How to Make Your Donors Feel Like a Million Bucks

Donor Love

When people give to causes that are deeply meaningful to them, they feel like a million bucks.

Understanding this — truly, deeply understanding this — is so important I’m going to repeat it in bold and italics.

When people give to causes that are deeply meaningful to them, they feel like a million bucks.

This is the key to successful fundraising. It’s how you create “donor love.” You might already get that. I hope you do. But probably not everyone involved in your nonprofit does.

Do you have board members, for example, that seem completely intimidated by the prospect of fundraising? They’re just not sure how to go about it?

I’m writing this post because I want people to share this with their boards so that they can understand that it makes people feel like a million bucks when they give to causes that are deeply meaningful to them. There, I repeated it a third time.

So what does a fundraising program look like that helps donors feel like a million bucks?

Today rather than tell, I’m going to show.

Here are two scenarios in which I have stood with my wife as a donor. I want to demonstrate what meaningful giving looks like… and what it doesn’t.


There is one particular canvasser who comes to our door every single year, rain or shine. Usually rain.

We recognize her. She remembers us – she is a first rate canvasser. She has subscribed to this blog in fact.

We invite her in for a chat and give $25. The last time she came, we were (embarrassingly) watching the network remake of Peter Pan. She knew as many songs as I did. I might have given $50 to her that year.

It’s a pleasant moment for us. But here’s the thing… for the life of me, I have no idea what organization she represents. I simply don’t remember as I’m writing this. It’s something about the environment (I think) but the name of the organization? No clue. I’d have to go find the receipt.

She was very grateful and I suppose that was supposed to take care of the gratitude and the information quota for the year.

You’ve probably been in a similar situation. How did you feel? Did you ever give a donation to someone who called or knocked on your door, but really you gave to get back to dinner, to get the fundraiser out of your hair? Maybe it was raining and the person at your door looked like a drowned rat. Too pathetic to turn away.

This is a “throwaway gift.” Maybe you care about the cause (certainly you’re not against it) but you don’t know a great deal about the organization and what it does. Mostly you wish you hadn’t picked up the phone. Or wish that your lights were out when the doorbell rang.

This is not a gift that’s “sticky.” The technical term is “renewable” but “sticky” creates an image – the gift is not likely to stick to the organization next year.

Transaction. Not relationship.

The $25 gift we gave to our annual canvasser will not stick. If we’re not home next year when she comes around, the organization whose name I cannot remember will not get our gift.

When I use the word “sticky,” yes, I mean that it will have a high likelihood of renewal. But I also mean something else.

A meaningful gift sticks with you. It’s in your head and your heart. The organization itself has deep meaning for you. It develops strategies to bring the organization to life for you throughout the year.

That brings me to scenario #2. I’d like to put you in the shoes of a donor who makes that kind of gift. A sticky one. The one that makes a donor feel like a million bucks. Donor love.

You’re going to see a very big and important difference.


Our three kids had the privilege of experiencing private grade school at the Montclair Cooperative School before heading off to public high school.

Tuition is less than other private schools in the area because parents are obligated to assist in the classroom a few times every month. Because of this, the community becomes very close. I call it the “Cheers” of grade schools (where everyone literally knows your kids’ name – teachers and parents).

You get the idea.

The school understands that learning is interdisciplinary, that we learn best through experience, and that a strong social curriculum is missing from a society that is so desperately hungry for empathic world citizens who can manage conflict and live generously. And so in the upper school, trips are built into the curriculum. Ten day trips. Trips that stretch the kids. That transform them.

The trips have some core components to them. Nature. Self-reliance. Building a tribe of learners. Putting you in the shoes of another person, perhaps less fortunate or perhaps just someone of an entirely different culture. Community service. A blog with photography. A book created with poetry.

After our kids graduated, we made a gift over several years to fund scholarships to make sure money would not stand between any kid and this remarkable experience.

We had only one stipulation. Each spring after the 8th grade trip, we asked to be invited to the school for coffee to hear about the event. How did the kids experience it? Who were they after the trip?

Last week we had tea with the lead 8th grade teacher, Judy, and the Head of School. Judy is 72 and an active participant in these trips. I have trouble getting out of my car and this woman sleeps in yurts.

She’s amazing. But for us, she’s not the main attraction.

The 8th graders take center stage. Sometimes they show us a slide show. Sometimes it’s a gift they brought back or made. Always we’re shown a book of photographs they took on the trip. Each kid picks a photo and writes about the trip experience through the lens of that photo. In their own way. Narrative, poetry. It’s their call. It’s their voice.

They write us a letter, each of them, offering gratitude for the small role we played in what will be one of the most memorable experiences of their childhood. I know. I have three grown up kids who feel that way.

Here are some of the things they wrote.

“Our trip to the Southwest changed my life. Every moment, every experience charged my soul and made me feel alive.”

“I learned that the best way to enjoy a trip or life is by seizing and embracing the opportunities you are given.”

“I think this trip really helped me grow as a person in deciding who I want to be and who I want to avoid becoming.”

Meet the 8th grade class at The Montclair Cooperative School.

Students at the Montclair Cooperative School

Donor love.


I worked with my wife to design this gift, adding this annual meeting stipulation. It’s not to evaluate our investment. Rather, it’s to remind us each and every year that every 8th grader at the Co-op heads to high school different from almost every other student in our town thanks in small measure to our gift.

They know that the world is their classroom, that they are learners and not workers. They know that nature feeds them. They know they can do things they never thought they could. And they leave as empathetic citizens of the world.

When people give to causes that are deeply meaningful to them, they feel like a million bucks.

I know I do.

But there is more. The purpose of our gift feels big even though it’s hardly the school’s largest. It feels big because of the way the gift is brought to life for us each year. We have the opportunity to say that we are helping to develop the kinds of citizens I pray we have more of. It really is donor love.

That is really big.

So a final message or two from someone who gives money:

Please don’t be afraid or anxious about asking for money. Just ask. If we can’t give, we’ll tell you.

And if we do give, please figure out a real and tangible way to bring the work to life for us, not just so that we see the specific need it fills – but also to remind us of the better world your organization helps to create with our support.

If you can do that, not only will we keep giving, but we’ll love doing it and will want to do more of it.

Why wouldn’t you want everyone you know to have the opportunity to feel this way?

So an assignment for you. I bet you know at least 5 – 10 people who have fundraising-phobia, trepidation, or has yet to give it a shot.

Can you share this with them?

They need to know what they are missing.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Robin Padanyi

    What a sharp difference between those two giving opportunities!
    Thank you for sharing, from personal experience, how giving to a cause that is meaningful to you can be so very rewarding. Great comparison.

  • Carolyn Sharaway

    Excellent story! Thanks for sharing. I look forward to sharing with my colleagues too!