Best Practices for Qualifying Donor Prospects

Who is your ideal donor? Why does it matter? 

If you put together a set of criteria describing your ideal donor, grantor, or corporate giver, you’ll save a huge amount of time that you might otherwise waste chasing prospects that don’t have the money or the motivation to support you. That’s time you can’t get back.  To avoid this level of waste, document your selection criteria. 

  • Write down the characteristics of your “ideal” donor. Start with the standard criteria, such as age, gender, address, giving history, net worth, etc. 

  • Include motivations for giving, not just wealth profile and giving history. Figure out why your best donors give to you today and use that information in your profile. 

  • Use your qualifying criteria early in the relationship, to figure out how much time and energy the prospect justifies. 

  • Stop attempting to cultivate funding prospects that offer little value in return for your efforts. 

Base your criteria on your best or favorite current donors/funders. Those are the ones you want to clone. If you don’t have funders in a category yet, make an educated guess, and then refine your guesses from experience.

Develop an ideal donor profile for individuals, businesses, and foundations. And measure prospective new donors/funders against this profile before deciding what steps and how much time you will send pursuing these donors. Don’t put a lot of time and effort into cultivating prospects that don’t fit your criteria. It takes real discipline to ignore or put less time into the ones that don’t fit your ideal profile, but make the effort; you’re just throwing away your time if you chase them.

And don’t forget to set goals in each category—individuals, businesses, and foundations. How many current donors in each category do you expect to retain, how many new donors do you need in each category, and how many of the current donors in each category would you like to upgrade? What you measure is what you get, and what you don’t measure, you don’t get. So, if you fail to issue specific targets for new-funder income and for numbers of new funders per category, you end up undercutting your own efforts. 

Learn more about you ideal donors in The Leaky Bucket: What's Wrong with Your Fundraising...And How You Can Fix It. Buy it in the book section!


Stewardship and Donor Recognition

It has been said that good stewardship is the last step is the first gift and the first step in the next gift. Stewardship includes ensuring that the donor’s best interest are always the primary consideration, conforming to all applicable laws, making certain that all fundraising is done with the highest ethical standards, and developing proper systems of acknowledgment and recognition for the donor.

Donors should never be persuaded to contribute to a cause they don’t fully support, or to make a gift that may not be in their own best interest. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) provides a code of ethical standards and principles of professional practice that serves as a guide for its members but can provide a solid ethical basis for all fundraisers. This code may be found on AFP’s website at In addition to this code, there are numerous other professional organizations that have similar codes of ethics.  Some common issues that appear in all these codes are that fundraisers, either staff or consultants, should never work on a percentage based fee, that fundraisers must be open and honest about the organizations and its mission, and that fundraisers will always conform to legal requirements regarding the solicitations, recording, use, and acknowledgement of gifts. In addition to these codes of ethics, there is a Donor Bill of Rights, also available of AFP’s website, This Bill of Rights informs the donors of things they are entitled to when making a gift to a nonprofit. For example, donors have right to know who is on the governing board of the organization; whether the person soliciting them is a professional counsel, paid staff or a volunteer; and the right to remain anonymous in their giving among other things.  I encourage you to promote this Bill of Rights and adhere to its principles.

Other important aspects of all fundraising that must be considered during a campaign are the legal requirements of the IRS and other regulatory agencies, such as state and local municipalities that may govern fundraising activities. For example, most states regulate fundraising activities by requiring nonprofit organizations, fundraising counsel, and professional solicitors to be registered with them before conducting fundraising campaigns. Your organization should be aware of their own state’s requirements as well as other states in which you may plan to solicit donation. You also need to be sure that before engaging a paid consultant or professional solicitor, that those firms are registered within the state if they are required to do so.  IRS requirements in regard to “quid pro quo” contributions, fair market value of considerations given to donors, and statements for donations over $250 must be followed in the recording and acknowledgment of gifts. For information on state requirements, contact your department of state. Your accounting firm can give advice and counsel regarding IRS regulations (This article is not meant to provide legal or accounting advice, please contact appropriate counsel for this advice))

Acknowledgment of donors’ gifts should always be done promptly. Sending a thank you letter within twenty-four hours of receiving their gift is recommended.  All donors should be acknowledged with a personal letter of thanks, regardless of the size of their gift.  It is said that a donor should be thanked seven times for a gift before asking for the next gift.  While you would not want to send seven thanks you letters, there are other ways to thank the donor.  A personal phone call from the volunteer who solicited the gift, a handwritten note from the executive director or chair of the board, a phone call from a program recipient--all can do wonders to bond the donor to your organization.  And of course the formal receipt with the IRS statement stating that no goods or services were received in consideration of this donation can be considered another form of thanking the donor.

Recognition is another facet of thanking the donor for their gift.  Recognition can come in many forms. Listing donors in the organization’s newsletter and/or annual report, issuing a press release about a major gift, donor walls, bricks, and personal mementos given to the donors are all ways of providing donor recognition. Special recognition events at which donors are publicly recognized for their contributions can also be effective.  Remember, however, that some donors wish to remain anonymous and their anonymity must always be ensured.  Providing a place on the pledge card or letter of intent for donors to print their name exactly the way they wish to be recognized, and a box where they can check if they want to remain anonymous are simple ways of ensuring that donor recognition will be done according to the donor’s wishes. A good software system (discussed in an earlier article) will also provide the means to track this information when it is time to prepare the recognition items. Of course, these pledge forms and software systems must be in place at the start of the campaign, so recognition must be considered before the campaign begins and be a part of the campaign plan, not decided at the end of the campaign when it is time to recognize donors.

Besides adhering to legal and ethical standards, the organization benefits from good stewardship in other ways as well.  Professional staff will feel more confident knowing they are acting according to the highest professional standards, and donors feel more confident knowing the organizations they support are following good stewardship practices.  Many an organization has been the beneficiary of a huge estate because they provided good stewardship of the donor’s smaller gifts. 


Learn more about stewardship is my book, Fundraising for the GENIUS, and watch for my new book The New Donor, to be released in January 2017. All my books are available at Contact me at


Wanna Get Business Leaders to Serve on Your Board and Sit Through Metings

Many nonprofits have difficulty attracting business leaders to serve on their boards. When they are successful, they often lose those leaders within the first year. Ever wonder why?

Sometimes people who have spent their entire career in nonprofits just cannot relate to their counterparts from the business world. Yes, the nonprofit world is different! Yes, your nonprofit is unique! And yes, you are doing wonderful work that benefits your community. But often the business leaders you want to involve on your board are looking more for the bottom-line ROI than the smile on a client’s face or the fact that a program that’s been losing money for years is mission critical.

If you want these individuals to serve, you have to know what will make them comfortable and interested as well as what will make them run for the nearest door.

Coming from a business background myself, I’ve been in positions on boards where I rapidly lost interest in serving for several reasons. 

  • I got frustrated with “nonprofit-speak” and meetings that wasted my time.

  • I was pigeonholed. 

  • My talents were not being used. 

Nonprofit-speak Versus Business-speak

I recall serving on one board where every board meeting was chock-full of acronyms that were meaningless to me, and to top it off, the meetings started at 7 p.m. and lasted three to four hours. These endless hours were spent listening to reports that could have been sent in advance of the meeting. After a long workday, I grew pretty weary of that board.

 Those in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors interpret the same words or fill in the blanks differently. Below are some classic examples.

 “Let’s meet first thing in the morning.” Nonprofit Speak: 9 a.m.;  Business Speak 7 a.m.

 “Making a difference means…” Nonprofit SPeak: Our clients are happy—e.g., well-fed, educated, clean and sober, or whatever. Business Speak: A healthy well-educated community is a good place to do business.

“Donors should give to us because…” Nonprofit Speak: We do great work. Business Speak: They benefit from a clear value proposition when they do.

“We measure our success…” Nonprofit Speak: Through good outputs. Business Speak: Through measurable outcomes.

“We need people on our board who…” Nonprofit Speak: Represent the people we serve. Business Speak: Can bring us the money!

“Board members should…” Nonprofit Speak: Give, get, or get off. Business Speak: Feel that they are making a difference.

Lesson Learned: We must begin by making sure we’re all speaking the same language.

Sometimes a Square Peg Does Fit into a Round Hole

When recruiting new board members, it is critical to meet with each prospective board member and find out what each of them is really looking for in serving on your board. Don’t automatically assume that just because the person is a CPA, that the finance committee is the obvious place to put this new board member. I spent eleven years in the banking profession, and every time I was asked to serve on a board, I was placed on the finance committee. Guess what, though? I worked in the marketing department of the bank and was not really a “numbers person,” even though one of my majors was banking and finance. Even if you do have a “finance person” as a prospective board member, a person who crunches numbers all day might just be looking for a creative outlet in board service, or at least something that isn’t part of the person’s day-to-day work.

A perfect example is friend of mine who is an architect. Like me, he was invited to serve on many boards and was always pigeonholed—in his case, into the facilities committee. While I was serving in a staff position at a museum, I was fortunate enough to have a lot of input into building the museum’s board. I suggested my architect friend and was asked by the board to feel him out for his interest in serving. I had lunch with my friend one day and broached the subject. His answer was not surprising to me, although it wasn’t what my board expected. “Linda, I would love to serve on the museum board, but only on one condition—that I am not placed on the facilities committee.” Like me, he had been forced into that slot too many times. After a few more probing questions on my part, I found that he had studied art at the museum while he was in elementary school, and that experience launched his career in architecture. “I would really love to serve on the collections management committee, so if I can serve in that position, I will gladly join the board.” And he did. He was instrumental in assuring that the museum developed an accession and de-accession policy and, by the way, also gave a lot of pro bono architectural services to the museum.

Lesson Learned: Have a strategic plan, know what skills you require to achieve the plan, and recruit people with those skills. Ask board members how much time they can devote to your organization, ask them what skills and interests they have that they think will benefit your organization, then allow people to pursue their interests and use those skills.

Practical Tip: Often a board retreat is a good time to have board members spend some time talking about the skills, talents, and interests each one is willing to contribute to the organization's success.

More Board Members Resign for Lack of Meaningful Work than from Being Over-worked!

Lots of times we are afraid to ask our board members to do too much because we’re afraid they will be scared off. I have long felt that what really turns them off is a lack of meaningful work.

I served on one board that didn’t have strong committees; all the “real work” seemed to be handled by the executive committee, of which I was not a part. Meetings did not have any meat to them, decisions had already been made, and there just didn’t seem to be anything critical for discussion. I frankly got bored and quickly moved on to another board where I felt all the board members were essential to the organization’s success and there was meaningful discussion at board meetings about the vision and future of the organization. In addition, committee work was challenging but fun!

Lesson Learned: Make sure all board members are engaged, see the big picture, and have specific responsibilities that clearly fit into the big picture for which they’ll be held accountable.

How Do We Resolve These Issues?

So, how do you recruit business leaders to serve on your board and, perhaps even more importantly, how do you keep them involved?

Make It Fun, Easy, and Rewarding to Serve on Your Board!

Here are some hints to make it easy to recruit and retain business people for your board:

  • Hold your meetings at a convenient time for business leaders. Often early morning is good or right after work. And be sure to give board candidates a list of dates and times for your meetings when you are talking to them about a possible board position to ensure they will be available.

  • Keep meetings brief and stick to the agenda. Usually ninety minutes is sufficient time to discuss necessary business.

  • Have a “mission moment” at each board meeting in which board members get to hear from a client, a staff member, or someone who has benefitted from your programs. Make the stories compelling.

  • Send out all reports in advance to eliminate wasting time reading reports during the meeting.

  • Let committee chairs establish the best time for their committees to meet, and provide a staff person to take notes and prepare reports for committees. Business people are busy people! They want to offer their ideas, skills, and talents but do not want to be bogged down with things like taking minutes at meetings, preparing agendas and reports, and administrative work that they probably feel is “beneath them.”

  • Balance your board with enough business people so that any newcomers to the board have others that speak their language and understand the culture from which they come. You don’t want anyone feeling like a lone wolf.

  • Start meetings on time, end on time, and follow your parliamentary procedure.

  • Make sure your boardroom looks professional, is neat and clean, has enough seats, and provides all necessary equipment such as LCD projectors and laptops, along with a phone conference system for board members who might be unable to attend in person.

  • Provide board members with a manual of pertinent data, but don’t expect them to read through extraneous material. (I once sat on a board which provided each board member with a 5” binder containing, among other things, the complete personnel manual—yawn!).

  • Provide the board manual, reports, and other pertinent materials by email or through portals like the free Basecamp or the subscription BoardEffect, so they can be easily accessed from any location, anytime. Remember business people travel, work odd hours, and are accustomed to working through paperless channels.

  • Provide education for the board but keep it exciting and limit training to areas that board members absolutely need to know in order to do their job.

  • Run an Efficient, Effective Board Meeting

Some hints for running the sort of board meetings business people will appreciate include:

1.      Design the agenda to contain substantive items with the most critical items early on the agenda.

2.      Use a “consent agenda” to save time for inquiry, discussion and decision making.

3.      Put time allotments on each agenda item.

4.      Send the agenda, committee reports, and support materials in advance. Most board members prefer email, which will save you printing time and costs. Using smartphones, tablets, Doodle Polls, online portals, and the like to access materials, voting on issues (if your bylaws and state regulations permit electronic voting), and selecting convenient meeting times is almost a requirement for many boards. In fact, I just voted for a slate of officers using one of these online polls.

5.      Insist on an RSVP and have staff make reminder phone calls or send emails.

6.      Encourage maximum participation through the seating arrangement you choose. Be sure that all board members can see each other’s faces and any supporting visuals used in the meeting, such as a PowerPoint presentation.

7.      Have place cards for each board member and arrange seating so the cliques don’t always sit together.

8.      Hold occasional meetings in a special setting such as a museum, a bird sanctuary, a country club, or the newest hot spot in town to provide a break from the routine location and offer board members a chance to network before or after the meeting.

9.      Include a "mission related" segment at each meeting.

10.     If there are reports to be made–that is, they are not included in the consent agenda—alternate the order of presentation so no one is always first or last.

11.     Involve all board members in decision making.

Efficient board meetings, productive use of board members’ time and placing board members on committees that they find relevant can help you attract and retain good board members. Business leaders will happily sit through meetings that are productive, challenging, and enjoyable. You will be able to retain them on your board if you provide meaningful work, provide efficient ways to communicate and encourage participation.