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How Can I Grow our Donor Base? Help!

August 27, 

Dear Rich,

As a new development director for a wonderful grassroots organization, I’ve inherited a poorly kept-up database – actually a spreadsheet – of individual donors. There’s no clear information on their giving history, and I’m not even sure some of the smaller donors have been thanked. The executive director nurtures a select group of major donors, but the rest get a “Dear Friend” mass mailing a couple of times a year. I’m sure a little personal attention would increase some of the donations, but I’m having trouble convincing the executive director that it’s worth investing my time. Help!

Dear Friend,

It is fine for the executive director to nurture a select group of major donors, but the “feeder system” to major donors are usually smaller donors who become invested in the organization and grow into major donors over time. In fact, when RMA has analyzed donor bases and found out where most of the planned gifts have come from through wills and bequests we see a very interesting pattern: Most planned gifts ARE NOT COMING FROM MAJOR DONORS but from small donors who have made multiple gifts over the past five years.

It is crucial that nonprofits track donors in an effective donor data base and make sure to appropriately and personally take an interest and thank the small donors, because they are the future. We always advise our nonprofit clients to build the donor base at the bottom so the giving pyramid is strong.

As you pointed out, a mass mailing is ineffective and a poor use of resources. We call that “fund raising in a vacuum” as you have no idea who you are mailing to or what interests them. Some people will continue to send in small gifts, but others will simply fade away over time. See I suggest asking your executive director to let you set up a fund raising committee made up of board members and other donors so that the task of identifying all your donors and finding out what interests them is spread across a group of people.

Get the fund raising committee together and go down the list one-by-one. Ask board members to take the donors they know out for coffee or lunch, and divide the task of calling the others over the next few months. Even a simple thank you will make donors feel appreciated and more likely to increase their gift. A few donors may return the calls and ask how they can be more involved – and you are on the way to building a donor program.

If your organization hosts a gala or special event, use the opportunity to turn the new attendees into small donors and then to increase their gift and involvement over time. Make sure the fund raising committee members are deployed effectively and make contact with every current donor at the event. This is really the value of hosting a special event from a fundraising perspective.

I hope you’ll continue to nurture your donors and that your executive director will see the value of your efforts.

Good luck!


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