Make a short list of five things you want to know about your largest donors or prospective donors. Chances are your list will start with how much money and resources they have so you can determine if they have the capacity give a large gift.

Of course, that does make sense. But perhaps not as much sense as you might think.

Many people of great wealth aren’t very generous. Conversely, many people of modest wealth are extremely generous. So an accounting of someone’s assets — while revealing in some important ways — may not belong at the top of your list.

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5 Paths to Learn About Your Lead Donors

Here’s a different sort of list for you to consider. This list is based on the idea that most people are remarkably consistent. And if you pay close attention to their patterns, you’ll be better prepared to ask them for a gift than if you just know exactly how much wealth they have.

Combine that with the idea that generosity is at least as important as capacity, and this is the kind of list you might develop.

I will include examples based on two different donors to give you a sense how understanding these elements might shape your approach toward a donor.

1. What are your donors’ giving patterns?

  • What kinds of organizations do they support?
  • What size gifts have they given in the past?
Susan gives small gifts to big organizations. She contributes to the schools she attended. She gives regularly to a wide range of organizations committed to women’s issues and she has made several monthly commitments to international relief organizations. On her own, she has no history of making a large gift though she and her husband together have made more than one six figure gift.Danielle has a history of giving large gifts. She gives to cultural organizations in her city. Looking at show programs, you see her name in the second or third tier of giving again and again.

2. How do your donors make decisions?

  • Do they want a great deal of detailed information?
  • Do they take their time to analyze? Or do they make decisions quickly?
  • Do they put off making giving decisions for one reason or another?
  • Specifically, how do they make financial decisions?
Susan makes decisions quickly. Scheduling a time for coffee with her is easy and quickly done. She absorbs information quickly and seldom asks for more details. She speaks in a rapid-fire way and seems to enjoy making decisions in the spur of the moment. She follows up promptly and clearly. But when she and her husband give gifts together, she defers to him.Danielle, on the other hand, is always hungry for more information. She takes her time making decisions and often changes her mind. You can see this pattern in something as simple as setting up a meeting. She’ll want to know more about the meeting. She may change the date and the time once or twice or even more.

3. How do your donors communicate?

  • Do they respond promptly to correspondence?
  • Do they write lengthy or brief communication?
Susan uses short emails and texts. You get the sense that she doesn’t read to the end of long emails, responding instead to whatever is in the first paragraph. But she usually responds promptly — often within the hour.Danielle is thorough. She’s likely to read and email from top all the way to the bottom. But she doesn’t respond quickly. A delayed response from Danielle doesn’t mean she’s putting you off. Eventually, she does respond — though she may ask for yet more information.

4. Do your donors see themselves as leaders?

  • Do they enjoy the public eye or run from it?
  • Do they prefer to talk with the head of the organization?
  • How important is social status to them?
Susan does not appear in the public spotlight. She seems to work on things behind the scenes. She’ll reach out to her friends and peers about a project, but hasn’t taken leadership roles in the organizations she gives to.Danielle has a high profile. She serves on committees. She has chaired galas. And she’s happy to be in the spotlight.

5. How do your donors handle money?

  • Do they make financial decisions independently or with a partner or family members?
  • Are they clear and specific about money or a bit foggy?
  • How important is money to them?
Susan makes some financial decisions on her own. And her pattern, like much of what she does, is clear and quick. After a meal out with Susan, she’ll suggest dividing the bill in even portions and she’ll be the first to put out her credit card. For other people that simple transaction is far more complicated. Money matters to Susan. She pays close attention to it and she usually knows what she has given to your organization over the last year.For all of her desire for more detail, Danielle is often unclear about money. Unlike Susan, at the end of a meal out together, she is likely to look at who ate before giving in to the simpler divide the bill in even portion approach. Because Danielle is an active and substantial donor to several organizations, she isn’t always clear about how much she has committed to which organization. She works with financial advisors who help her in this regard, but isn’t always happy to defer to them.

Knowing Your Lead Donors’ Patterns is Key

When it comes to lead gifts, your job as a fundraiser is to get to know your donors and their patterns. Knowing that they have the resources to make a large gift is simply a starting place. Far more important is to learn:

  1. Who they are.
  2. How they function.

Once you know those two things, you’ll be able to work with them in the way that’s in keeping with their patterns.

Pay great attention to detail

  • If you know a donor likes the spotlight, you’ll look for opportunities to feature that person.
  • If you know that a donor wants details and makes decisions slowly, you will be prepared for that process.
  • If you know that a donor doesn’t read lengthy documents, you will adapt what you send that donor.

Gathering information about donors requires great attention to detail. You’ve got not only to notice how a donor behaves, but realize that those behaviors likely shape most of what that person does.

Understanding a donor’s patterns and then shaping your approach to fit will make you an excellent fundraiser. Your job is NOT to manipulate, persuade or convince. Your job is to find out what a donor wants and understand how they function, so that you can provide them with an opportunity that they will want to grasp.

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  1. Edith

    But how does one find out if prospective donors like publicity or they like details, etc. as you said above in your example of the 2 donors?

    • Edith

      How do you get that information about prospective donors. It seems very personal, so who does one contact to get that?

    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Great question. If you start looking carefully and noticing how people behave, you will start to see patterns. And those patterns are wonderful clues. If you are at a gathering, notice how your donor positions him or herself in a crowd. If they send you and email, notice how long and detailed it is. Or, conversely, how short and to the point. Watch the details of their behavior when you schedule a meeting.

      We give ourselves away in the details of how we behave — all of us do. But most people don’t observe carefully enough to see the clues. It takes some practice.

      Another approach is to pull your team together to discuss everything you collectively know about a donor. Don’t stop at whether or not they have money. Look for patterns of behavior.

      Even simple giving patterns will give you clues. Does the donor give consistently — same time, same amount, same way… or is their giving unpredictable! Bingo. That may be a clue to who they are.


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