• Stein Strategies LLC

The art of fundraising

When I was fundraising fulltime and people asked what I did for a living, the reaction was generally the same, “I don’t know how you ask for money all day, I could never do it.” My guess is for many fundraisers – they often get similar reactions.

As I’ve transitioned into consulting and training nonprofit clients on the major gift cycle, it’s surprised me that some nonprofit clients are reacting similarly. This is truly unfortunate, given that major gifts are the cornerstone of an organization’s fundraising success – traditionally the field assumed an 80/20 ratio (80% of all gifts come from 20% of donors), but more recent data reveals it’s more 90/10 for most organizations. An organization cannot thrive without a proper major gift program, so these reactions are alarming.

Major gifts cycle

*Institute of Fundraising


For any nonprofit wondering just how to go about cultivating and soliciting a prospect, my answer is always, it’s about authentic relationship building.[1]

Good major gift fundraising entails fully understanding a donor’s passions and aligning those passions with the needs of the organization. Authentic relationship building is built on honesty and the belief that donors make the organization’s impact possible. Major giving is not asking for money from an acquaintance or stranger (although there are exceptions to this), it is not asking for a cause someone is unfamiliar with, and the ask is never a surprise for a donor.[2]

Fundraisers have a special privilege of helping donors realize dreams they have for change in the world.[3] Few professions, if any, offer this opportunity and it is why I love fundraising.


I use authentic relationship building as opposed to “donor-centric” fundraising for a few reasons. Firstly, the term donor-centric is overused in the industry. Most organizations are talking the talk, but not walking the walk. Lack of transparency, overasking, lack of stewardship strategies, “Count It & Forget It”[4], lack of communications beyond appeals, unrealistic fundraising metrics, siloed development efforts within organizations, and low donor retention are all commonplace in the field.

Moreover, donor-centric fundraising means different things to different organizations. Some organizations go so far with “donor-centricity” that they let the donor lead the conversation as to where and how to allocate the gift and ultimately decide the organization’s priorities. This isn’t authentic relationship building, because the organization is not sharing the real priorities and needs and how the donor can make the most impact.

Veritus Group sums up my impressions of “donor-centric fundraising” in the industry:

"Unfortunately, even after using the term “donor-centered” over the last 20-25 years, we’re far from practicing it. We’re not even close. If we were making strides, we wouldn’t be seeing value attrition rates from major donors in the 40%-60% range every year. We wouldn’t be seeing major gift staff turnover every 1.8 years.[5]

But when authentic relationship building actually happens, organizations reap the results.[6] One of my clients recently made their first proper major gift solicitation. After months of artfully managing the relationship through regular communication, sharing the needs and goals of the organization, and embracing the right time for the prospect to make the most impact – the conversation not only ended with a “yes,” but the ask wasn’t nearly as nerve-racking for the client as they expected.

The best donor liaisons (regardless of title) are genuinely curious about the people they are talking to, understand the needs of their organizations, and build authentic relationships with their donors. The best donor liaisons embrace the art of fundraising.

[1] The art of fundraising. [2] A major gift solicitation should never be a surprise for the donor. Not only has the organization’s liaison built an authentic relationship over time, but they have prepped the donor for an upcoming solicitation prior to the actual ask.

[3] Windmill Consulting. [4] Dr. Russell James coined this term in regards to organization’s commonplace approach after receiving planned giving commitments.

[5] Veritus Group.

[6] Cygnus Applied Research’s annual survey is a great starting resource to see how authentic relationship-building equates to revenue.

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