time for the donor to send a check if they are going to act right away — then call. If the donor sends the check before you have a chance to call, call to thank them.
When you call or meet with the donor, be sure that you actually have something new to talk to the donor about. Note that “new” does not have to mean “different.” For example, a community organization in eastern Tennessee that works on strip mining issues does not need to move into some other area of environmental or community concern in order to have something to report. There is always something new with regard to strip mining permits, other communities threatened by strip mining, water quality issues, new coal operators wanting to get into the fray, etc. For this group to seek doubled gifts is not difficult because their work is always intensifying. As they become better known and people trust them, they are invited by residents into new communities. This is a sign of success that donors want to be a part of, balanced by the very real need for more funds for the organization to do its work.
As always, it’s important to remember that even though your work may have expanded and the need for what you do may have grown — and the financial ability of the donor to give may have grown as well — the donor’s commitment to you may not have changed. In this case, they will exercise their option to give at the same level, reflecting that they give your group the same priority as before. Be gracious in accepting this outcome. It is not a rejection; the donor is merely turning down the opportunity to become more involved in your group.
Approaching Donors Giving $500 or More
The second kind of donors are those who have made a much more significant investment in your organization with a gift of $500 or more. Even for a wealthy person, a gift of this amount to a small organization is clearly significant and they know its loss would be felt. These donors have given this much money because they like the work you currently do and are interested in making sure you can continue to do it as long as there is a need.
With these donors, your task is a somewhat delicate one. On the one hand you must let them know that there is still a definite need while on the other, you must answer the unasked question of why you haven’t solved the problem.
You need to convince them that you are making headway against the problem but that it still exists or exists in even greater proportions than it did the year before. Obviously, when working on issues of hunger, homelessness, unemployment, racism, and others of this nature it is not hard to make the argument that the problem still exists and to convince the donor that the headway you have made is not enough to solve the problems.
However, in certain kinds of fights, such as those concerning the cleanup of toxic dumping in local rivers or lakes, landlord-tenant struggles on a community level, overcoming illiteracy or improving local health care, donors at this level will ask more searching questions about how effective your work is.
Again, your task in making a clear argument for a repeat or upgraded gift will be much easier if you have shared information with the donor during the course of the year. Then the donor will be familiar with the situation as it has unfolded.
To get a donor to repeat a gift of $500 or more, it is important to offer to visit, unless the donor lives very far away or there is some other mitigating circumstance. Although the donor may turn your offer down, they appreciate that you made the gesture. Being able to visit a donor is a wonderful opportunity for staff and board to learn what people who give you money find interesting or puzzling about a group. Also, donor knowledge about your group can lead to increased loyalty by a successful visit.
The strategy for getting the gift to repeat is the same as forgetting the gift in the first place: a letter or a phone call containing a request for a meeting. Many donors decline to meet, but renew their gift nonetheless. People often question why it is necessary to offer to meet when most donors are too busy to do so. It is the offer to take the time to meet with the person, even if that offer is rejected, that causes the donor to feel included, involved and needed in the organization and makes them want to repeat the gift. Think about how you feel about your friends when you have the flu. If a friend calls and wishes you a speedy recovery, that is a nice gesture, but if that friend offers to do something for you — go to the store, deliver a meal — even though you may not need their help, that friend’s sincere willingness to go out of their way for you convinces you that they care about you.
Besides showing your genuine interest in your donors, an offer for a meeting, if accepted, allows a donor to voice any concerns they have about the direction your work is taking and to make suggestions concerning the organization. Furthermore, it gives you the chance to ask the donor not only for another gift, but also for names of people the donor knows who might also be interested in your work. While these types of information can be exchanged over the phone, a phone conversation is never as personal an interchange as a meeting.
Upgrading the $500 Donor
The main factor in determining whether or not to ask the person to upgrade their gift is your knowledge of how much the gift represents relative to their financial situation and their belief in your cause. For example, an advertising executive earning $125,000 a year gave $1,000 to a community organization. At the time he gave the gift, he mentioned it was the largest gift he had ever made, although he did support some other local charities. Though a big gift, $1,000 is not the maximum amount this person could afford for a charity that he states is his largest charitable commitment. So after two years of him giving at that level, a request for an upgrade to $1,500 or even $2,000 would be most appropriate.
In another example, a school teacher earning $18,000 a year gave $750 to a citizens’ group that opposed toxic dumping in her community. To request an upgrade from her is probably not appropriate, if you know nothing else about her financial situation aside from her salary.
It is never inappropriate, however, to ask people to increase their gift by $50 or $100. Even if they turn you down, the request will not seem presumptuous.
In conclusion, remember that when people give your organization money, they are paying you to do work that they cannot or will not do on their own. Thus, in some ways, your request for money is merely a request for payment of services already rendered, or a request to recommit to continue rendering these services. The difference between a donor who renews and one who does not or a donor who, when able to upgrade, chooses only to renew or give less, is not a reflection on the content of your work. It may be a comment on the enthusiasm of the solicitor, but it may also reflect that the donor has other commitments and other issues they care about.
People go back to a restaurant they like not to see a new menu, but because they like and trust the old one. And people go back to their same vacation spots hoping that they will be the same, not hoping that they have changed. Particularly with renewing donors, the content of the work has already been “bought”; it is the rekindling of that original desire to buy that keeps the donor giving.