The Donor Who Was Treated Like An ATM

by Seth Rosen

Late one stormy night I opened an email… and there was a request for a major gift from an organization that only contacts me when it wants money. Shivers!

Dear Fundraiser,

Happy Halloween! In just a few days it will be time for ghouls, goblins, and your favorite candy. Mine is Twix. What’s yours?

For me, Halloween came early this year and I was the victim of a pretty terrible fundraising fright.

Late one stormy night early this month I opened an email… and there was a request for a major gift from an organization that only contacts me when it wants money.

Even though I’m already a major donor I’ve never received a program update and I’m only emailed when the organization wants something.

I’ve never even gotten a phone call. Shivers!

My blood runs cold just thinking about it. When I opened that email I felt like I was starring in my very own midnight fright fest, “The Donor Who Was Treated Like an ATM.”

For a major donor, even the worst that Freddy and Jason can do are nothing compared to being asked for money with zero cultivation.

Why is my nightmare important to you?

You might not be afraid of things that go bump in the night… but I’m sure you’re afraid of a poor end-of-year giving season.

Let’s be honest, all fundraisers shriek with terror at the thought of lower than projected revenue in November and December.

Those months can make up over 40% of a nonprofit’s yearly revenue and if the budgeted dollars don’t come in the door the biggest scares of your life can happen.


Program cuts.

Maybe even the need to find a new job?

If you haven’t been talking to your donors about your organization’s successes over the past year, I can guarantee that scares like these are heading your way.

The best-case scenario is that donors will grudgingly renew their gifts because, with no thanks to you, they know the organization is doing good work.

The worst case is that the donor moves her money to another organization or (cue scary music) she tells a friend that she no longer believes in your nonprofit.

Now I know your hair is standing straight up and maybe its just a touch grayer than it was a second ago.

But all is not lost. If you’ve been lax on communication don’t look for real estate in Transylvania.

Just follow my four-step “Last Minute Treat Your Donor” Plan and your donors will feel like they were treated with the most delicious candy on the planet (Twix) and welcome your end-of-year solicitation.

Step One: Direct Cultivation

Get on the phone with your major donors today. If you’ve not talked to these donors in more than a few weeks and you are soliciting them in the year-end cycle, you must call them now. On the call you are going to:

  • Thank them for their previous gifts.
  • Update them on your organization’s work (with a focus on the donor’s interest if known).
  • Offer a visit, if that is at all possible.

As many of your top donors as possible should be called by your Executive Director, but if that isn’t possible just get on the phone anyway. You simply cannot ask a major donor to renew his gift without this absolute minimum amount of cultivation. These calls must be completed by the end of the first week of November.

If I had received a phone call from the nonprofit that solicited me before the ask I never would have been put into such a frightful state.

Step Two: Communication Triage

Draft and send an email to your list focusing on the impact your nonprofit had over the last 12 months. Include a personal story from a client if possible. Think of this as “communication triage”. Your job is to get the word out to your donors now that your nonprofit truly helps people with the donation it receives.

The subtext of this email is that your nonprofit uses donations wisely and strategically to help the maximum number of people.

Step Three: Thank You Cards

Send your top donors (and anyone you are cultivating for an end-of-year major gift) a handwritten Thanksgiving thank you card. I like to do this no matter what, but you must do this if your cultivation has been subpar over the past year. Your donors and prospects must be reminded how much you value them and you need to make sure they know this in advance of a large solicitation.

Step Four: Recommit to Cultivation

Have a meeting with the Development Team and Executive Director where you all recommit to increased cultivation and communication with your major donors. This is a team effort, and not something that you can do alone. Start this process in January and make sure you talk about it at every staff meeting. Think of the above plan as a preview, not a feature film. To be truly successful, and increase revenue, cultivation and stewardship must be focused on year round.

Trust me. If you do the above, Halloween will give you far fewer scares and more time to enjoy that delicious candy (hopefully Twix).

I’d love to hear what you do to steward and communicate with your donors. Please share your wisdom in the comments below.

Also, if you have any extra Twix after going trick or treating please send them to me care of Joan. Hopefully a few will make it to me!

3 thoughts on “The Donor Who Was Treated Like An ATM”

Leave a Comment