The Best Route to Approaching Donors: Hand-Head-Heart

Simple principles can maximize the return on the time and energy put into achieving optimal fund development results.

The Best Route to Approaching Donors: Hand-Head-Heart
7 mins read

Want more donations to your nonprofit? Try seeing things from a donor’s point of view.

As someone who began her career as a fund raiser and migrated to become a funder as head of a large corporate foundation, I have a somewhat unique vantage point on the struggle many nonprofits endure when engaging funders and major donors to support their cause. In speaking with executive and development officers who are charged with fundraising, I find it most helpful to convey some simple principles that I applied to maximize the return on the time and energy I put into achieving optimal fund development results.

Individual donations provide the lion’s share of support to grassroots causes, exceeding 80% of all non-governmental income. Yet many organizations struggle to successfully engage prospects because they haven’t taken the time to see things from their point of view.

Nonprofits tend to look at gifts from this perspective: We have a worthy cause; we have financial needs to sustain the organization and advance the cause; we know of someone with money who can support this cause if we just can get to them.

By contrast, donors tend to look at gifts from this perspective: We have money; we have certain priorities that come from our values; we want to maximize our return on our investment and the impact we can have placing finite resources.

Marrying these somewhat disparate perspectives is the art of fundraising, but the caveat for nonprofits is that not all donors will prioritize or align with your cause; and the biggest No-No in fundraising is to put your cause forward without finding the connective tissue between the cause and the prospect. Casting your bread upon philanthropic waters and seeing what happens just won’t cut it in a world where limited resources and changing tax laws are dramatically shifting charitable giving.

So, if tossing out your cause as your first move is not the smart play in fundraising, what is the critical first step to bring your nonprofit into focus for a donor? RESEARCH! RESEARCH! RESEARCH!

Three critical elements to close

Visualize this: It takes three critical elements to close a gift—think Hand-Head-Heart:

  • Hand is the capacity to give
  • Head corresponds to the interest in the field
  • Heart is the desire to contribute

While this may seem obvious, it is amazing to me how few leaders of nonprofits fully grasp the power of researching all three elements before pitching a prospect.

Most nonprofits think that a donor’s capacity is easy to assess. Not so. A 990 or Wealth Engine report only reveals so much. Gauging capacity requires understanding how much wealth is liquid and accessible. For instance, I knew a very successful businessman in his eighties who owned a large, highly appreciated company, but who plowed every penny he had back into the business and had little liquidity to show for his apparent wealth. In short, capacity is not just a matter of wealth—it is whether that wealth is available for a real-time gift or perhaps a more creative solicitation strategy.

It will come as no surprise that the businessman—having devoted himself exclusively to making the business grow—had no interest in causes whatsoever. He was a clean slate when it came to philanthropic interests. That would indicate he was ripe for any cause, right? Not!

How to get a donor to sign

So how do we gauge and strengthen a prospect’s interest in our field? In order to get a donor to sign on the dotted line, your nonprofit has to put forward both an intellectual and emotional case. Our hard-nosed businessman had no wife, no kids, and no outside interests or activities. (This is a true story!) Finding connective intellectual and emotional tissue between him and a cause would be no small feat.

The critical component to finding this connectivity is to listen. Listening to the prospect can provide clues, and also listening to those close to him, such as his financial advisor and attorney. The goal of this research is to understand what drives the donor. Elements in this case that may prove relevant include the business that the man had invested his life in and his history — where he grew up and his education. By way of example, the businessman was known to have grown up extremely poor—he was a self-made man. He was also a devout Catholic and had an affinity for dogs. Any information you can gather before the fact makes a difference in how you present your case.

The most critical step

Finally, the most critical step in successful fundraising is to craft a strategy to connect the dots between the capacity, the interest in the nonprofit mission, and the potential emotional connection to your cause. From this research, a strategy can be made to approach the donor with a gift opportunity that ideally advances his or her vision of what the world should be.

In the case of the businessman, we were able to carefully thread the needle through his capacity, life story, interest, and heart. We structured a charitable remainder annuity trust whereby he benefitted from the sale of his business with a generous income stream during his life and upon his death, the estate valued at more than $15M went to our hospital to support pediatric care, including a groundbreaking pet therapy program. If we hadn’t listened to his unique situation and then come up with a solution that spoke to his hand, his head, and his heart, we never would have proposed something so unusual and I have no doubt we would have failed to secure this critical support.

The next time you’re putting together your fundraising strategy, look through both your and their perspective. Keep in mind the simple principle of Hand-Head-Heart to ensure you deploy resources wisely and approach individuals and foundations that align with the three elements to maximize return on your fundraising initiatives.

About the Author

Paula Golden is President of the Broadcom Foundation. She initiates innovative partnerships with universities, nonprofits, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to create equitable access to STEM education, close the STEM education gap for young women and the underserved, and ensure that young people are STEM literate with the necessary skills to succeed in 21st century STEM careers. She is a leader in the National STEM Funders Network and STEM Education Ecosystem Initiative that create collaborations among formal and informal STEM educators throughout the United States. As a former host of community cable programs, Emmy finalist, TEDx presenter, and blogger for the Huffington Post, Paula promotes communication as a critical tool in STEM education.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

24 thoughts on “The Best Route to Approaching Donors: Hand-Head-Heart

  1. hello can you possibly help me
    im wanting to open up my own food drive where i get donations for food to help out people in need. and also to where i can help people out in need of school supplies and christmas presents can you tell me how i can do this to where i can get donations and dontations in money to do this also .

    1. Thanks so much for your interest in building stronger communities! Curious why you want to set up your own food drive vs. supporting others that already exist, and in general would always steer you to support existing efforts first. Take the time to find out who is out there already doing this work and see if you can support them, and only after that should you consider starting your own thing. And assuming you do move forward, for the school supplies, food, and presents, you’re likely to find the most traction raising in-kind sponsorship and contributions from companies and businesses that sell that kind of stuff, but they can donate it to you and get a tax write-off, assuming you’re partnered with or set up as a nonprofit. Cash donations are a whole separate bag and there are tons of articles on fundraising on the Blue Avocado website, as well as many books on the subject. Good luck!

  2. we have an national organisation in south sudan that support health and education in some villages around southsudan ,so we may need your support to help the poor people who are suffering

    1. Thanks for reading Elizabeth – we have lots of articles on fundraising on the website, so feel free to search for other ideas that may support your mission to help people in your area.

      1. I am really in need of one house for my family I do not have money to buy house. plz help me God grace are sufficient to you all amen. in Christ love Nathan.

        1. Hello Nathan, sorry to hear about your troubles. We’re a small nonprofit magazine, not a service organization. Perhaps look in your local area for nonprofits who support people with similar issues.

  3. Nepal Journey is non profit organization based on USA. We are going to build disabled accessible library I Chitwan nepal . Looking for Funding is anyony Can help us?

  4. Nepal Journey is non profit organization based on USA. We are going to build disabled accessible library I Chitwan nepal . Looking for Funding is anyony Can help us?

    1. Sounds like a wonderful idea. We have lots of articles on fundraising on this site, please feel free to use the “search” at the top of the page to find them and put them to good use in your cause.

  5. Good day,

    I am looking into setting up a mobile Library that would be accessible to children in the villages in my home country of Dominica, do you have any ideas on how I can get started. I live in the US and would like to start with one mobile library and eventually a few others, the children do not have access to books. How could I get access to used books etc.I would also need ideas on transforming a bus or minivan into a library.

  6. is another great fundraising research to identify potential funders. And as for transforming libraries and getting books, I’d suggest reaching out to Room to Read, WorldReader, and other groups working in the literacy space to get their recommendations. Hope that helps!

  7. I am interested in knowing of how to help the poor get the medication they need, such as blood pressure medication, antibiotics etc. The people that come to us cannot afford to get the medication that will save their lives. Please help.

  8. I truly enjoyed reading the article. I’m a fashion design teacher that works in an urban community with students that are great yet struggles with various things.

    For the past 4 years I have raised the bar of excellence and each year many have been successful. This year I have eleven students to compete in NJ FCCLA state competition and all return as Gold Medalist. Three receive scholarships and another two placed to compete at the National level which will be in Anaheim California.

    So as state before my students many of my students are successful and are able to riser to the bar of excellence. They come to school early, stay late daily and attend on Saturday’s all because they want to be successful. However, due to limited funds often times there journey of success is cut short.

    We are having a fashion show on June 15th this year to help raise funds to get the students to California (an opportunity of a lifetime for these students). I have been everything I can to get donations and haven’t been very successful. Can you help me get donors to donate gifts that we can raffle to help. Please advise.

    1. Thanks for your comment and all the good work you’re doing with young people. We have lots of fundraising and donation articles on the site, including a recent one on in-kind donations – you might want to take a look at that!

  9. We are a non-profit affordable housing development company, and we aspire to be collaborators in solving the affordable housing crisis. We are seeking to raise capital (funding) in order to advance our mission.

  10. The Effectiveness of Donation Request Cards and a Few Best Practices | Plumb Marketing says:

    […] Paula Golden of the Broadcom Foundation recommends keeping a donor’s heart, head and head in mind when making a donation appeal. […]

  11. I have a foundation called triple A in Abuja, Nigeria and what I do basically is giving out groceries and clothings to the internally displaced people(idp). These people were displaced due to the insurgency in the country. I do this once a month because that’s what I can afford, can you possibly help so I can reach out to them more than once a month.

    1. Sounds like you’re doing important work Anita. We are a nonprofit online magazine and not an aid organization, as such you’ll find lots of articles on our website that can help with all aspects of running your foundation including fundraising. Best of luck to you.

  12. Our organisation is non profit Tax exempt,we cater to our community to assist young and displaced workers get back on their feet alongside with their family and young school age loved ones.
    We are requesting .
    We would like to know the steps to steps to accomplish that.

    1. Thanks for your comment. We are unable to give advice on reaching a specific mission, however feel free to search our website for any challenges you are facing, as we likely have an article that will assist you in that area, be it fundraising, board of director issues, finance, executive directors, or human resources.

  13. I am a retired teacher, and I would like to offer tutoring services to students during this remote learning mandate in my county, which is Warren County, North Carolina. I understand how important it is for some students to have that personal contact with their teacher in order to grasp the information they are receiving. I would love to be able to do this at no cost to parents, but the only way I can manage that is if I can find funding for this project. Does anyone have suggestions for fund for funding this project?

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