Don’t Just “Find” Donors; Build Relationships for Lasting Impact

“Where do we find donors?”

I’m asked that question quite a bit.

To begin, let’s make sure we check all assumptions at the door. Donors don’t come ready-made.

The best way to find a donor is to discover those who have a history of supporting a cause or purpose similar to yours. Your best chance of engaging them is to have someone broker a connection or write them a compelling note with these points:

  • We have a history of doing what you care about
  • We do it well – here are some proof points
  • We now see an opportunity to make a greater difference
  • May we meet so we can lay out exactly how we see that difference being made and invite your candid critique
  • Yes, we hope there is a basis for a long-term partnership but we will not ask for your support at this meeting. We simply want to see if there is an alignment of interests.

Who should that note come from? Ideally, it’s the person leading the initiative in question. In some cases, it might be your CEO.

That’s the matchmaking process. If your organization is credible and your idea distinct and compelling, you have a chance of getting that first appointment. If you don’t spend most of that meeting listening, it’s not likely to be successful. Listen and respond by reinforcing three powerful themes:

  • We are making a difference
  • We are the best or among the best at what we do
  • We see an opportunity and feel and obligation to better serve

The problem with this, of course, is that it puts you in the position of trying to attract the attention of established donors who likely have long, strong ties with other organizations. That means you have to have a really compelling, well-documented concept of how differences can be made.

This underscores the greater wisdom of growing your own donors by using the means suggested below.

It also points to the greatest, ongoing tragedy in our field, and that is the failure to realize the singular opportunity when a donor finds us and makes an initial gift. Nothing is more important than responding to that knock on our door and finding some way, any way, of inviting that first-time donor in. Yes, some first time gifts are prompted by our communications and advancement efforts, but many come from those who discovered us of their own volition, via word of mouth from a trusted source, or remember us for a service that we rendered to them or a loved one.

They make their first gift. There it is. You just found a donor. They are doing just what you hope. Now what do you do? Look at the amount and say “meh” and send a generic thank you? Or do you start sorting among those acorns knowing that some will grow into loyal oaks, some into more generous oaks? Do you reach out and ask why they gave? Do you formally admit them into your donor community and offer ways for them to put down roots?

Your best chance of “finding” donors is to be more responsive to the ones that found you – or just go on foraging.

  • Don’t seek them out as donors but co-believers in a greater good that can be done
  • Seek common cause, how you might work together toward common ends
  • Enlist their aid in various ways – talent, expertise, advocacy
  • Bring them inside the organization, allow them to witness and experience mission at work
  • Allow them to interact with service providers, difference makers, “intrapreneurs” or anyone chomping at the bit to get something done
  • Create a climate of co-creation
  • Define specific opportunities where differences can be made and what it will take
  • Watch how many will self-declare as donors before you have a chance to ask


Jim Langley is the president of Langley Innovations. Langley Innovations provides a range of services to its clients to help them understand the cultural underpinnings of philanthropy and the psychology of donors and, with that knowledge, to develop the most effective strategies and tactics to build broader and more lasting communities of support. Jim has authored numerous books including his most recent book, The Future of Fundraising: Adapting to New Philanthropic Realities, published by Academic Impressions in 2020. 

Related Resources:

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Get smarter with the SmartIdeas blog

Subscribe to our blog today and get actionable fundraising ideas delivered straight to your inbox!