Getting personal with your donors – where’s the line?

publication date: Jan 24, 2018
author/source: Kathy Penner

“People don’t give to institutions, people give to people.”

This is one of the first things we’re told when entering the fundraising profession and we quickly discover it’s true. Establishing and nurturing positive relationships with donors is key to securing their support and maintaining it over the long-term. Even when approaching a foundation or a corporation, we’re interacting with the people who represent them, just as we represent our charities.

One of the greatest rewards of being a development professional is meeting wonderful people who care about our important causes and who are prepared to share some of their heart, soul and money to help them succeed. And one of the most meaningful ways in which we can express our appreciation for their philanthropy is stewarding the donor/charity relationship with a perfect balance of human connection and professional service.

In your first conversations with a prospect, you convey your charity’s activities, trustworthiness and need for support. You describe how their gift will make a difference. They tell you about what’s important to them (and why), giving you more insight into which aspects of your charity’s work will be the most meaningful to them.

As your conversations continue through cultivation and into stewardship, there’s nothing wrong with (and much to be said for) sharing a little bit about yourself. Relating on a more personal level can help donors feel connected to you - and by extension, your organization.

So, if you’re comfortable doing so, go ahead and tell the donor something about why you are passionate about your cause. Share a laugh, if the moment calls for it. If done appropriately, the pleasure of making a positive human connection can weigh a donor’s gift decision in your charity’s favour.

The tricky part is to forge positive bonds that help bring support to your charity without overstepping professional boundaries. But before you dust off your repertoire of jokes and prepare to bare your soul, here are a couple of cautionary notes:

1. Always listen more than you talk. Communication must be focused on the donor – their interests, the impact of their gift, their philanthropic goals, etc. Your stories and opinions are only useful if they further the donor’s feelings of connection to your organization.

2. Pay attention to body language and other cues indicating the other person’s comfort level. If they signal that they don’t share your sense of humour or don’t want to hear that fascinating (to you) anecdote about your childhood struggles, quickly bring things back to a less personal level of conversation.

On the flip side, if a donor wants to share more personal information than you’re comfortable with - especially if it diverts discussion away from your charity and their support – gently guide the conversation back into the friendly-but-professional zone. Whatever you do, don’t gossip, even if the donor initiates it. The way you talk about others informs the donor how you might talk about them with someone else.

3. Don’t confuse a friendly donor/fundraiser connection with personal friendship (although this can certainly be an outcome). Early in my career, I watched in horror as a senior fundraiser - networking at an event - gave a detailed, emotional report to a major donor about her messy divorce. It was a ‘perfect storm’ of two big lapses in judgement - drinking too much at a work event and thinking a strong fundraiser-donor connection was equivalent to a personal friendship. Needless to say, the donor’s relationship with our organization cooled significantly after that! (Later salvaged, but just barely.)

4. Establishing a positive, personal connection with a donor (or their representative) mustn’t come at the expense of ensuring they have a good relationship with your charity as a whole. Remember, personnel can change on either side. The foundation director you’ve befriended may take another job, or you may move on, compromising the bond between the donor and your charity.

Make sure your CEO and/or other representatives meet and personally communicate with ‘your’ donors, and ask donors to introduce you to others in their corporate office, foundation or family. This will ensure a smoother transition if representation changes on either side. At the end of the day, your success at building good donor relationships is measured not by how many new friends you’ve made, but by how many donors remain engaged and satisfied with your organization long after you’ve moved on.

Kathy Penner is the Principal, Kathy Penner Communications. She can be reached at


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