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The Three R’s of Donor Acquisition

by Dawn Borgeest

Are you unwittingly on the “yellow brick road” searching for the Wizard of Oz to tell you where you can find new donors? Never mind finding donors, set your sights on finding the right friends. Here are three sure-fire strategies to help you find them.

I dare say the bane of any development officer’s work is donor acquisition. Just how do you find new donors to support your mission? The old axiom “the time to make a friend is not when you need a friend” could never be truer than in the case of new donors. In fact, I’d suggest that the best overarching goal should be to find new friends – not new donors. That may seem like a nuance, but it’s not. Friends are people you hope to get to know better, to engage with, to spend time with. Our friends are a circle of people who share similar values and outlooks. They may not look like us or act like us, but they share our interests. Over time, those friends will likely become donors. But first, seek friendship. Stewardship will follow.

There are three ways to seek new friends. As you consider which might work best for you, develop a plan that you can measure and evaluate. By monitoring, measuring, and evaluating, you’ll ensure that you’ll better understand what the optimal strategies are for your organization. So, now on to our three R’s:


I can’t count the meetings I’ve been in when the first names that come up as potential donors are individuals of great wealth. That’s a recipe for disappointment. Start first with who might care about what your organization is doing to support your community. You don’t need everyone to be your friend – you only need to find the right friends. Develop a persona of the person who would be most interested in what you’re doing. Where might you find like-minded people? Perhaps one of the best ways to find them is to work with your current friends (and donors). Birds of a feather indeed fly together. Who do your current stakeholders know who might be interested in learning more about your work? Host an event that provides your friends an opportunity to bring their friends so that they can learn more about you. And remember, keep a donor-centric mindset. What does that mean? It means you keep that friend mindset and consider what will inspire them. Too often organizations use a “because we need you” mindset. A donor-centric mindset puts all communication through the lens of the recipient. And don’t forget the power of storytelling to demonstrate your impact. Your goal is to meet new friends and ignite their passion enough to want to spend more time your organization.

Reach Out

Can you readily name easy and accessible ways for people to get engaged with your work? Do you have a team of staff and volunteers who are consistently and constantly scanning your community for potential friends? If not, make this a priority! To often, we become too insular in our work. Doing that creates a virtual mote around your organization. Think about how you can build bridges into your work. Attend community events that would attract those like-minded people we just talked about. When attending events, don’t just plop down at your organization’s reserved table. Everyone that is invited to attend the event should be on a mission to meet new people and learn more about them. Some of the best volunteers, friends, and ultimately donors I engaged were people I met at community events. Learning from them, listening intently and look for that bridge! What do we have in common? What might intrigue this person about our work – work that they may never have considered aligned with their interests.

That also means you design events that will be of interest to them. Don’t just add them to your mailing list. Get creative and finds ways to feature your faculty, staff and leadership with their expertise about topics of interest. It might be a “real time” event or a YouTube or virtual event or communication. Play to your strengths in a way that makes them beneficial to your audience. During the pandemic, interest in preserving foods by freezing went off the charts, aspiring gardeners filled their virtual carts with seeds, and tech-challenged people across the globe struggled with how to Zoom. Do you have related expertise on those topics on your team? These are all opportunities to reach out virtually to help people while highlighting just a few of your abilities.

And watch for “newcomers.” New families coming to town are often hungry to build relationships. Don’t be selfish with them. Help them bridge to other organizations that might better align with their interests. That’s what you do for friends. And stay in touch with them. They will always be grateful for your welcoming ways and in the long term, you just might find a bridge that brings them to your institution.


Some institutions are large enough to have their own research team. Others need to build that capacity within their small team. There are a variety of relatively affordable donor research software programs you can purchase; these programs are likely part of a larger program to manage many functions of development/advancement work.
I can’t offer an informed recommendation here, other than to research and vet prospective programs that will best match your needs. But I can offer that there are certainly a few things you want from the program. Perhaps most importantly, try to find a program that can give you not only wealth indicators, but propensity to give indicators. It’s great to find wealthy prospects, but if they don’t have a strong giving pattern, you’re likely barking up the wrong tree. You should also seek a program that can analyze your current donor base. Much like relationships, research should be guided by looking for like-minded people.

My strongest caution would be not to skip down the yellow brick road, hoping that you’ll find the “oz of major gifts” down the road. The greatest lesson of The Wizard of Oz was that we often have within us what we seek externally. Nothing holds truer for donors too! Often your most loyal, long-standing, annual giving donors are your best prospects for acquiring a major gift. Don’t overlook this wealth of opportunity!

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