For many nonprofits, the majority of donations come from small, habitual gifts that require little effort to secure but do little to advance the mission. These “pat on the head” donors give to feel good but aren’t deeply invested in outcomes. To achieve real impact, fundraisers must move these donors to become true partners.
According to fundraising experts Russell James and Jim Langley, building meaningful relationships is key.
Conduct in-depth “listening” interviews to understand donors’ motivations, values, and capacity for giving. Ask open-ended questions about their interests and how they’d like to see your organization’s work unfold.
This shows them respect, builds trust, and helps determine if their goals align with your own.
With this knowledge, suggest opportunities for more substantial gifts that will achieve shared goals. For example, offer to “sponsor” or fund specific programs or initiatives. Use a “per diem” framework that breaks down larger gifts into digestible amounts that match what certain activities cost. This helps donors visualize the impact of their giving in a very concrete way.
Follow up with gratitude
Follow up interviews and the resulting gifts with sincere gratitude and reports on the difference they’re making. As Jim Langley said: “It’s not just, you know, chats but it was actually some type of format to it, or maybe they weren’t framed in that way that professor James was talking about where they weren’t predicting their future behavior.” Ask more questions to keep the dialogue going and reaffirm the partnership.
While resource intensive, investing in advancement pays off. According to University of Pennsylvania researchers, fundraising expenditures strongly correlated with fundraising revenue for arts and culture organizations. For every $1 spent, organizations raised between $2 to $8. Moving “pat on the head” donors up the giving ladder is the key to unlocking this potential.
Authentic relationships, active listening, and framing gifts around impact are timeless fundamentals of fundraising success.
In today’s evolving philanthropic landscape, they are more important than ever for turning casual contributors into real partners for change. With vision and persistence, nonprofits can achieve so much more by moving beyond “pat on the head” and towards true partnership.
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