James Murphy, Ph.D., CFRE

Strategic Partner

About James

As we emerge from 18 months of disruption in our lives, research indicates that donors are thinking about the future and revisiting their giving priorities. Over several months in 2021, Advancement Resources conducted in-depth interviews with 27 major donors about the impacts of the 2020 pandemic and recent social justice issues on their philanthropic giving and values. The findings were recently published in the 2021 Donor Insights Report, containing insights that can help us address some of the questions we face as advancement professionals and shape our donor strategies going forward. How did the pandemic impact the way major donors think about philanthropy? How do we gain deeper insight into whether the priorities and passions of our major donors have changed? What steps should we take as an advancement team and as an organization to engage major donors more fully in our ambitious vision of future initiatives?

The four approaches below incorporate insights from the report into strategies to utilize in our work going forward.

1. Discover Each Individual’s Perspective

Every major donor or potential major donor requires an individualized, tailored strategy. The report indicates donors are now thinking more deeply about the meaning and impact of giving. Only through meaningful one-on-one conversations can we discover their perspectives on these matters. Major and principal gifts officers should prioritize carving out time with donors for purposeful conversation.

Keep in mind, not every donor contact needs to be elaborately planned. Sometimes spontaneous, informal outreach can have an outsize impact. You might call a donor and say, “I just ran into Dr. Smith, and she was excited to tell me she’s had a major research paper accepted for an international conference next month. Your support of her work has made a real difference. I thought I’d just reach out to let you know how thankful we are.” This kind of simple thank-you may open the door to a deeper conversation.

2. Work as a Team

Major gifts teams should come together regularly to share what they’ve learned in donor conversations and stories about their experiences. Pick five key donors to engage, not about their next gift to the organization, but about their thinking and the impact of the past 18 months on their philanthropic passions and priorities. Organize a series of regular team meetings and come prepared to discuss your findings. Having rich conversations with your donors and team members will help to uncover whether and how your donors’ passions and priorities may have changed. The report includes quotes from major donors, whose thoughts may be echoed in your own conversations.

3. Utilize Donor Perspectives to Define Vision

Your organizational vision for the future should be shaped by what you learn from meaningful donor conversations. Your organizational partners expect you to know the donor landscape including, the point of view of your donors. Bringing donor perspectives your organizational leaders will help inform strategic planning for and the scale of future projects. Along with the insights contained in the report, this is data can inform and help validate ambitious fundraising goals.

4. Share an Impactful Past and an Inspiring Future

Partner with donors as you build out new opportunities and initiatives that you want to inspire them. Donors are continually asking themselves, “Where can I have the biggest impact?” You may wish to prepare an Organizational Update, a tool we use in our training that allows development professionals to make effective use of time with donors. Shape the key messages in the update to show how you performed during a period of restrictions, the impact of donor support, and how that impact can continue and be multiplied going forward. Show you have a clear plan and vision for the future, and what you’ve learned from the past 18 months. This will build donor confidence that your organization is ready to meet future challenges.

The Organizational Update is a practical tool to guide conversations, but it is up to you to judge whether using an Organizational Update may be best approach. A semi-structured donor conversation where you use appreciative inquiry to probe donor passions and motivations may be more appropriate in some cases. Both are available to you; both can produce useful results.

As you consider these approaches, keep in mind that the 2021 Donor Insights Report categorizes donors based on findings from the research. These donor categories can serve as a useful guide to deepen understanding of their motivations. Of course, no single individual fits neatly into such categories, but they can be used heuristically in team meetings and individually to gain important insights and compare your own donors’ general alignment with those interviewed in the report.

Visits and tours, restricted during the pandemic, are great ways to re-engage donors. The research shows that not all donors respond well to large scale, in-person, special events. Many may prefer the individualized attention that a guided tour or a conversation with a researcher can offer. Virtual events filled the gap for a time but are not a perfect substitute for interacting with researchers, clinicians, professors, and executive leadership. Craft a new plan to meet donors where they are, whether it be online or in person. Don’t assume everyone wants to come to the gala, nor that no one wants to. Understanding donor psychology and tailoring donor experiences to individual preference is key.

The research summarized in the report shows that donor motivations and preferences are continually changing. Some donors interviewed demonstrated a willingness during the pandemic to depart from their giving norms in order to respond to other urgent needs. How willing might they be going forward to consider new ideas and shift their giving priorities accordingly? The data shows the majority of donors may be open to considering new directions, but these conversations need to be approached with care in order to truly pinpoint what will be most meaningful to your donors.

The need for thoughtful, personalized contact hasn’t changed. Major donor engagement remains fundamental to advancement. As you reflect on the data in the report, ask yourself which of your donors may be ready for such conversations. Findings also indicate many donors experienced minimal shift in their giving priorities during the pandemic and look forward to returning to their key passions. The donor categories outlined in the report will help you shape an individualized strategy for these conversations as well.

While the events of the past 18 months have proven a disruptive force on a mass scale, discontinuities and disruptions that impact you, your organization, and your major donors can come in many forms and from any direction. The 2021 Donor Insights Report contains a wealth of information that advancement officers can use to shape their strategies to ensure that—as new challenges and opportunities arise—we remain with our donors every step of the way.


Together, let’s explore how Advancement Resources can partner with your organization to best put our research to work for you in building a robust culture of philanthropy.

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