Three Taboo Words for Fundraisers


All nonprofits believe—and rightly so—that our work is essential and worthy of support. But let me drop a truth bomb which may be tough to hear: Our mere existence doesn’t warrant philanthropic giving.

Yet the ways we communicate with donors often suggest otherwise, and the language we use can hurt us. In my quest to help nonprofits approach fundraising as more than just asking for money, I warn against three taboo words that undermine your work.

The first two words fundraisers should never use:

“If only…”

As in: “If only Mr. and Mrs. Smith knew about our work providing economic opportunity to the underserved communities in our city, they’d support us.” 

This mindset so often leads to frustration and disappointment. Yes, sometimes the starting point to building a relationship with a potential donor is creating awareness about your work. But it will only ever lead to a gift if your work aligns with the donor’s personal philanthropic values, AND if you communicate your goals, results, and reasons for how donor support helps your mission.

An example:

If a potential donor is a prominent member of your community but only cares passionately about animal rescue causes, she may not get behind your social service initiative. But if the potential donor does support other causes like yours, then introducing your organization is a good conversation-starter to explore if that donor might consider supporting your work in addition to others.  How are you complementing other similar services? Why are you uniquely positioned to solve this problem?

Donors of all kinds (whether high net-worth individuals, annual fund donors, foundations, or corporations) are driven by their desire to make a difference. They are giving through an organization to solve a societal issue that is important to them.  Giving is more than just writing a check. It’s about becoming part of a solution.  This is a consistent decision-making process across all kinds of donors—from $25 annual donors to six- and seven-figure philanthropists.

The third word savvy fundraisers avoid:

“Should. ”

As in: “John and Jane Smith are real leaders in our community. They should support our mission!”

Just because someone has capacity to make a gift doesn’t mean they are under any obligation to do so.  Yes, your organization might do incredible work that’s making real results in addressing your cause. But if we start with the premise that fundraising is about relationships with our donors, we ask ourselves the following questions… no “shoulds” allowed.

  1. Do we have a real connection to this philanthropist? If the answer is “no,” brainstorm with your board or other top donors to see if any of them have connections. If they don’t, then put this philanthropist on your wish list.
  2. Does our mission align with what we know to be the important causes for this philanthropist? Transformational giving stems from mission alignment between an organization and a donor. Donors don’t give to you just because you exist.  If you can answer this question easily, that’s great. It means you’ve started on the right path to getting to know this potential donor. If you can’t answer the question, you have some homework to do.

Instead of these forbidden words–“if only” and “should”–let me offer an alternative:

“How can we…?”

As in: “How can we better understand who our current donors are?”

And “How can we deepen the engagement of our donors to inspire them to upgrade their giving?”

Major donors rarely bounce around from organization to organization. Your next major gift will likely come from one of these donors who has capacity, has been a longtime supporter (likely at lower levels), and may also have volunteered. Which donors have given for multiple years? Who has previously supported you but recently lapsed? Identify the top 50-100 of your longest-term donors (or 25-50 if you’re a smaller shop), your largest donors over their lifetime, and newest donors (with particular eye to those who made large first-time gifts). Get to know each of these groups, to understand what motivates their giving and their broader involvement with your organization.

Take an audit of your donor communications.  Are you thanking often and reporting on how your donor’s gift has helped? Are you inviting your donors to experience the results they are helping to create?  Thank-you calls from board members, staff/CEO visits, webinars, and site visits are all wonderful ways to bring your donors up close to your work. Tell them the stories they are making possible, to show them their place in your success.

All of our fundraising–from annual fund to major gifts, planned giving to events–benefits when we keep the spotlight on the DONOR’s desires and needs, rather than on assumptions or vague hopes. As in all relationships, it takes work and meaningful communication. The payoff for our mission is worth it!

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