In my decades of being involved in the nonprofit world, I’ve had the privilege of holding many different roles. I’ve been a board member, board chair, committee member, consultant, volunteer, and for many years — a donor.

I’ve seen nonprofits from many sides, but today I want to share from the view of the donor. Building from both from my own experiences and conversations I’ve had with other donors, I want to provide insight into the perspective of those that give.

Donors and volunteers are both givers. They both play critical roles in bringing your agency’s mission to life. Without them, there is no agency. There is no mission.

Both tend to have significant emotional ownership in the agency. You’ve probably experienced it if you ever tried to make big changes to your organization.

We know volunteers want to provide effort that makes a difference — work that helps the client — and they want to be appreciated. More importantly they don’t want their work taken for granted. But what do donors really want? Surely, something more than a tax write off…

Unfortunately, I think we often fall into the same set of assumptions about donors as we do volunteers. We assume they want to help make a difference, help the end client, and of course — be appreciated. But is that really all there is?

Let’s talk about donor assumptions — those that many nonprofits continue to use as “guiding principles” in donor relations work. Many may be familiar to your agency.

We typically assume donorsespecially high capacity donorswant a few key things.

  • To hear success stories and testimonials about the agency’s work
  • To have trust in how you handle donations
  • To feel a sense of agency accountability and transparency in financial dealings
  • Thank you letters issued promptly
  • Smallish, intimate, in-person gatherings, to be updated on your progress

But there are 5 other things they think about but may not verbalize.

5 Things Donors Really Want to Know

1. Specifically, how will my investment in this agency alleviate the problem or equip the clients to overcome their challenges?

2. For major gifts… How will the agency use this donation to make a transformational difference? WiIl it just be tossed into the general fund or will the gift be used to once and for all solve a specific problem, like providing clean water for a village or funding a new and sorely needed program?

3. Why doesn’t your agency either work closely with or merge with, another agency doing similar work? Isn’t this duplication a waste of time, effort, and resources? Sometimes it can seem like many nonprofits are doing more or less the same thing.

4. Can you “translate” what my donation funds? How many families will it feed, and for how long? How many car repairs, backpacks, winter coats, etc.?

5. What progress are you making? Donors appreciate periodic reports on how things are going.

Donors want a relationship with you and need to feel like part of the team. When they are taken for granted or treated like an ATM, the relationship can turn into a cold, impersonal transaction, and it won’t last long.

Donors — especially high-capacity donors — want a clear vision of where you are going and how you define success for the client and the agency. They’re looking for meaningful progress at year-end. How can you share your agency’s positive results, accomplishments, and next steps?

Keep in mind, not every donor is looking for the same type of feedback. Some will appreciate a detailed report with charts and graphs, while others may benefit more from a casual conversation and quick update over coffee.

When it comes to donors, remember one size definitely doesn’t fit all.

Want to know what your donors are thinking?

Ask them! I promise your donors will appreciate it.

Identify your key donors and create a plan to connect one on one with each of them. Offer some or all of the information from the 5 questions above. Invite them to give feedback, share with you their feelings about the agency, and open the door to any other questions they might have.

Once you’ve gained this feedback, share it with your board and key team members. Discuss ways you can help provide meaningful information to your donors going forward.

Cultivating positive donor relationships is the lifeblood of a nonprofit. But it all starts with understanding what your donors want — and need — to feel they matter.

How do you help foster positive donor relationships in your agency? What’s worked well for you? Where have you struggled? I’d love to hear your thoughts.