Everyone needs to sharpen their listening skills for fundraising in the new virtual environment.

Dealing with donors is more difficult these days. Many of us can’t get in front of our donors – so we are on zoom or on the phone.

Everyone is asking us: How do we handle a virtual virtual visit? What do we say?

It can be tough. Just imagine: there you are, chatting with a donor on zoom or on the phone – hoping to build rapport.

You’re trying to connect emotionally with the donor.

But underneath, you may be struggling with what to say.

And that’s the problem.

Just remember this: It’s more important to LISTEN than it is to speak.

Don’t forget to work on your listening skills.

When you are in a virtual meeting with a donor, your job is NOT to make a presentation.

Instead, your job is to bring the donor out.

This is a sea change in strategy.

In the past, too many people worried about what to say. They worried that the donor would ask a question they could not answer. They fretted that they’d run out of conversation topics.

Our advice is: turn around and head the other way. Stop talking!

You need to listen far, far more than speaking.

Consider this: What’s your real goal in any donor conversation?

It’s NOT to convince them of something. You are not trying impress them with your knowledge. And you certainly don’t want to blather on and on, do you?

Your real goal in any donor visit is to find out as much as you can about your donor. There’s so much you want to find out:

  • Why did they give?
  • What turns them on about your organization’s work?
  • Why they are so generous?
  • What they are trying to accomplish with their philanthropy?

If you are doing the talking, then you are not discovering anything. You might as well turn in the towel right now.

You are doing donor reconnaissance anyway.

Your job is to hold yourself back. To ask questions. To pull out the donor’s story.

How can you possibly ask for a gift if you don’t understand your donor’s timing, her motivations, her values, what she believes in?

No matter what, your ask will be very weak if you don’t know these important factors that drive her giving decisions.

Stop talking: You’re not trying to “sell” her anything.

Too many fundraisers think they need a presentation that will wow their donor.

Nothing could be more incorrect!

You want a two-way conversation. You want to hear about what’s important to her.

  • Why is she interested in your cause?
  • What does she think your organization should be focusing on?
  • What does she think about this particular challenge you are facing?

Your donor doesn’t want to listen to a presentation.

She’s not interested in listening to you go on and on about how great your organization is and what exciting work you are doing.

Your donor’s not really interested in listening to anyone. She actually expects to do the talking herself.

Why? Because she’s a VIP.  This lady is used to people seeking her advice, and hearing HER point of view.

She’s used to people calling on her to pay homage.

Remember, nobody hardly listens anymore. It is a gift to someone to listen to them. You honor your donor by sitting at her feet, listening.

This is how a relationship is formed.

Listening skills are fundamental for virtual major gift fundraising.

And it’s such a difficult concept to master. Because too many of us default to talking.

BOTTOM LINE: Listening Skills for Virtual Visits

Take the easy way out with your donors by becoming an expert in listening. You’ll learn so much more about your generous benefactors. And you’ll raise much more money – even virtually!

Want to create a donor-centered appeal letter?

It’s more difficult than you think, it’s not very intuitive.  It doesn’t come naturally.

When we actually sit down to write a letter, our natural inclination is to remind our donor how worthwhile and important our effort is.

We want to say nice things about our organization and our work. Unfortunately, writing about ourselves and our organization just doesn’t cut it.

So take a look at this makeover into a donor-centered appeal letter.  And check out our rewrite at the end of the post.

The “Before” Letter:

Here at the xxx, we’ve been working to raise our game since my hiring as the new executive director in June 20xx.  

This year, our Annual Auction will be held on date. This auction is going to be a very special one, and we expect 250 of the state’s leading xxx patrons to attend. We need your help to make it the biggest and best annual auction to date!

 Here is how we’ve been upping our game, how we want to continue improving, and why we need a truly exceptional work of art from you this year.

You know our mission – promoting public awareness and appreciation of the history, heritage, and ongoing tradition of xxxx in our state. The better we fulfill our mission, the more we all, as a statewide community of xxxx, xxxx lovers and supporters, benefit. 

Since June 20xx, we have been making a concerted effort to reconnect with xxxx artists across the state. There are a lot of you, so it is an ongoing process and dialogue. . . (extensive update information about interns and grants.)

We’ve assembled a dynamic auction committee consisting of xxxx, yyy, and zzzzz an influential lawyer with strong ties to our tradition, to name a few. This group has the ability to make great things happen, they are used to doing so. 

This is why we need you, our xxxx, xxxx lovers and supporters, our core bases, to step up and help us by donating something exceptional to this year’s auction. We are on a roll. Help us keep that momentum and better fulfill our mission, one that benefits us all.  

Here was our feedback:

1. Big problem: the ask is buried at the bottom of the letter.

You need to ask, and make it explicit. Don’t lose the ask in the middle of extraneous copy.

2. Too organization-centered.

Don’t start out talking about yourself as the new ED. And don’t go on and on about the organization. There are too many “we” and “us” statements in the letter.

 3. The words “we need” are a very weak ask.

It turns donors off. Donors give to opportunities . . . not needs.

4. Use the word “you” more than we.

That’s how you make it donor-centered.

5. What’s in it for the donor?

What about the smart generous artist who provides this wonderful gift – what do they get out of this?

6. Stronger opening.

Draw your reader in by using an opening starting with the word “you.” That gives the reader a reason to keep reading!

7. There’s a large unreadable block of copy in the letter.

It’s unreadable because it is too dense. Appeal letters need to have very short paragraphs because the reader is skimming.

Our roughed-out donor-centered appeal rewrite:

Dear Ms. Artist,

You’ve been wonderful to support the xxxx organization through our growth adventures. Thank you for your partnership.  (or involvement etc.) (Note: starts with the word You.)

Did you know the annual auction is coming up in September? For a change we’re having it in xxxx location, on xxxx date in the early evening so we can draw in more collectors and donors. The local collectors love to meet our artists, so please mark your calendar and be sure to attend.

There will be a special reception for our local artists – because this night is when we spotlight you and your amazing art. (Note: talks about what the donor will get out of this event.)

Our goal is to raise money – but also to introduce you to local collectors so you can expand your own market. (Note: this is something the donor wants!)

We’re writing today to ask you to donate a xxxx work to the auction. Your gift, and those of the other artists, will support the xxxx organization so we can do xxxx for you.  The center will have xxx impact etc etc etc.

Note: the ask is outright.

It is in the first part of a paragraph so people will see it. Also note that the ask is connected to a benefit and an impact. Be sure to talk about the impact your organization makes in the world and what it does for donors.

Also, you don’t need to talk about the committee and who we are. You don’t need to talk about your grants and interns. Interns are generally not interesting.  No more artist in residence update stuff.

Also eliminate every single word, phrase, or sentence that is not totally compelling.

Consider a bang-up closing along these lines:

Let’s make this year’s auction the best ever! We’ve got a great team of smart, connected volunteers working on sponsorships, a fabulous location, and all that is left is to have your partnership and participation. 

Come on and join the fun. We’d love to showcase you to a whole new community of wealthy collectors!

Can you see the difference?

It’s all in the tone, the friendliness and the camaraderie you want to create with your donors.

It’s all in the point of view.

Disclaimer: We are not professional fundraising copywriters, so this is not perfect.  There are many pros (Harvey McKinnon,  Leah Eustace, Lisa Sargent, Jeff Brooks, Tom Ahern, John Lepp, to name a few) you should follow.

Bottom Line: Creating a Donor-Centered Appeal Letter

You absolutely can turn an organization-centered letter into a donor-centered appeal letter. But the approach is as different as night and day.

Gail Perry's interview on capital campaigns.

Is your organization looking to raise more money this year? Do you want to learn the steps to meet your fundraising goals? If so, then you are in luck.

Amy Eisenstein from Tri Point Fundraising and I recently spoke about the key steps in preparing for a successful capital campaign. You can find our introduction to the basics of capital campaign fundraising in the video below.

To discover the true secrets of capital campaign success please visit Capital Campaign Magic, a joint project between Andrea Kihlstedt and I where you will receive newsletters, webinars, and coaching that provide the building blocks to your success.

In the video interview you will learn:

  • Whether an organization is ready to start a capital campaign
  • The value of feasibility studies and how to get around them
  • 3 objectives to keep in mind when meeting major donors
  • How to develop and rate your prospect list
  • How to get your board to open the door to prospects


Bottom Line:

If you are just getting started, never fear! Start with these steps:

  • Go for your goal with great vigor
  • Have a clear, feasible and compelling vision that is supported by your board and community
  • Use a donor pyramid to run the numbers
  • Have your first 5 to 10 donors be top level gifts to get you half way to your goal

Two questions to ask yourself and your organization’s leaders before beginning a capital campaign:

  1. Can we raise this money?
  2. Where do we think it may come from? (Know your top donors.)



You are planning those fall appeals right now, during the summer months.
And it’s time to start thinking about how you’ll construct your appeal.

Please Don’t Make Your Letter the Same Old Ask

I hope you are not planning to start out with a happy list of your wonderful organization’s achievements. Will you brag about recent awards? (Hope not!) Will you want to start with a recap of all the amazing things your nonprofit has done this past year? (Hope not!) Will you talk about your upcoming 25th anniversary? (Hint, nobody is interested in that!)

OK, it’s time to fess up…conceit

Bragging is the NORM of Most Fundraising Campaigns, But Bragging Won’t Help You Raise More Money

In case you aren’t sure what bragging is, here’s what it looks like:

  • 1,850 children were served 68,450 XXX at 55 sites in 7 counties during the 2013-14 school year. (nix the passive voice! This could be a really exciting sentence, but it is negated by all the numbers.)
  • Since 1961 well over 450,000 homeless and hurting individuals were offered hope and life-changing help by XXX. (More passive voice – a serious no-no)
  • For 25 years, the XXX center has provided and supported significant and relevant experiences in the arts for the youth in our community. (passive and boring)

Instead Of Bragging, Make Your Donor the Hero of Your Story

You probably know that I’m writing this summer about the Top 10 Fundraising Strategies to Raise More Money this year. “Make your donor the hero” should be one of your top strategies. (Credit to the amazing Tom Ahern for this phrase.)

It’s so hard to get this right, but so important that you do. What you want to do is tell a story. And show how the donor can make everything right.

Examples of How to Make Your Donor The Hero

  • If you are a garden, say in your appeal letter that the donors are bringing the love of nature to the whole community.
  • If you are a crisis shelter, talk about how your donors are extending a loving hand to people in serious trouble.
  • If you are a school,  say that your donors are bringing the special extras that help kids learn faster.
  • If you are a sports organization, say that your donors are helping young people develop new skills and confidence that will help them succeed in life.

In short, give your donors credit for what your organization does.

Here’s an example of a terrific donor-centered invitation to give on the Raleigh Rescue Mission’s online donation page:
Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 10.20.58 PM

photo credit:

This is the way to tie the donor’s own personal gift directly to the work. The donor is becoming part of the solution. They make it clear how a gift from just one individual will make a big difference. And when I visit the Raleigh Rescue Mission’s website, here’s the headline:


This is amazing because it is so rare to see a nonprofit with a web landing page that speaks directly to visitors. This headline is big, it’s eye-catching, and it invites me in to take action and get involved. It talks about actions that I can take as an individual person to make things better in my own community. Notice that this site is NOT a recitation of successes, awards, history or number of people served. No bragging. Love it!


  1. Words are so important! All you have to work with are words, pictures and layout.
  2. Choose the right words.
  3. Don’t get stuck in what your boss or your board want.
  4. Be creative.
  5. Speak directly to the donor in no-nonsense language.
  6. Make your donors the heroes and give them credit for everything!

Need help?

If you want some help crafting a donor centered appeal letter, I can help! 

Also, on September 10, the amazing John Lepp and Jen Love will present a Donor-Centered Appeal Letter Workshop for us – more details to come!

Comments please!


Hint: Your donor says to you, “I’m not an ATM.”

Have you ever had the sense that your major gift prospects are fleeing from you?


Do they turn down your invitations for events, tours, even private VIP get-togethers?

Do they refuse to see you with comments as:

“You don’t need to spend time with me!”


“I’m too busy – call me in two months.”

“What happened?” you are thinking to yourself.

“What did I do, or say?”

Hint: Do they ever say to you, “I feel like an ATM for your organization and I’m tired of it.”

The donor says “I am not an ATM.”

This is a huge warning sign.

When you make your major gifts prospects feel like ATMs, do you know what you are doing?

You are making it all about the MONEY.

When you make it all about the money, donors can find it to be an affront. Particularly major gift prospects.

Especially if you dive right into a solicitation on the very first visit.

They are offended, and perceive you as too pushy and aggressive.

So what do you do?

Instead, ask your major gifts prospect for something besides money.

Ask your donor for “help” or “advice” or “their best thinking.”

In doing so, you LISTEN to them.

When you listen to them, you honor them with your undivided attention. And you are asking them for something besides money.

Don't make your donors feel like ATMs!!

Don’t make your donors feel like ATMs!!

They actually have much more to offer you in addition to money.

You do NOT subject them to a boring presentation. (PLEASE!)

Remember: when you meet with a major donor, THEY expect to do the talking.

You have my sympathies! I know it can be hard to contain your enthusiasm!

An experienced fundraiser is ALL ABOUT the donor.

He can control any natural tendency to blather endlessly. He does not monopolize the conversation.

He can sit silently, assessing the donor’s body language, and watch for cues of greater interest.

He can ask leading questions.

He finds out his donor’s hot buttons.

He also is getting his donor’s BEST thinking about such issues as fundraising strategy and other major gift prospects.

He may get guidance – and even help – on how to pull in other important people to back your project,  and how to gain more attention and visibility for your project within your donor’s network.

He also leaves with a followup next step – so he can forge a strong relationship with his donor.

You honor your major gift prospect by asking her for something in addition to money: her help.

Otherwise, you’ll always be making her feel that all you want from her is her money.

And that is a clammy feeling if you are a donor.

So if your donor EVER says “I’m not an ATM,” you have a very clear indication of what has gone wrong.

It’s time to back off and engage with them differently.

After a bit of time it will be appropriate to ask them again – you’ll be able to tell.

Pressured by your boss to ask for money on the first visit? I’ll answer that one later – and I DO have a strategy to offer!


Asking too often will dig your own grave as a fundraiser. Asking for more than just money will take you very, very far!

Have YOU ever had a donor say to you “I”m not an ATM?”

What did YOU do? Share it for us – I’d love to know!

Your donor has just sent in another gift! Hurray!donor love Heart

So you reply with a wonderful, personal thank you note. And then you call her to say thanks. In addition to the paper letter that you send.

Then what?

You have to communicate with her . . .  so you can continue to build that warm, close relationship with her.

You’ll send your newsletter. And you’ll send email alerts and updates.

But will it matter? Will she pay attention? Will she care?

Here are 5 smart tips from my favorite communications expert Kivi Leroux Miller on how to make her pay attention and love you even more.

1. Ask donors to do something besides give money.

One of our great rules in fundraising is “Involvement breeds investment.”infographic people who volunteer

You and I both know that involving our donors is an important goal. But how many organizations really pull this off?


  • Inviting your donors to volunteer – then they’ll experience your work in action – and everything just may change.
  • Asking your donors for feedback about your organization. (try a survey)
  • Asking your donors to take some sort of action to help the cause.


2. Use a clear call to action.

When you are inviting your donors to get involved – don’t be vague.

Ask your donors to DO SOMETHING in a clear call to action!

Ask your donors to DO SOMETHING in a clear call to action!

Kivi says that these words are not clear enough: Participate, Engage, Believe, Understand, Support, Help, Promote, Share . . .

Instead, be extra specific about what your donors can do to help.


  • Making your call to action so specific that you could take a picture of someone doing this.
  • Giving your donor step by step instructions on what to do: Get a Kit, Make a Plan, Be Informed in an Emergency.


3. Don’t bore them!

Want to know what bores your donors? Lengthy articles! Dense print. Kivi says that the days of 1000 word newsletter articles are over.

Will your donor even read your stuff?

Will your donor even read your stuff?

You and I both know that long, complex communications don’t really fly with donors. But how many people are tackling this seriously?

How many traditionally long newsletters am I seeing both in snail mail and email? Wayyyy too many!


  • Sharing short videos. (I’m really intrigued with this idea!)
  • Sending short, sweet and interesting news tidbits.
  • Breaking up your newsletter into 3 or 4 different pieces that go out at different times.
  • Sending a tiny infographic to your donor.

4. Send them snail mail in addition to emails.

Are you cutting back on your print mailings in order to save money? I’ve seen too many nonprofits who have eliminated their print newsletter so they can cut down on their expenses.

Many donors WILL read your snail mail - don't cut it out to save money!

Many donors WILL read your snail mail – don’t cut it out to save money!

We both know better – but the urge to save all those postage and printing costs is just too great! PLEASE don’t cut back too much on your print materials!


  • Many donors will read both types of communications – building up your wattage in their attention span.
  • Older donors tend to actually read print materials – and they are the ones who give the most.
  • Communicating via different media channels reinforces and amplifies your message.

5. Find the stories.

Kivi says that telling a story in a series of different communications is a wonderful way to draw your donors in and keep them interested.

We all know that humans are wired for stories – look at the success of People Magazine! I know whenever I’m giving a workshop and my audience looks tired – then I switch to telling a story and every eye in the room is riveted to me. Everyone just wants to know what happens next!


  • Finding the funny moments and sharing them with your donors.
  • Creating a “story arc” – that you spin out slowly over time. (Love love love this idea!)
  • Find clients and people you’ve helped to tell their own story.


You as a fundraiser need to get much better at how you communicate – because it’s these happy touches that will prime the donor to be ready to give again.

Fundraisers these days can NOT rely just on a strong appeal letter!! Instead you have to give your donor an entire experience via your communications.

Then you can create your pool of consistent donors who provide ongoing sustainable funding to your nonprofit. Hurray!

Many fundraising teams are hosting major gift cultivation events often  – to open doors, make friends, cultivate potential supporters and thank your current donors.

Make sure your guests have a wonderful time!

Make sure your guests have a wonderful time!

All of these gatherings are wonderful opportunities to bring people closer to your organization.

We love small events as cultivation opportunities. Why? Because it’s easier to engage donors in a conversation when you are being social.

The setting is not as formal and intimidating as an office visit. The donor is more relaxed and so are you.

Here are just a few things you can find out from a simple conversation with a prospect at an event:

  • how enthusiastic they are about your cause
  • why they care
  • their personal experiences that tie them emotionally to your cause
  • their other interests, including philanthropic interests
  • their apparent level of wealth
  • their family situation

Here’s how to make the most out of these marvelous cultivation opportunities:

1. Turn your event into a party.

WHO wants to go to an “event,” anyway? Not me for sure. The word “event’ sounds so very boring.

But we’ll be the first one to attend a “party.”

So first of all, you need to turn your events into parties.

Having a fun, pleasant time is paramount to your donors. Why else would they bother to attend? Remember that this is a social occasion – you can’t be too serious or heavy.

Your most important goal is that they enjoy their experience with you. You need to be an excellent host and be all about your guests. Then they’ll be more likely to come back to another event.

2. If you are hosting a major gift cultivation event, then don’t skimp.

If you are entertaining wealthy people, or top corporate executives –  all these people are used to living nicely. They are used to good wine (no box wine allowed) more sophisticated food (no hot dogs unless it’s a cookout), lovely flowers and nice venues.

Make sure your food is nice and fits with your organization's personality.

Make sure your food is nice and fits with your organization’s personality.

If you are staging a quality reception, then you need to make it quality. On the other hand, if you are hosting a picnic or something low budget, you can still have good quality picnic food and trimmings.

Just don’t skimp. Whatever the style of your party – It’s worth it to entertain your guests nicely and with abundance.

But be sure the type and mode of entertaining totally reflects your organization’s culture.

3. Triage your guest list.

Some attendees may be very important to your organization: they will be the ones with deep pockets, or people you are cultivating for an immediate gift, or they may be long term donors. So slather attention on them.

Take a look at the guest list, and divide it by thirds. Identify the top group of most important guests.

Make a plan for them. Know who is coming, why they are coming and how you might move your relationship forward with them at the end. Think of questions you might want to ask them.

Assign these prospects to your staff and board members! That’s how you make the most of these events.

4. Give your board members official roles as “hosts.”

Board members often welcome an official role. Here’s what a host does:

  • Greets people warmly at the door.
  • Introduces guests to each other and fosters conversation among them.
  • Seeks out wallflowers (you know those awkward folks standing next to the wall clutching their drink) and welcomes them.

Give them a special name tag that makes it easy to recognize them as board member.  This makes them feel special too!

And, if board members are up to it – they can be assigned to a couple of guests for a cultivation conversation – “So glad you are here! What is your impression of our organization?”

5. Use a pre-event gathering to make people feel important.

Invite a small subset of the most important guests to arrive 45 minutes before the main event.

Then use that time to give people a preview and tell them why they are important to your organization.

We’ve found that the VIPs will come to a select, private, more exclusive event readily – and then they will stay on for most of the second event.

6. Offer transportation for older donors.

If you are inviting some older donors, arrange to have them picked up and brought to the event and then driven home afterwards.

You can have staff members do this or recruit board members or other donors who plan to attend the meeting.

Not only will they appreciate the ride, but that’ll increase the likelihood that they actually get there.

7. Manage the program with a charming iron hand.

Worried that your program is going to go on too long? Even when you tell people that they have 5 minutes to speak, they often go on much longer.

Our strategy is to have a skilled Master of Ceremonies who knows just how to get people on and off the stage. Encourage your MC to stand right beside the speakers when their time is up.

And be sure to let every speaker know what the MC plans to do to keep the program running.

I usually walk right up to my speakers and say with a big smile, “Remember, you are going to be charming and brief, right?” They laugh but the message gets drilled into their heads.

8. Casual events are often more fun and also more productive.

We like hosting porch parties at Gail’s house. She has a big porch – and people like to come to something that has a more casual feel.

The more relaxed your guests are, the easier it is to have a meaningful conversation with them. So try cookouts, porch parties, and picnics. You might be surprised.

BOTTOM LINE on Major Gift Cultivation Events

With a little planning, you can create major gift cultivation events that your donors will never forget – and you’ll go home with new information on where your donors stand.