Three Ways To Treat Donors as Partners

Three Ways To Treat Donors as Partners

by Pat McLaughlin and Ron Haas

President John F. Kennedy inspired a generation with his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy shifted the focus from receiving to giving and, in doing so, motivated hundreds of thousands of volunteers to give their lives in public service to make the world a better place. Nonprofits should apply this famous quote to their donor relationships, “Ask not what your donors can do for you – ask what you can do for your donors.” Too often we fixate on meeting our needs and asking donors to help us achieve our goals. In so doing, we become too one-sided in our approach to donors.

Let’s be honest though – there is a practical side to fundraising. We must meet our budget or risk going out of business. But this organizational self-focus overlooks the mutual benefit donors can share by partnering with your ministry – helping them thrive!

We are not suggesting you take a pen or new branded coin purse to your next donor meeting. Thriving donor relationships are more than gift-giving and swag gifts. Doing something for your donors involves the intangible gift of including them in your mission to change lives for eternity. Paul referred to his relationship to the Philippian church as a “partnership in the gospel.” (Phil. 1:5) They were partners because they gave generously time and time again to share in his troubles (Phil. 4:14-16). They saw themselves as coworkers.

Here are three ways to treat your donors like full partners.

Communicate Good News AND Bad News
The Philippians were partners with Paul through thick and thin. In 2 Corinthians 1:8, Paul wrote, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.” Paul was authentic about the challenges he faced. Our donor communications tend to be guarded, and almost cautious, especially when we share bad news. A recent example we helped coach through here at The Timothy Group was with a ministry that sent a cryptic letter explaining why the executive director was fired. One donor reacted, “The letter said something without saying anything.” Open and transparent communication will strengthen your bond with your donors.

Too often we ask our donors to support us as we do the work.

When Paul sat chained in prison, in a real sense those Philippian believers were right there with him. When he floated to shore during his shipwreck (Acts 27), they were also bobbing up and down in the waves with him. When he preached the gospel and men, women and children came to faith, the Philippians shared in his harvest because they had invested in planting the seed.

Key Takeaway: There is nothing to hide. Be honest, open and forthright with your donor partner.

Speak from your Donor’s Perspective
Too often we ask our donors to support us as we do the work. Help them see their value by placing them on the front lines of ministry. Recently at a donor event the executive director of a relief and development agency made his appeal extremely personal. “Next week you will be serving food to refugees in Syria providing a warm meal and hope. You will be in Thailand rescuing young women trapped in sex-trafficking. You will be in Iraq sharing Bibles with people who have never seen a Bible. And you will be in India meeting the most urgent needs of a child in poverty.” These phrases transported donors from being spectators to becoming participants. It helped them thrive.

Key Takeaway: People learn best not by watching from the sideline but by playing in the game! Help your donors engage an “in-game” experience.

Emphasize Eternal Dividends
Who really benefits from a donor’s gift? You do, because you can raise the funds to stay in business. The people you serve benefit, because you can continue serving them. But your donors also benefit because they will receive eternal rewards. Paul responded to the Philippian’s generosity, “Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account (Phil 4:17).

Donor partnership is not just a one-way street. It should be a genuine partnership mutually beneficial to both your ministry and your donors. As a Christian ministry, you give your donors the unique opportunity of laying up treasures in heaven.

In all your donor communication you must tell great stories of changed lives. It’s not about your buildings, but what happens inside your buildings. It’s not about your staff; it’s how they impact your service recipients. It’s really not about your ministry at all; it’s about helping your donors fulfill their God-given responsibility to be good stewards. Give them compelling reasons to partner with you to impact eternity – helping them thrive.

Key Takeaway: Dollars help. Lives matter. Your donors are not betting on a program or a product, they are investing in people – help them understand this fully!



Pat McLaughlin is president and founding partner of The Timothy Group. Since 1981 he has assisted 1,700+ Christian organizations worldwide on major donor development and capital campaigns. He still makes 200+ major donor visits yearly. Pat serves on Christian Leadership Alliance’s board, and has authored three books, Major Donor Game Plan, The C Factor: The Common Cure for your Capital Campaign Conundrums and Haggai & Friends: 66 Perspectives on Stewardship.
Ron Haas has served the Lord as a pastor, the vice president of advancement of a Christian college, a Christian foundation director, a board member and a fundraising consultant. Ron has written two books, Ask for a Fish: Bold Faith-Based Fundraising and Simply Share: Bold, Grace-Based Giving.
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