Partnering With Principal Gift Donors

Partnering With Principal Gift Donors

Common fundraising wisdom suggests that 80% of dollars come from 20% of donors – the Pareto Principle applied to fundraising. In recent years, there has been a shift toward a higher percentage of dollars coming from a smaller percentage of donors. For the most part, 80/20 has been replaced with a 95/5 ratio. This shift emphasizes how important your top ten donors are to your success. A principal gifts strategy focuses your efforts on those few individuals who can make the greatest impact on your mission with their most generous gifts.

Cultivating principal gifts is different from your major gift strategy because these generous friends have the potential to move your ministry in an entirely new direction. This requires closer personal relationships and a greater emphasis on partnership. Large gifts require shared objectives, careful planning, and confidence in in your organization’s leaders. Principal gift donors don’t just want to support your vision, they want to dream with you. They look for ministries who have leaders with big ideas who can follow through.

Nehemiah was that leader with a big idea (Nehemiah 1:1-2:9). The walls of Jerusalem had been destroyed making the Israelites vulnerable to their enemies, but Nehemiah was 900 miles away and lacked resources. So, he did the only thing he could do – he prayed. He shed tears, fasted, and pleaded with God for four months. His answer came in the form of a principal donor. Nehemiah’s example teaches us seven important lessons about principal gift engagement.

Personal Relationship

Nehemiah and King Artaxerxes weren’t equals, but they were friends. They were close enough that the king noticed that something was troubling Nehemiah. How well do you know your top ten donors? Have you spent enough time with them to move from a casual acquaintance to an intimate friendship? Do you know their struggles with work, health, or children? Can they sense when you are carrying a heavy burden? The conventional wisdom when in the presence of kings and donors is, “put on a happy face.” You should be so close to some of your key donors that your hearts align as you listen to the Holy Spirit for “what’s next.”


It wasn’t enough that Nehemiah had spent four months fasting and praying about the troubles in Jerusalem. He also breathed a quick prayer before answering the king when he asked what was troubling him (Neh. 2:4). Some people approach donors as ATM machines – punch in the right code, take the money, and leave. But successful donor relationships start with the premise that God is the ultimate source of our wealth. By asking for God to work in the situation, Nehemiah demonstrated that he relied more on God than on his own skills of persuasiveness. You might have a winning personality, a great brochure, and a fantastic video, but have you prayed? Proverbs 21:1 teaches, “In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him.”


Nehemiah started with “Why,” not “What.” He didn’t flood the king with a long, detailed case statement with a site plan of Jerusalem and schematics of the wall construction. His request wasn’t about bricks, mortar, and timber; it wasn’t even about building a wall and hanging city gates. Instead, Nehemiah answered the “So What?” question, “How will this project change lives?” Principal gift donors are motivated by stories and Nehemiah’s was compelling. He was sad because Jerusalem was in ruins and desired to bring relief to his people who were suffering. Nehemiah shared his heart with passion and the king responded with equal passion.

A Plan

King Artaxerxes responded to with, “What is it you want?” (Neh. 2:4). When a donor asks, “What do you want from me?” you better be ready with an answer. Nehemiah had spent four months not just praying, but planning. He had his requests ready including: time off, passports, a list of materials, and a security detail. When the king asked about a specific timeline, Nehemiah had a specific answer.

Do you know where you are going? How long it will take to get there? How much it will cost? How you will know when you’ve finally arrived? Many organizations have a fuzzy strategic plan – “We’re just going to do more of the same things we already do.” Principal donors are looking for a solid business plan. They are principal donors because they had a vision for accomplishing something in their own lives and figured out the steps necessary to achieve their goals. They expect the same from you. If you don’t have a clear strategic plan, focus on that first before asking principal donors to join you.


Nehemiah asked boldly, “If it pleases the king…” His approach reveals two important aspects of the “ask.” First of all, be polite. Nehemiah didn’t demand a gift, he asked. Sometimes ministry leaders can be abrupt with donors. Here’s a phrase someone actually used, “God has blessed you with this nice house and lots of money, you ought to give to our cause.” Needless to say, his request was unsuccessful. Ask for a gift in the way you would like to be asked.

The second lesson is to focus on the interests of the donor. How can you work with them to accomplish their goals? What motivates them to give? How do they want to make an impact? After all, God has entrusted them with the responsibility to be stewards of their resources. The gift should “please” them in the sense that it will accomplish something of eternal significance.


When you ask a donor for a gift, you are asking that person to become your partner. Both parties in this partnership are important. You provide the front line of ministry, and your donor provides the support that makes your ministry possible. Nehemiah’s partner was the king and that relationship gave Nehemiah confidence when he faced opposition. The confidence that your major donors place in you should give you strength in tough times.

A donor wants to have confidence in your leadership; that you know what you are doing, that you will use the gift for the purposes that it was given, that you will follow through. Viewing your donors as partners raises your own stewardship of the gift. You’re not just accountable to your board for the way in which you manage the gift, you are accountable to the donor.


Because Nehemiah was so close to the king, it’s safe to assume that he thanked him for his generous gift. But Nehemiah realized the ultimate source of the gift, “Because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests” (Neh. 2:8).

Fundraising does not depend upon the philanthropic spirit of donors. Ultimately, it is the blessing of God who chooses to work through individuals. Christian donors want to be thanked for their gift, but they want the praise directed to the Lord.

Do you feel like you’re carrying the burden of your ministry all by yourself? Ask God to help you identify principal donors whom you could invite to join your cause. Then walk with them as you discover God’s will for what he wants you and your principal donors to accomplish together.

Author: Ron Haas

Ron Haas has served the Lord as a pastor, the vice president of advancement of a Bible college, a Christian foundation director, a board member and a fundraising consultant. He’s authored two books: Ask for a Fish – Bold Faith-Based Fundraising and Simply Share – Bold, Grace-Based Giving. He regularly presents fundraising workshops at ministry conferences and has written fundraising articles for At the Center magazine and Christian Leadership Alliance’s Outcomes magazine.

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