What Major Donors Really Want After Making Big $ Bets

At Partnership Resources Group, we’ve spent most of our time over that last 25+ years helping boards and nonprofit leaders achieve their fundraising goals. We work directly with talented and committed CEOs, Development Directors, Development staff, Board members and volunteers who, together, are the backbone of any successful campaign. Perhaps our greatest joys, however, come from getting to know donors across Northern California and the values that drive their generosity.

We’ve pondered how these very donors felt once their gifts were made and the campaigns were over.

  • What motivated them to dig so deep?
  • Why did some give not only their money but precious time to help lead and solicit others?
  • What frustrated them?
  • What uplifted them?
  • How did they feel when all was said and done?

It seemed to us that these were terribly important questions and wondered what these donors and campaign leaders would say if asked.

We self-commissioned a study to explore these questions.

We saw an opportunity to just do it when we were asked to teach an AFP Master Class on the “Post-Campaign Let Down” last spring. A survey was sent to 21 individuals who made contributions of $50,000 or greater and those who had chaired campaigns of $5 million or more. They came from a wide geographical spectrum – San Francisco, Marin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Sonoma and Alameda counties. This was not a scientific sample, simply our selection of folks we admired and had gotten to know.

Sixteen people (76%!) responded to a lengthy survey.

They represented all kinds of campaigns – capital, endowment, special projects and even debt retirement. Some just checked questionnaire boxes, others wrote extensive narratives. All were simply grateful to have been asked.

Their feedback was fascinating, and the highlights are worth sharing, starting with common myths:


  1. “Our donors are burnt out.” 75% of respondents (12 of 16) have continued making significant financial contributions beyond their campaign gifts. One donor actually made a post-campaign planned gift in an amount that will generate the equivalent of their campaign contribution each year! Forever.

“For people who were pledging, do something special to recognize the completion of their pledge. Nobody has ever done that for me. They just sent a final bill and then a standard thank you letter. It was like I was forgotten once I paid my pledge.”

  1. “Our leaders have done all that they will do.” Not so. Only 3 respondents said they would never lead a fundraising effort again. More than half shared a deep sense of satisfaction and would consider an ongoing leadership role. We were struck by those who said they would commit to serving a “similar mission elsewhere.” To us, this suggests that any single campaign benefits a broader ecosystem of like organizations who can draw experienced leaders and donors from other campaigns. At least some high-level contributors are thinking this way. Maybe we all should re-evaluate the “turf” assumption toward the common good of organizations in our broader mission spaces.

“My wife and I are concerned and always looking for ways to get our (adult) children involved. It was hard to do that while I was leading a campaign even though they knew what I was involved with. I think having them in to see what our campaign created would have been a great idea and another way to pass our philanthropic ‘torch.’”

  1. “We know how our donors and leaders feel about us.” Really? Only 2 respondents said that they or the organization conducted a post-campaign evaluation, formally or even informally. They all got thanked and some got plaques. But nearly 90% never came together with agency leaders to reflect, feedback and evaluate. Imagine the learning lost that is so easily captured with a single, well-conceived roundtable session or a series of one-on-one’s with campaign leaders, major donors and smaller contributors. This is the essence of stewardship.

“There was a dereliction of duty by the organization’s Board. A few of us not on the Board were the main drivers behind this campaign and almost never a word from the Board.”

  1. “We’ve pretty much saturated our donor market with information and opportunities for involvement.” Think again. Two-thirds of those surveyed wished there was more and ongoing communication about the impact of the campaign and one’s gift on the lives of those served. Nine respondents suggested that donors be invited to volunteer in non-financial ways. Two said that they would have gladly added a year or two to their multi-year pledge if they’d been asked. These responses surprised us, too, but are indicators that the boundaries in communication and stewardship are broader than one might think.

We did a great session with new clients of the organization that came right out of our campaign. This was a highlight for me.”

  1. “Our donors know how much we appreciate them.” Not always. Besides, who doesn’t want to feel their efforts are meaningful, rather than being taken for granted?

We didn’t do a very good job of educating donors beyond the needs of the endowment – we were too focused on the numbers. I learned later that some key donors felt they were totally lost in the shuffle and may have given more if we were paying attention.”

How can you benefit from what we learned?

Don’t let the end of your campaign end relationships. Plan for a reflection phase of your campaign that focuses on engaging and stewarding lead donors and volunteers into the future. Remember, they made big bets on your ability to make a difference in the world. Many of them are waiting for a gesture, some sign that what they gave in time and treasure will have an impact, and they are jazzed.

So, pour one more cup of coffee, get revved up and reach out!

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