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What We Wish We Had Known When We Started in Donor Relations



Our team at the DRG Group each have 20+ years of experience in the donor relations profession—and we've learned a lot along the way. This week, we wanted to share all the biggest things we wish we had known before we started in donor relations.


Lynne Wester

I wish someone had told me that our work is about the people as much as it is about the work! Navigating the red tape, the hierarchies and the intricacies of very big complex organizations can take skill! When I was younger in the field, I didn't have a mature perspective on meetings and getting the work done, something that has served me greatly in later more recent years! It really is all about the relationships.


I also wish someone had told me to ask sooner for exposure to donors I was doing the work for. I didn't get to actually "meet" a donor until 6-9 months and that perspective would have helped me greatly! Don't be afraid to ask to go on a visit, chat with the donors, etc. They really do help you gain perspective on the work we do and understand why the work we do matters! It also helps you debunk many anecdotal myths that are out there that may only be based on one donor's opinion. Get out there and meet these generous souls!


Matthew Helmer

We're all in this together. Left unattended, so much about the way fundraising shops are structured, especially in large organizations, can foster competition (sometimes it's even openly encouraged). It can be easy to get caught up in whose work is getting noticed and where the organization's limited resources are going. But at the end of the day, we're all in this together, serving the same mission. As a donor relations shop, we have an opportunity -- every single day -- to help someone else be the hero. And when we bring that truly collaborative approach to our work, our donors win -- as does our organization and the beneficiaries we serve.


On my first day, I wish someone had handed me The 4 Pillars of Donor Relations and walked me through it. Without revealing my age, I'll just share that it wasn't yet written, but this framework has transformed our industry and our ability to design a cohesive and meaningful donor experience. An important takeaway for me was the crucial need for our organizations to focus on the fundamentals -- rooting our practice in the "science" side of the house before tackling the "art." As a unicorn, I'm easily distracted by anything that glitters, yet understanding the need for rock solid stewardship building blocks -- and how to do it -- has elevated our overall program and the way donors experience the impact of their generosity.


Jan McGuire

Don’t assume your leadership understands the value of strong donor relations efforts in the fundraising cycle. Use your data and your metrics to help you lead up. Help your leaders understand things such as the cumulative gifts & commitments in the room at your events – virtual or in-person—as well as the potential giving capacity in the room. Show them the value of the endowments you report on, how many donors receive these reports and the giving & potential giving of these donors. It never hurts to point out how many of these donors are assigned to your gift officers or how many aren’t. And always remember that metrics can help you lobby for additional staff members.

As with leadership, never assume your gift officers and their support staff understand (or even remember) what you do and how it helps them. Be sure that donor relations orientation is part of the onboarding of new employees. Invite new employees to your office suite to meet the staff who prepare the acknowledgment letters, reports and other things that help keep donors engaged. As gift officers move frequently from one organization to another, it’s important that they understand what your donor relations office provides at your organization.


Angie Joens

The Jargon—all the jargon. When I started in donor relations in higher education I had to take a crash course in learning the lingo. I knew what accountability meant but had to learn what it meant and why it was important to donor relations. I understood that a bequest was a great planned gift but that there were many other ways to leave a legacy gift - gift annuity, charitable remainder trusts, unitrusts, life insurance. Then there were all the compliance related lingo and FERPA. It took me years to grasp all of this information and I learned it by asking many, many questions and finding my own answers. Having a list of definitions all in one place would have made a world of difference for me.


Important numbers and key statistics. When I started my job I quickly learned that there were many data points I should know. Donors asked questions. Leadership asked questions. Gift officers asked questions. They expected me to know these numbers. How many annual donors do we have? How many members in our recognition societies. What is our donor retention percentage? What is the cost to raise a dollar? How many colleges, school, units, departments are there on campus? What is our goal this year? What did we raise last year? And the questions go on. Gathering all this information helped me learn about our development operation, about our donors, about our goals, about my institution. One of the first things I do now when we onboard a new professional is provide them with these important details.


What lessons, skills, or advice do you wish you would have learned when you started in donor relations? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!


If you're searching for a comprehensive donor relations guidebook and training program for you or your team, check out our new e-course The Keys to Excellence in Donor Relations. It includes 10+ hours of on-demand video content, a 60+ page guidebook, live Q&A sessions with your instructors, and more!