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10 Tips for Creating Authentic Donor Relationships

10 Tips for Creating Authentic Donor Relationships

August 22, 2019
Karen Kemp

A family friend shared a story with me about a colleague who was the chief development officer for a national health nonprofit. The development officer wanted to get to know a local philanthropist who gave a small annual fund donation to his nonprofit each year. 

The CDO was aware of the donor’s generosity and her capacity to make large donations to causes she cared about. Their first contact occurred over coffee, and for the next 10 years, he got to know her very well. They shared stories about their children and grandchildren, and he checked on her during major events in her life. He never missed taking her out for one special lunch each year. Their lunches provided an opportunity for him to talk about his work and the difference the nonprofit was making for families across the country. They became friends, and the donor became confident that her support of the organization met her philanthropic goals and intentions. 

One day his assistant surprised him with the news that his friend of 10 years was there to see him. He was startled by her showing up unannounced and worried that something was wrong. As she was ushered into his office and sat down, she slid a white envelope across the desk and asked him to open it. He pulled out a seven-figure check from a woman who had given annually for 10 years but never more than a couple of thousand dollars. 

What happened next? According to my friend, they both cried.

This is a beautiful example of the bond that can develop between a donor and a senior leader of a nonprofit. Their story underscores the importance of authenticity in the relationships we develop on behalf of our organizations. This donor was motivated by two things: (1) the organization was fulfilling its mission and using her gifts wisely; and (2) the chief development officer earned her trust and her loyalty by putting her interests as a donor first.

In our eagerness to raise funds for our worthy causes, we spend a great deal of time focusing on the needs of our organizations. And in the process, we often alienate the most important people in them… our donors.

Here are 10 proven strategies for creating authentic relationships with high-capacity donors:

  1. Don’t let the focus on attracting new donors distract you from strengthening the relationship with the donors you already have.
  2. Send timely thank-you letters and live up to any commitments you make to your donors.
  3. Welcome questions about your organization and respond promptly to inquiries about finances and how the donor’s funds are being used.
  4. Recognize that the average donor supports multiple organizations, so be prepared to earn your donors’ trust and confidence.
  5. Personalize your approach to major donors. Nothing takes the place of face-to-face interaction.
  6. Seek ways to recognize your donors, to include asking them how they would like to be acknowledged.
  7. Don’t expect publicity or a special event to motivate a major donor.
  8. Ask questions and listen. Your donors are the best barometer of how your organization is perceived.
  9. Be truthful, even if it identifies a challenge your organization is facing.
  10. Put your donors first! Without them, you can’t fulfill your mission and go about doing the great work of your organization.


Karen Kemp

Karen has more than 20 years of experience as a fundraising and nonprofit professional. She served for 10 years as director of development at Darton State College, where she managed the Darton Foundation and led its first-ever capital campaign. She has also served as executive director of four nonprofits in the health, arts and human services fields; in these roles, she managed annual campaigns, capital campaigns, planned giving, board development, special events and communications. Karen is active in community affairs and serves on the state board of the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault. She graduated from Leadership Albany and has served as state public affairs chair for the Junior Leagues of Georgia. She serves on the board of Family Literacy Connection and is a volunteer with the Atlanta Chapter of the March of Dimes. A former Rotary president, she was recognized with a Martin Luther King Dream Award for her work on behalf of Georgia’s children and their families. Karen attended the University of Georgia and graduated from Georgia State University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Karen’s favorite quote: “Joy is found through living a life of purpose.”