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Skagit Valley Hospital

How Not to Treat Your Donors



If you are working in development right now, chances are good that your life is consumed by year-end appeals, year-end metrics, and year-end numbers.  And, if you are a donor to nonprofits, this is the time of year that you receive appeals from many of them, all seeking another gift, a new gift, or a renewed gift in support of the mission.

All of us at The Collins Group are also donors – somewhat picky and perhaps overly critical donors given the nature of our work, but donors nonetheless – and as it happens from time to time, we swap donor “horror stories.” With the holiday season in full swing, we felt it was time to share some of these true tales with you.  May your fundraising efforts never resemble these!

Assume the Best—and Follow Up

A staff member made a major gift to her employer’s capital campaign. A few years later, she accepted a job at another organization.  With one year left on her pledge, the staffer let the fundraising shop know that she was committed to fulfilling it. Fast forward another year: the donor and her husband are new parents. In the midst of this happy chaos, the charity sends the couple’s final pledge reminder, which disappears in a pile of diaper coupons, junk mail, and holiday letters. The sleep-deprived couple never noticed that they haven’t received the pledge reminder and are astonished to learn later that their pledge was written off.

Take away:  Assume the best.  We all get busy.  Most donors want to honor their agreements and fulfill their pledges. If someone misses a payment, it’s most likely an oversight.  If you don’t receive a pledge payment from a donor, pick up the phone. Too shy to pick up the phone?  Send a gentle inquiry letter, or ask the person who first solicited the gift to reach out.

A Lead Donor is Always a Lead Donor

A board member stepped up to lead a charity’s multi-million dollar capital campaign. Affiliated with the organization for 15 years, she made what was for her an enormous six-figure stretch gift in the form of a five-year pledge.  A year or so after the campaign successfully completed and with two years left to complete her pledge, the board member accepted employment at a related organization. From that moment forward, staff from her former organization froze her out. They made no attempt to remain in contact—no phone calls, pledge reminders sent unaccompanied by a personal letter, and a special invitation to her organization’s event was unceremoniously declined.  Will this organization ever receive another significant gift from her? No way. Have they lost tremendous good will and excellent word of mouth? Absolutely.

Take away: Unless your donor tells you explicitly that he never wants to hear from you again, he is your significant donor—no matter when the gift was made or what other organization he supports—and as such deserves your ongoing honor, recognition, and personal attention.

Timing is Everything

A young woman received medical care at a hospital for the first time. Three months after being treated she received a letter from the hospital.  Assuming it was a bill, she opened it, only to discover that she was being solicited for a gift to the hospital’s foundation.

Take away: Make sure your annual giving request could not be mistaken for a bill, and institute a rule—new patients are not added to mailing lists until at least six months after being treated.

Always Send a Thank You

A long-time former board member attended an organization’s fundraising event. She made an outright gift, noting on the gift card that she wished to be contacted about making another contribution.  Not only did she not receive a thank you for her gift, no one from the nonprofit responded to her note.

Donors, especially potential major donors, often test nonprofits to see how they respond to a gift. One donor’s rule: if she doesn’t receive a personal contact for a gift of $250 or more, the organization is dropped from her giving list.

Take aways:  A thank you note for a gift of any size is not only gracious good manners, but the foundation of donor retention.  Educate yourself on donor retention.

Keep the donors you have.  The easiest way to raise more money is to keep the donors you have, and one of the best ways to keep your donors is to make sure you honor and treasure not just their gifts, but their desire to support your mission.


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About the Author

Kristin Barsness CFRE

Vice President

With a researcher’s eye for the important details, Kristin understands the intricacies of building strong donor relationships to meet your fundraising goals.


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