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The Secret to Developing Donor Relationships

Posted by Lon Swartzentruber on April 11, 2018

A client once asked me, “What’s the secret to developing relationships with donors?” My response? Time.

Developing real, authentic, and meaningful relationships takes time.  

LS April blog image

That may seem like an easy answer, but it’s true. Think of relationships you have with people in your life outside of your organization—whether it’s with a spouse, friend, neighbor or even the person who cuts your hair. I’m willing to bet that these relationships were built over time and through a series of interactions where you each shared things about yourselves. You learned about one another and from one another, discovered commonalities, and your connection grew deeper. 

No shortcuts, just time together.   


The same idea applies to your organization. Once a relationship is initiated with a donor, it is up to you to keep it going (remember Newton’s 1st law of motion from last month’s post). To develop and nurture relationships, I like to find natural ways to connect and spend time with a donor.

From my experience, there’s no more visible way of making the mission of your organization real for a donor than by connecting them with the people you serve, your staff, board members, and volunteers. 


A few years ago, when I was working in advancement for a nonprofit, I invited a newly reengaged donor to join me for a tour of our recently renovated building. He hadn’t been on site in nearly a decade and was looking forward to the tour.

He was in for a real surprise.

He had no idea how a redesigned space could help us fulfill our mission with greater impact. What unfolded was a conversation about the connection between a physical space, how learning occurs, and how an environment can positively impact a relationship between two people or a group. We were able to see firsthand people interacting with this new space in different ways than he had expected.

His eyes were wide open to the new possibilities that exist when you think outside the box.

His relationship with our organization was reinvigorated. A few weeks later, we received a surprise in the mail. Along with his special gift toward finishing the campaign, was a note expressing how much the tour meant to him. He shared how impressed he was that we were thinking beyond what had been to what could be.  


It’s not every day that you can give a donor a tour like this. But there are plenty of other environments where donors can learn about your organization and see the impact your mission is making. Try inviting them to attend one of your organization’s events; meet with a staff person to learn about an exciting new development in your field; or simply meet up for a conversation over a cup of coffee.

The important thing is to show donors that you see them as more than just deep pockets. You value their connection to your organization’s mission and are happy to share your time to genuinely connect with them as people. 

NEXT MONTH: Sustaining donor relationships over long periods of time takes creativity and a willingness to go deeper. Next month, I’ll share a my thoughts and a story on how to keep donor relationships fresh.

Have a thought, question or example to share? Please use the comments area below. If you’d like to discuss developing authentic relationships with me directly, you may reach me at (877) 771-3330, ext. 15.

Topics: deep dive, nonprofit, stakeholder engagement