How to Inspire Major Donors to Give at the End of a Very Tough Year

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by Joan Garry

Late last month a midsize arts organization called to ask for help with year-end fundraising.

The group, which focuses on music education, recently received a grant to strengthen its fundraising.

Usually I would say, “Sorry. When I help organizations with year-end fundraising, that work begins right after Labor Day.”

This time, I couldn’t say no. Besides 2020 being the year in which nothing is typical, I have three other reasons for getting involved.

First, arts organizations that rely on the earned income from ticket sales have struggled mightily. Plus, arts organizations seem to have an inferiority complex. I hear comments such as, “We only sing,” or “It’s not like we feed the hungry or cure cancer.” I wanted to help at least one group put a stop to that kind of thinking.

Finally, this organization had adapted beautifully during the spring for its students and figured out a way to continue their performances.

The first order of business: Ask some wealthy individuals who have donated in the past to give this year. As we all know, this is the most efficient way to bring in dollars. So, I asked to see the year-end appeal. I wanted to see how it was talking about 2020. Was it helping supporters imagine the possibilities of 2021? (Please stay with me. I am not a Pollyanna).

As I reviewed the material, I circled a few words, such as: “Urgent.” “We have made tough decisions.” “Promise to keep our doors open.”


All of these things were true, but these are not drivers for sustained giving. They may be drivers for one gift but not a long-term relationship.

Instead, arts organizations should remind donors of their higher calling, such as bringing us beauty and harmony. A friend who chairs the board of the Theatre for Young Audiences recently shared the results of a study the group commissioned. It offered empirical evidence that kids exposed to the arts by age 10 were exponentially more likely to live with deep empathy. In a divisive world, a message such as that brings hope — and is far more likely to inspire a lasting connection.

Whatever your cause, if you want to inspire donors, start with their motivations for giving. In this case, let’s presume the donor is inspired by one of these three drivers:

  • The desire for kids to grow up appreciating music
  • The desire to ensure equity and access to music education for all kids
  • The belief that the nonprofit makes the community special and makes the person proud to call this place home

Here is a recipe for deepening ties with donors in November and December.
Show donors you care. As we surpass 240,000 deaths in nine months, it’s hard to find anyone who has not been touched by Covid-19. When interacting with donors, beware of making any assumption they are unscathed. Ask how they are doing. Show that you care about them. It’s the right thing to do, and it may foster a sense of unity. Every one of us has been challenged in this unfathomable year.

Talk about the delicious “lemonade” you made in 2020. You were handed a big bowl of lemons, but what you accomplished this year has been heroic. With passion running through the veins of staff members, nonprofits have gone virtual, expanded reach, added programs and — in so many ways — have set their organizations up to thrive in 2021.

Explain what their dollars will make possible in 2021. Initially your work this year may have been about survival and innovation. But by being nimble and embracing creativity, you made new things happen. Tie those heroics to what lies ahead.

Frame your request for money as a bridge from the challenges and lessons of 2020 to the vision for, and impact of, 2021. If you do a great job painting the 2021 picture, a donor will want to help your organization get there.

Tie your work to your community. Activate donors’ pride in their communities. For example, the Cleveland Orchestra is internationally known, but it’s part of what makes residents of Cleveland just bust their buttons. What an opportunity for a fundraiser: Ask a well-off resident to support work that starts in Cleveland but is recognized worldwide.


Inspire. I know how tired you are. You may even be desperate for year-end funds. But you need to help the donor see what’s possible, the new (and perhaps greater) impact that will emerge from the year’s challenges. In other words, trade the language of “making tough decisions” and “keeping doors open” for “beauty, harmony, and empathy.”

Before we part, let’s talk about Zoom. The assumption folks make is that in-person asks are vital, especially with high-dollar donors. Some leaders view Zoom as an obstacle to a successful meeting with major donors.

NO. NO. NO. In fact, it has real advantages. In a video conference, you have a donor’s undivided attention: no time wasted deciding between the chicken Caesar and the tuna niçoise.

You’ll probably have less clock-watching and can converse more leisurely. Plus, many people are at home, so it’s less formal. Combined, these elements can offer you more time to ask questions and elaborate on a story that sparks interest.

No matter how you connect with your donors, remember that people need to believe that the future holds promise. Your leadership, your passion, and your ability to innovate offer hope — the antidote to what ails us. Best gift of all.

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