donor confidential: the $1000 gift

This is the story of the $1,000 first gift and the radio silence that followed.

A 40-something successful entrepreneur working in a tech-related business told me her story. This woman is serious about her giving and her love of giving. I’m going to call her Lisa (not her name).

She noticed a nonprofit that feeds and shelters homeless and vulnerable women in her city. I’m going to call them the Too Busy Mission. This city’s downtown is close to Lisa’s heart. She loves the urban scene, and she cares deeply for people who are experiencing poverty. The cause is dead-center in her “giving heart.” Lisa loves to feed, clothe and shelter people in need. And it turns out a friend from Lisa’s childhood recently took a position at the Too Busy Mission. Match made in heaven, right?

So in the flurry of giving that occurs for many donors and many nonprofits between Christmas and New Year’s, my friend gave an online gift of $1,000 to the Too Busy Mission.

The email acknowledgement of the gift came almost instantly. It had the expected brief thank you and confirmation of the credit card transaction. Too Busy Mission’s email robot worked.

Then crickets.

The sounds of silence.


16 days go by and an email arrives from Too Busy Mission with . . . you guessed it: an ask.

And that left Lisa feeling pretty cold.

Lisa really hadn’t noticed that she hadn’t gotten a receipt in the mail and there hadn’t been any kind of communication since the original email acknowledgment that Lisa’s credit card had swallowed the $1,000 without blinking. Lisa said that, when she saw the email from the Too Busy Mission, it clicked for her that she really hadn’t heard anything from them. Lisa said that “fast ask” so early in their relationship made her feel unappreciated.

She told me, “They don’t know why I gave that gift or anything about me except that my credit card had at least a $1,000 of available credit. They can’t know enough about me to ask me for a gift.”

Oh, and did I mention that Lisa was not on the organization’s donor base? She was not on any of their email or mail lists. She was a brand new, unsolicited donor.

Think about a first gift of $1,000.

What could that signal about a donor’s intention?

What could that reveal about a donor’s capacity to give?

What kind of opportunity is here?

So what’s our learning?

Lesson 1: Think about the donor first. I call that “Donor Focused Culture.” Imagine your marketing and fundraising from the donor’s perspective. How would it feel to have given a $1,000 of your hard-earned money and the only communications you’ve had from the nonprofit are an automated transaction acknowledgment and a request to give more money.

Lesson 2: Think about your processes from the donor’s perspective. A donor needs and deserves more than an automated email and an ask, if you want to have the opportunity to grow your relationship with the donor. If you’re satisfied with a single, one-time gift of $1,000 and you don’t want any more from that donor, go ahead and ignore the opportunity to grow the relationship.

Lesson 3: Think validating not thanking. Thank you’s don’t stick in a donor’s mind the way validation does. Validation? Glad you asked! Validation is showing the donor that their gift made a difference. It’s authenticating through story and/or statistics that their gift had an impact. Again, focus on the donor. She’s made a big step to give $1,000 to an organization she doesn’t have a relationship with. If she’d received an email from a real live person saying something like, “Wow your gift made such a difference. Let me tell you about one woman who is off the streets because of your generosity.” Tell the story in 2 or 3 sentences. Offer a tour and more information and close the email with profuse thanks. And offer to answer any questions. Done. Relationship built. Communicate the need and validate the donor’s impact.

Lesson 4: Think of how you’re going to know who gives sizeable first gifts. You have to have a process that notifies the right people (who will take the right action) about big first gifts. For you it might be $1,000. Other orgs it might be $500. Whatever the dollar threshold is, you have to design a process right now. And don’t take any guff from IT or accounting or anyone else who says it’s not possible. Again, that’s org-centric thinking and it leads to death. It’s possible. You can do it.

Oh I know all the excuses and reasons why these messes happen. Gift processing gets backed up in the 4th Quarter, and early January can be really brutal trying to close December. It’s difficult to keep online gifts in sync with your regular process. I know. I know. All of that is organizational-centric thinking. Bah. You must honor and validate any first gift BUT a 4-digit first gift must be treated well. Ask around, donors who give first gifts of a $1,000 aren’t as rare as unicorns but they’re hard to find, and when one comes in the door, you need to be ready to build a relationship!

One more thing . . . decide your process first. Think about what would be a way you could do an easy repeatable way to validate new donors. Could you take your monthly statistics (or whatever important data you have that demonstrates the amazing work you’re doing) and match it with the story of a person whose life was changed through your work? Have it ready. Then decide how you’re going to know who your new donors are. Could you get a list of the new donors every week (or month if you don’t have many new donors)? How do you contact them? Email? Phone? Drop by to see them? I can’t answer that, except don’t come by to see me, you’ll never find me. (I’ll be hiding in the coat closet if you come by unannounced.) Anyway, figure out what you can do and what fits you. And begin working your plan.

I promise if you’ll learn to think a bit like a donor, you’ll have more donors and more income. This Donor Focused Culture thing connects powerfully.

I’m blessed to regularly hear stories from donors. Hoots and I are donors to many organizations, and that puts us in contact with other like-minded people. For my Oneicity work, I regularly have the opportunity to interview donors and hear their hearts. I love asking why they give. And I’ve begun seeking stories from donors: why do they give? what was the “transactional experience”? and fun stuff like that. And we’re going to talk about them right here on the Oneicity blog on a regular basis.

If you have a donor story or are a donor and would like to tell your story, I’d love to hear from you. Just email to donor AT oneicity DOT com. That’ll reach me. I’ll keep your confidence and change details so you’re protected, but you’ll have the opportunity to help real-live nonprofits and ministries hear from real-live donors. You’ll be making everyone’s stewardship, philanthropy and giving better.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credit: gazeronly)

Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.