Meeting Your Donors Where They Are

When I first started consulting, one of the best consultants I know—Carol Hass—gave me the best advice:  Always, she said, meet your clients where they are. Not where you want them to be; not even where they think they should be, but where they actually, really, truly are.

Over the years, I’ve learned to do that.  It’s kept me from crashing into brick walls, but more importantly, it has really helped me to help my clients get where they need to go.  Even if that getting sometimes takes longer than either of us would strictly like.

I was reminded of Carol’s advice the other day as I was facilitating a screening meeting.  The organization wants to raise a certain amount of money by a particular date for a very specific purpose.  And therein lies the issue.  They want to push every single possible major donor prospect into giving for this project.  But it is not a project that everyone will love.

Truth to tell, there really aren’t any projects that everyone will love—and a good development person not just understands that, but encourages his or her prospects to follow their dreams and aspirations and works with them to make sure that the gift that is made is the one about which the donor is passionate.

Back at the screening, a very wealthy, committed donor was under discussion.  This donor’s business partner said very clearly:  “He will not support this project.  His interest—his only interest is…” and then he named something that the organization doesn’t yet do but would really like to.

The development director, however, did not want to hear this.  “We need to raise funds for this project,” she said adamantly.

“You will,” I told her—and I know they will.  “But you’ll do it without this donor.  You can probably get him to support the project, but at a much lower level than his capacity, and at the risk of having an unhappy or disengaged donor.  Better,” I said, thinking about the advice Carol had given me way back then, “to meet your donor where he is than to force him to come to where you are.”

The rest of the screening committee agreed.

Meeting your donors and prospects where they are is one of the most important elements of fundraising success.  And to do that, you have to know what they care about, what their hopes are, what t philanthropic priorities they have and where your organization fits.

Too often, we spend our time finding out how much money a prospect has—or how big of a gift we think he or she could make.  And then we try to get in front of the prospect so we can make our pitch.

Doing fundraising that way sends out the message loud and clear that only one side really matters here—and one-sided relationships are almost always doomed to fail.  If you are practicing what I call “Crash and Burn” fundraising—where all you want is a gift now, and have no expectations of creating a loyal donor—then that is a strategy that could work.  But if you are looking to build a viable fund development program, if you want to have committed and happy donors, then it is time to rethink the angle from which you are viewing fundraising.  Instead of looking inward to what you think your organization needs, turn your gaze outward.  Get to know your donors and learn what matters to them.  Find out about their needs, and see where those needs touch yours.  Turn your thoughts away from the gift you want them to make and think instead about the things they would like to give.

As you learn to meet your donors where they are, you will also learn more about them and, in turn, be better able to interest and involve them as you walk together to the place where they can be invited to invest in something that has real meaning to them.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits and educational organizations, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity, build better boards, and be more effective in their work.  Learn more at  While there, sign up for the monthly newsletter.


About janetlevineconsulting

For over 20 years, Janet Levine has worked for and with nonprofit and educational organizations, helping to grow their advancement programs. Her consulting company, Janet Levine Consulting, serves a wide range of organizations from small, all-volunteer agencies to major national organizations. She regularly teaches courses in non-profit management, fundraising and grant development, both face-to-face and online at In addition to her nonprofit work, Janet brings years of experience as a business and sales manager in the for-profit sector. She has an MBA from the Graziadio School of Business at Pepperdine University.
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