A white cup on a wooden coaster contains tea with milk. To the side of the cup lie two chocolate chip cookies.

Photo by Rumman Amin on Unsplash

As a high value fundraising consultant I get to meet a lot of great fundraisers and a few not so good if the truth be told. Over the years I’ve got better at assessing early on whether a major donor programme is likely to be successful. I always keep an open mind and do my upmost to help each charity develop the tools and skills required, but in reality a consultant can only do so much if the organisational commitment isn’t there.

With major donor fundraising there are a few giveaways from day one. Here are a few tell-tale signs that the path to success might be a rocky one:

No tea…yes seriously. Now, I’m no diva when it comes to being looked after; give me a plain cheese and ham sandwich and some old crisps and that’ll do me. However, when I’ve driven 3 hours to meet a charity for the first time and no one offers me a cup of tea I start to think bad thoughts. I start to think ‘is this how they would treat a donor?’ No tea, no water and no lunch are all signs that the charity doesn’t have a culture of donor hospitality. I appreciate that I’m arriving as a paid consultant not a donor, but the principles are the same; show your charity in the best light to anyone who comes through the door. When I look back at the most successful major donor programmes I’ve worked on, the first day always involved tea and biscuits…nice biscuits…and the fundraiser offered to buy me lunch.

You only meet the fundraiser…not that there’s anything wrong with fundraisers, but when you brief in advance asking to meet everyone who is likely to be involved in a major donor programme, you would hope to meet a Director of Fundraising, a CEO, a Head of Services or Programmes and maybe even a trustee or two. When you find out that everyone was too busy to pop in or that an internal meeting took priority, you soon get the feeling that kicking a major donor programme into gear is going to be a real challenge. This area of fundraising is a team effort – isolated fundraisers tasked with leading a successful programme by themselves, even with the help of a consultant, is an unfair ask and will inevitably lead to false starts before the penny drops.

You discover that all the fundraisers are dodging speaking to their donors…this classic scenario generally occurs through complacency or fear; the charity has a good reputation and sends out some nice newsletters to a database of willing supporters who dutifully keep giving and occasionally turn up at events. This works fine until you start to look for major donor prospects and it transpires that absolutely no one proactively actually speaks to any of the donors. A list of names is just a list of names if no one has any form of relationship with them. Yes, it’s scary to pick up the phone and thank a donor and you might not get it right, but it must be part of a fundraiser’s job and the more you do it the easier it gets…you might even end up enjoying it.

We did an event, but it didn’t lead to anything…if I had a pound for every time I’ve heard this on a first visit I wouldn’t need to be writing grumpy blogs in my pyjamas. It’s up there with “we had a pledge card on the night, but no one filled it in.” If someone senior in the charity starts to list of a bunch of expensive events that the fundraising team should run then I’ll be halfway out the door. Events are generally for people who like you already; they do not act as some kind of petri dish that cultures new major donors who instantly throw money around. Events are part of building a relationship, which requires much more personal investment from the charity.

All of these scenarios can be faced head on and cultures do change to become more donor (and consultant) friendly. There are many ways to build a major donor programme, but the best ones usually start with a cup of tea.

Give your major donor programme a health check now