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A constant goal for fundraisers: Quality donor engagement

Group of Candid staff and partners walking around inside a library

From the beginning of my journey training nonprofit staff and boards, the overarching approach has been to demystify the art and science of fundraising, and to make donor engagement simple and friendly.

Too many nonprofit leaders, especially board members and volunteers, are terrified of asking for a gift. Why? Fear of the unknown. We as practitioners aren’t doing a good enough job of getting across fundraising processes and mechanics in friendly and easy to understand terms.

At the top of the list of things you must do is help board members, volunteers, and non-development staff appreciate that they can contribute mightily to gift income results without ever asking for gifts themselves.

The solicitation—though crucial—represents just one moment in the gifting cycle. The other parts—namely discovery, cultivation, and stewardship—are essential as well. In fact, if those other components aren’t done properly, it doesn’t matter how well the ask is performed, the solicitation will likely fall short.

It’s in the discovery, cultivation, and stewardship stages that reluctant fundraisers can and should get their feet wet, and in doing so, they concretely advance the mission of their favorite nonprofits.

Peter Drucker is famous for reminding us that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” This is especially true in the field of fundraising. Metrics are essential in defining and tracking success. This enables fundraisers to quantify progress and adjust strategies and practices to produce desired outcomes. Without clear benchmarks, success becomes fuzzy and hard to obtain.

Typically, lagging indicators come first to mind. These measure outputs at the end of the fundraising cycle, such as dollars raised, number of gifts, and number of first-time donors. While they convey a bottom line reality and tend to be easier to measure, they are harder to improve or influence outcomes before it is too late.

That’s why I prefer placing a laser-like focus on leading indicators that measure inputs that have more potential to be influencers of results. Fundraising isn’t complicated. In fact, most of its best practices are based on common sense. This starts with the Law of Prospect Engagement, which I referenced in my book, 10 Simple Fundraising Lessons. The more quality donor engagement, the more money we’re going to raise. With this goal in mind, our actions, our priorities, and our allocation of finite resources—especially staff time—need to recognize and advance engagement activities.

Ours is a business of building and sustaining relationships with individuals, businesses, and foundations. But the objective is something far deeper than relationships: It is to establish genuine friendships. More than anything else, it is the unrelenting commitment to donor prospect engagement that drives gift income results.

Tracking progress on donor engagement is hugely important in any development operation. How can we accomplish this? Back in 2015, I introduced a system called Documented-Intentional-Personal-Interactions or DIPIs for short.

That seems like a lifetime ago, in a vastly different world before we ever heard of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and the realities of social distancing. In-person meetings ruled the day (and night) in creating and driving relationships forward, especially when it came time to ask for gifts. All that has changed. And we have even discovered that virtual fundraising, primarily conducted through virtual events with the help of video conferencing and chat technology tools, works.

I maintain that the DIPI system is still relevant, only with criteria needing to be updated. Let’s dig deeper into each of the four letters.


With the intent of permanently capturing information, the contact report is one of the most valuable pieces of a development officer’s tool kit. It furnishes a much-needed record of the evolving history between nonprofits and donors. With nonprofits challenged by constant staffing transitions, contact reports ensure institutional memory. They also chart the evolution of the prospect/donor engagement and indicate when the time is ripe for solicitation. A customer relationship management system lacks muscle without them. Note that contact reports don’t have to be elaborate and can be simply a few paragraphs summarizing what’s been learned during exchanges with prospects/donors. I’d recommend creating a simple-to-use template, so that reports can be filed quickly and promptly after meetings when everything is still fresh in the mind. The latest practice is allowing staff or others to submit reports from their smart devices.


Pre-COVID-19, it might have been helpful to see someone at a large event such as a chamber of commerce banquet, but the return was far less than if the meeting was planned and scheduled in advance. Scheduling a meeting speaks to the commitment being made by both the nonprofit and prospect/donor. Money follows time. Getting an appointment is a significant step forward. When a prospect/donor is willing to commit their time, real steps have been taken toward making a financial gift (usually, the larger the gift capacity of the prospect, the more difficult it will be to secure the appointment). Now in the virtual world, it is easier to schedule time with and connect with a big donor at their home or office.


This is where necessity has forced the most change. Likely, it still will be several months before prospects feel comfortable in face-to-face meetings at their homes or offices. Virtual communication can continue to keep us connected. Typically, after an initial discovery meeting, as the cultivation process moves forward, a site visit is where the prospect/donor sees the mission in action. It is through site visits that personal and emotional bonds are really forged and strengthened. Fortunately, site visits and tours can be effectively conducted virtually. Over the past year, fundraising professionals and volunteers have learned to be innovative and creative.

The overarching guideline should always be a form of communication that the donor prospect prefers. Video conferencing and chats are producing amazing results. This takes extra attention devoted to details in making sure the prospect is fully comfortable with the technology selected. Keep in mind that because video meetings are more intense and tiring than in-person meetings, they should be planned to be at least one-third shorter. While face-to-face meetings are always best, whether in-person or via video, in today’s hectic world, email, telephone, text, social media, and other methods can be acceptable substitutes, especially when the prospect/donor prefers them. If the communication advances the relationship closer to a solicitation, it has served its purpose.


This is the most general of the four terms. Nearly anything will qualify. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that most interactions are highly personal, whether it be a hug or virtual fist bump. Remembering birthdays, anniversaries, and other important events also bond us. My personal favorite is “old-school” but timeless—sending a handwritten note through postal mail. How many of those do you receive? They stand out!

The common denominator is that we’re “engaging” the prospect/donor in both heart and mind and leaving a favorable impression. This is far better than no interaction at all. A steady and thoughtful sequence of “touches” paves the way for gifts. Keep in mind that stewardship—acknowledging and thanking the donor for an act of generosity— is both the right and smart thing to do as it prepares them to give again and give more.

Every business and profession has been forced to adapt to the social distancing realities of the pandemic. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but it is still an incredibly long tunnel. Fortunately, nonprofits and their fundraisers in particular have been adept and flexible. Even more telling is the uplifting way the American people—donors from all different socio-economic backgrounds—have responded to unprecedented challenges and needs. The Fundraising Effectiveness Project reports a 10.6 percent increase in 2020 giving over 2019. Significant increases were seen at all levels of giving, with smaller gifts (less than $250) leading the way, growing by 15.3 percent compared to 2019. Larger gifts ($1,000 or more) increased by 10.4 percent, while mid-level gifts ($250 to $999) improved by 8 percent.

Communication techniques may have changed, but the DIPI discipline still pays handsome returns. Investing in steady, dependable, and thoughtful engagement with prospects/donors, supported by tracking and measuring progress, will surely result in greater donations of the precious gifts of both time and money.

Bottom line

Whether in the pre-COVID-19 or post-COVID-19 environment, quality donor engagement and a tracking system like DIPIs is a smart bet to improve your donor friendships and develop more resources to champion your nonprofit’s noble mission.


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