In a rural county in Michigan, a community foundation was raising funds for a building project. The project would enable the expansion of programs in adoption and foster care, addiction treatment, and family welfare. The organizational mission was inspiring—but in the fundraising messaging created by the staff, all that was shared was the organization’s own need.

Time passed, and the fundraising campaign was behind its goal. Knowing that there was a philanthropic, wealthy family in town that typically donated to such causes and had given to the foundation in the past, the foundation staff reached out to ask for a gift. The family received letters, calls, and visits many times over a several-week period, during which time they expressed that they would think over the opportunity and get back to the staff.

The staff was impatient, and the calls and visits continued. Finally, the patriarch of the family said, “Stop harassing me! I’ll answer you when I answer you!” Two weeks later, he mailed in his gift: a check for $500. The foundation had been counting on them for fifty times that amount. It was a drastic and costly series of errors.

This experience was a lesson in “how to drive away your best donors.” Learning from this community foundation, here are three practices all development professionals would do well to avoid:


  1. Share the need instead of the potential

An organization that cares for children, families, and those most vulnerable is easily relatable to the interests and passions of many people. Yet, this organization did not share the vision of the important things it would accomplish through philanthropy. Instead, the staff represented their lack of facilities and need for funding.

Donors don’t want to give to needy organizations; they want to give to promising projects and programs. While expressing need may get you loyalty gifts, it will not facilitate meaningful, transformational philanthropy. To drive away donors, share only your need instead of your promise.

2. Hurry the donor-centered process

The donor family in this story was philanthropic and had contributed to this organization in the past—but that doesn’t make their continued support a given. In order to ensure a healthy donor relationship, it is important not to rush and to respect every phase in the Process for Facilitating Donor Development.

In this case, because the family had given in the past, it is important first to provide a meaningful return on their previous philanthropic investments. Then, qualification should begin again—the fundraiser should consider any changes in life stage, phase on the Donor Commitment Continuum, tipping points, and any other concerns. After this, the process of building trust, increasing commitment, and assessing philanthropic interests and passions should continue. In short, just because they had given in the past did not mean this family no longer needed to be engaged.

Even in a situation where funding is needed urgently, it is important never to rush donors’ decision-making process or make them feel that, to your organization, they are nothing but a checkbook. Hurrying donors toward contributions that they will not find meaningful is a perfect tactic for driving them away.

3. Continually ask for loyalty gifts instead of meaningful contributions

We’ve all heard of the development disease “donor fatigue.” Being continually asked for loyalty gifts can make donors feel tired, overwhelmed with the needs of organizations, and ungratified by the actual impact their generosity is making. In this story, the community foundation wanted to raise a large sum of money through loyalty giving. Ultimately, that campaign was bound to fail.

Inviting passion-based contributions begins with listening. Listen to what is meaningful to potential donors, what their personal experiences have been, and what inspires them to be philanthropic. When donors’ philanthropic passions match your organization’s initiatives, they can make contributions that are truly meaningful. While asking for loyalty gifts sometimes is perfectly normal and essential to an organization’s success, repeatedly asking for them will eventually drive donors away.


Even if you have already made some of these errors, don’t despair. Learning from mistakes, you can begin today to craft and share an inspiring vision, engage donors through a process that places them at the center, and identify philanthropic passions that facilitate meaningful contributions.

To learn more about these skills and other essential donor development processes, consider attending a public offering of The Art and Science of Donor Development.

The Art and Science of Donor Development