What do donors really want? That’s something fundraisers are constantly grappling with. Many of us “know” what donors don’t want – too much mail and email, phone calls, overloading their Facebook feed, boring events, too many asks for money.

Like Goldilocks, we’re constantly searching for what’s “just right.” Sometimes that leads us to doing too little, figuring our donors love us and will find us when they’re ready to give. Or, it leads to endless surveys which often tell us what donors wish they did, not what they really do. These bad decisions – however well-intentioned – can lead to declining income, lapsing donors, and desperate fundraising efforts.

So, what do donors want? Of course, I can only answer that for one donor – me – and I know I am not “normal” since I am in the fundraising business. But, contemplating this question made me consider what I want from other places that I frequent.

When I go to the grocery store, I want fair prices, stocked shelves, and a cashier who is efficient and friendly, but not too chummy. I just want to get my groceries and leave, feeling like a valued customer.

The restaurant I frequent gets my repeat business because, once again, the prices are good. Add to that, they serve the kind of food I enjoy. However, the real selling point is that the servers are friendly, call me by name, remember my food preferences, and send me on my way feeling better than I felt walking in the door.

I’m also a regular customer with a hotel chain and an airline. In fact, I seldom look at any alternatives, feeling disloyal if I do. Yes, in both cases, I appreciate the perks that come with my loyalty.

How do these examples of loyalty relate to donors? Let’s take a look at the many parallels.

Applying Loyalty Principles to Donors:

  1. Make giving efficient yet enjoyable. User-friendly is not just an old buzzword; it should be the guiding principle as we design our reply cards and website. It’s not about design awards; it’s about making it easy for a donor to do what a donor wants to do – donate.
  2. Have a logical price point. We have to offer the donor something that makes sense. We’ve gotten so skittish about designated contributions that sometimes we give almost no specifics. We expect donors to throw money into the big pot labelled “Trust us.” And let’s face it – trust is in short supply these days.
  3. Treat donors like friends, especially when they take the time to call, email, or write in. An unsolicited piece of correspondence isn’t a cost center; it’s an opportunity to deepen a relationship with a valuable member of our team.
  4. Make it clear that you know a donor is loyal by revealing gratefulness. If we don’t want donors to treat nonprofit organizations like interchangeable parts, we have to continually earn their loyalty, never assuming it’s a given.
  5. Remember that not everyone wants what you are offering. Therefore, treasure the donors you have. Yes, look for more, but never take those you have for granted. Make every interaction they have with you feel as special as when you welcomed them as a donor.

What do donors want? There’s no one answer. Begin by asking yourself what makes you loyal to the companies you frequent, and look for ways to replicate those positive experiences in the nonprofit context.


Pamela Barden, CFRE, is a Direct Response Fundraising Strategist and Copywriter. With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations.  She specializes in writing fundraising copy, P.R. materials and instructional articles, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy.

As Vice President and Group Director at Russ Reid (2006–2009), she was responsible for the management of the largest single account for this marketing agency specializing in nonprofit fundraising.  Her nonprofit experience includes leading the fundraising work for International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (2001–2006); World Relief Corporation (1988–2001) and Youth for Christ/USA (1979–1988).

Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE), winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from the DMA, a Distinguished Instructor for UCLA Extension, adjunct instructor at University of La Verne and a weekly columnist for “Today in Fundraising.”

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