Five Common Mistakes in Major Donor Development

Strong relationships with major donors are vital to the health of any not-for-profit organization or ministry. But there are common mistakes that could be holding you back from a deeper connection with your major donors—and putting your strategy at risk.

Let’s unpack the top five mistakes as well as ways to overcome and pursue deeper relationships with your major donors.

Mistake #1: You don’t really know the heart of your donor and how it aligns to your mission.

We all know that relationship is key to major donor development. That means making it a priority to get to know your donors, engaging them in conversation about who they are and how they want to make an impact.

A key attribute of great major donor development is ‘active listening’.  This means the priority of conversations with major donors isn’t for you to tout your organization or project, but to learn as much about the donor as possible. Active listening means engaging with what the donor is communicating and asking good follow-up questions that will help you learn even more.

These conversations and interactions will give you insights so that when you go to present them with projects to support, they will be those projects that truly resonate with their heart for the mission.

By the way, while you’re getting to know them, they’re getting to know you, too—and building their trust and knowledge of your ministry and mission.

So make a priority of talking with your major donors about their passions and motivations. You may be surprised by the insights they give you!

Mistake #2: You aren’t utilizing behavioral metrics for insight on the donor’s engagement with your organization.

Understanding donor behavior is important in understanding the donor.

It’s important to know not just what your donors say as you speak to them about their passions and desired impact, but what they do, too. (These are often two very different things.) Track their interactions over time – when and where they invest, which special events they attend, the catch-ups they have with your staff.

Understanding their rhythms and giving habits will tell you a lot about a donor and what actually motivates them to give.

Mistake #3: Your ask is not properly informed by the donor’s giving behaviors, history, and capacity.

Following on from that understanding of behavior comes tailoring your ask.

Once you know the donor’s heart and understand their rhythms, you’re in a position to offer the right opportunity at the right time for your donor to respond positively. 

People like to be known and heard. Major donors will respond to a personalized, specific ask. The detail is what makes the difference.

So take into account their giving behaviors (how they like to give), their giving history (what they have already given) and their giving capacity (what could they give to the right opportunity).

If you’re not personalizing and providing relevant opportunity, then you haven’t done the hard work needed in points 1 and 2.

Mistake #4: You aren’t properly versioning, supplementing, and suppressing your mass communications for this highly invested segment.

Your major donors will usually want to know what is happening across the ministry because they are highly invested. But you need to make sure that whatever communications they receive are tailored specifically to them.

So don’t lump them into your mass communications without versioning it for this very special relationship.  And make sure you are asking: Will this add to the donor’s experience, or make them feel like we’ve forgotten who they are?

And a word of warning: if you exclude them from your regular communications, make sure you replace it with a well-considered, bespoke piece. The last thing you want to do is not communicate with them at all! Like any relationship, the depth of the relationship is built off of clear and meaningful communication.

Mistake #5: You’re not intentionally following up to celebrate the impact the donor made possible through their investment.

Celebrating with your donor takes more than a phone call. After all, real life impact is happening thanks to their generosity! So communicate in person where you can (acknowledging, of course, that their time is precious and sometimes a quick email or call can be their preference).

Wherever possible, show both the scale of your donor’s support and the individual impact their generosity has made in the lives of people who have benefited. Be creative and bring it to life for the donor to see, with photos, testimonies, and video.

The effectiveness of your communication relies on you knowing your donor well enough to include measures and stories that will best encourage them. A generic “thank you” message is better than nothing; but take the extra step and show them that you’re genuinely, specifically grateful for their belief in – and support for – your ministry.

A well-timed, authentic, personal thank you can often prompt your donor to look for more ways to engage and deepen your partnership even further.

Overcome these five common mistakes of donor relations, and you will be well on your way to pleasing and inspiring your donors – and growing your kingdom impact as a result.


More Insights from Dunham+Company:  “Get to Know Today’s Planned Giving Donors”

Ready to take the next step? Dunham+Company is here to help your organization have more impact and establish deeper relationships with your donors and supporters. Contact Bethany Cranfield at 469-454-0100 to get more information.