Why Major Donors Give, Continue to Give, and Stop Giving

Sep 5, 2019Leadership

Why-Major-Donors-Give-Continue-to-Give-and-Stop-Giving-1-1 Leadership

Do you want to know why major donors give, continue to give, and stop giving?

Hear what a major donor panel shared about their likes and dislikes!

Hint: It is essential to get to know your prospective donors so you can align your gift request with their passion.

In my course, Your Ultimate Guide to Major Gift Fundraising, students are guided through the process of visiting with prospective major donors. Nonprofit leaders must know their donors' values, interests, and passions. Sample questions are shared to put students on the right track.

Several weeks ago, I moderated the Donor Panel Discussion at the Association of Fundraising Professionals – Alabama Chapter’s monthly meeting. A part of AFP-AL’s mission is to support members through education and training.

Five major donors from the community agreed to serve on the panel to answer questions and speak openly about their experiences as a major donor. They offered guidance and understanding of donor engagement from a donor’s perspective.

Here are the questions asked and how donor panelists responded:


1) What do you think motivates you or most people to give a major gift to a nonprofit for the first time?

  • Leadership

The donor has to have passion for the mission of the organization. If that is not there, you are wasting your time trying to garner support from that individual.

  •  Impact:

The gift has to be impactful. Even though it’s sometimes difficult to measure, donors want to know the people being served are better off because of their contribution.

  • Gift Alignment:

The magic happens when a nonprofit has done their homework, research, and due diligence to understand the prospective donor’s interests and passions. Then align the ask with a specific project.

The fundraiser needs to wait until the ideal project comes along that aligns with the donor’s passion and interests. Give the donor a chance to be excited and shine.

  • Results:

Relationships are critical, but donors also want to know what their investments will do. They want to see measurable results. The numbers are important to donors.

  • Belief:

Donors are interested in strong leadership, the mission, and how the organization makes them feel. 

  • Strategy:

Too often, nonprofit leaders sit around a table and say, “they are big philanthropists; let ’s call them.” That’s the wrong way to secure major gifts.


2) What do you think motivates you or most donors to CONTINUE to give at a significant level to a nonprofit?

  • Connection:

There has to be a continued connection to the people at the organization and the people affected by contributions.

Donors want to be directly connected to the work. They want to see, feel, and touch the work being done with their gifts. They want to hear about the successes and failures. Be open, honest, and upfront with donors. Don’t be afraid to say, “We tried this, and it didn’t work well. Here’s what we are doing to address this.” 

  • Engagement:

Nonprofits must keep donors engaged. Find what works for each person. For example, it may be serving on a committee. Don’t ask a donor to participate in something that does not fit them. 

  • Impact:

Donors want to see the impact and results of their gift. They want to know the number of jobs created, how many people furthered their education, the number of children served, for example. If nonprofits can show measurable outcomes, donors will continue to give.

Numbers matter. Donors are looking at the nonprofit’s IRS 990 to determine the health and stability of the organization. 

  • Sustainability:

A nonprofit must show evidence of their work and show it is sustainable. Be able to answer, “Can you survive and how?” Be prepared to show that your model is sustainable.

Nonprofits often say, “Oh, there is someone rich – let’s go call them.” That’s not a good strategy.


3) Why do you think major donors STOP contributing to a nonprofit?

  • Complacency:

It’s noticeable when a nonprofit becomes complacent about gifts received. Nonprofits always need to be going after new money. Challenge grants are an excellent way to encourage giving.

  • Disrespect:

The next time a donor hears from a nonprofit following a gift should not be asking for more money.

  • Mission Creep:

Often, nonprofits lose their focus. Sometimes nonprofits take on more and more, enlarge their focus and will not have the same impact they once did. They get off track. They should remain focused and be careful of mission drift.

  • Lack of focus:

Nonprofits often don’t determine their needs and keep a strategic focus.

  • Lack of Connection:

Nonprofits must understand their donor’s needs by asking open-ended questions. Establish and maintain meaningful relationships with your donors.

  • Lack of Impact:

The goal of a nonprofit should be to work yourself out of a job – to fix the problem.

  • Lack of Collaboration:

Donors want to see collaboration among nonprofits with a similar mission. They are more inclined to support organizations where there is a group effort.

  • Impersonal Touches: 

Direct mail can be off-putting. Please do not say, “Dear friend,” when sending a newsletter to a major donor. Flag your donors for mailings and always add a personal note.


4) Aside from major financial support, how can a nonprofit best involve, engage, or utilize a major donor with their organization?

  • Skills Recognized:

Donors want to feel that the organization values their specific skills. If a donor is a numbers person, a marketing expert, or an attorney, for example, seek their input in areas of their expertise. See the donor for who they are – a whole person with whole skills set — not the pocketbook.

  • Engagement:

Find educational opportunities for donors. Know your donors’ interests and involve them that way.

  • Desires Recognized:

Understand donors and their needs. Know that their needs change. Go out of your way to discover your donors’ needs and desires.

  • Visibility:

Have a continued presence in your community and testify to your impact. Donors are watching, listening, and reading. You may never know until much later that your nonprofit was identified in a person’s estate plans.

  • Engage the Heart:

Ask for their heart, not just their pocketbook.

5) What do you think is the most effective way for a nonprofit to show gratitude and appreciation to a donor for a major gift?

  • Timely Acknowledgement:

Acknowledge your donors in a timely manner. That’s imperative.

  • Say Thank you:

The best way to a donor’s heart is to say thank you. It’s straightforward – let people know you appreciate them.

  • Connect with Beneficiary:

Meeting or having coffee with those who directly benefited from a donor’s gift is one of the most effective thank-yous a donor could receive.

  • Personal Invite:

“Don’t send me another cup! Swag is overestimated.” An invitation for a donor to visit your office to see what the organization is doing is much more persuasive than swag.

  • Valued:

Stay in touch, and always value what individuals have to give, in addition to money.

6) How important is who asks you for a gift in your decision to contribute to an organization? How important is it that the executive director, the development director, or a board member ask you for a major gift?

  • Board Member:

It’s good to hear from the executive director and development director. However, when a donor hears from a board member, it lets the donor know the board wholeheartedly supports the organization.

  • Preparation:

Being prepared to meet with the donor is as important as who is making the ask. 

  • Relationships:

Always consider the relationship of the person making the ask to the prospective donor. Take advantage of those strong relationships.

Board Makeup: & Passion:


Having the executive director or board chair is good to make the ask. But who is serving on the board is what matters. Donors are looking for responsible board members. They want to know and see the passion of the board members; Passion is what makes a difference in who asks a prospect for a gift.

People Give to People:

“If someone I know and respects asks me to give to a cause, I will likely give something. To give more than something, it needs to be someone with depth and knowledge of the organization. I often find the program person is of great value in the ask. They know what’s actually happening.”

Your Passion:

Nonprofits are doing important work. “Make sure you are working with an organization that aligns with your passion. It is apparent if a professional fundraiser is not passionate about the cause. There is no substitute in being aligned with who you are, your genuine passion, and your connection to the mission. 

7) What advice do you have for board members terrified of asking donors for a gift? 

  • It’s an Opportunity:

Board members need to know they are allowing people to make a difference.

  • It’s Not Personal:

No will not ruin anything. Don’t take it personally. The work is too important.

  • It’s about the Work:

It’s not about saying yes to the board member; It’s about saying yes to the work that’s being done.

  • It’s about Passion:

Board member must have a passion for the mission of the organization. When that happens, asking is easy.

  • It’s about Relationships:

Seeking support is about relationships and knowing the donor deeply before asking for a gift.

It was great to have this panel share their experiences and perspectives as a major donor. The donors’ comments provided valuable insight for development directors and others in the fundraising community.

To summarize, the donors want to be engaged with the nonprofit they are supporting, see evidence of the impact of their gift, and be valued for their many contributions. It is up to the development director to discover their prospective donors’ passions and align the gift with their passion, engage their board in the donor recruitment process, and show appreciation through personal touches.

Above all, make the donor feel valued and appreciated.


Nancy Rieves, Ed.D. is a fundraising coach. She provides executive and development directors with a roadmap to maximize and sustain major gift fundraising. She prepares leaders to be confident and successful in raising money. Reach her at [email protected].


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