13 Mistakes Major Donor Reps Make

Donor Relations, Fundraising, Major Gifts

By Jeremy Reis

As a major donor representative, you play a vital role in raising money for your organization. You are the face of the organization, and you have the unique opportunity to connect with potential donors on a personal level. However, there are some pitfalls that can trip you up and cost you dearly. In this blog post, we will explore the top 13 mistakes major donor representatives make and how you can avoid them.

1. Not Building a Relationship

One of the most common mistakes major donor representatives make is failing to build relationships with donors. Remember, these donors are not just ATM machines. They are people with their own interests, passions, and concerns. If you want them to invest in your organization, you need to take the time to get to know them as people.

The relationship between a fundraiser and a donor is a lot like any other relationship—it takes time to develop. You wouldn’t expect to marry someone you just met, and donors shouldn’t be expected to make a major gift after only one or two interactions. Major donor prospects need to be cultivated over time through a variety of means, such as phone calls, emails, personal visits, and events. The key is to build trust and demonstrate your commitment to the relationship before asking for a major gift.

A common complaint we hear from donors is that they don’t feel like their gifts are making a difference. In some cases, this may be due to organizational issues beyond your control (e.g., bureaucracy). But in other cases, it may be because you’re not doing a good job of communicating the impact of the donor’s gift. Donors want to know how their money is being used and what difference it’s making in the lives of those we serve. If you can’t provide them with that information in a compelling way, they’ll quickly lose interest and move on to another organization.

2. Failing to Visit the Donor

The global pandemic has made it challenging the past two years to visit donors. As we enter into a post-pandemic phase, we need to stop neglecting the need for personal visits while honoring the donor’s wishes.

The number one mistake major donor reps make is failing to visit their donors on a regular basis. While it may seem like a time-consuming and expensive endeavor, donor visits are essential for building and maintaining strong relationships. Furthermore, studies have shown that face-to-face interactions are the most effective way to secure major gifts. If you’re not visiting your donors regularly, you’re missing out on key opportunities to cultivate and solicit gifts.

When visits are scheduled and confirmed, reps should have a fairly clear idea of what they hope to accomplish during the meeting. What is the main purpose of the visit? Do you need to gather additional information? Are you seeking financial support for a specific project? Answering these questions ahead of time will help you stay focused when speaking with the donor. Remember, the goal is to leave the meeting having achieved something specific.

3. Not Doing Your Research

One of the most important parts of securing a major gift is doing your homework. This means taking the time to learn about your prospective donor, their interests, and their giving history. Without this information, it will be difficult to tailor your pitch in a way that resonates with the donor and motivates them to give. Additionally, you should also be familiar with your organization’s past relationship with the donor, as well as any other relevant information that could be helpful in making your case.

A one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t cut it when soliciting major gifts. Just as you wouldn’t give the same birthday present to your spouse as you would your best friend, you shouldn’t making giving to your organization feel like a transaction. The best way to customize the solicitation process is get to know your donors—their interests, their philanthropic goals, their relationship to your organization. Once you have a good understanding of who they are and what they care about, you can tailor your pitch in a way that resonates with them on a personal level.

It can be easy to get nervous when meeting with a potential major donor for the first time (or even the hundredth time), and start babbling on in an attempt to fill the silence. But resist the urge! Donors appreciate being able to have a conversation, not simply be talked at. Instead of trying to cram everything into one meeting, focus on building rapport and getting to know them as a person. You can always follow up with additional information later on.

Here are some questions you can ask major donors:

  1. How did you first get involved with our organization?
  2. What was it about our mission that spoke to you?
  3. What has been your favorite project or program that we’ve undertaken?
  4. Is there anything we could be doing differently that would make you more likely to support us?
  5. Are there any other organizations you’re passionate about? Why?
  6. What are some of your hobbies or interests outside of philanthropy?
  7. How do you like getting updates from us (e.g. monthly newsletters, personal phone calls, etc.)?
  8. Is there a specific staff member or volunteer you enjoy speaking with from our organization? Who and why?
  9. Have you ever visited our offices or program sites? If not, would you like to?
  10. Do you know anyone else who might be interested in supporting our work financially? Would you be willing to introduce us?
  11. What topics would you like us to cover during our next conversation?
  12. Is there anything else on your mind that you’d like to share with me?
  13. Thank you so much for your time and generosity – is there anything I can do for you?
  14. I’ll follow up soon with some dates and times for another call – does that work for you?

4. Not Being Prepared

One of the surefire ways to turn off a potential donor is by coming into a meeting unprepared. Before meeting with a donor, take the time to review their file and familiarize yourself with their giving history and any previous interactions you’ve had with them. Additionally, always come prepared with specific asks in mind so that you can utilize every opportunity to solicit a gift. Keep in mind that first impressions are everything, so make sure you’re putting your best foot forward from the start.

Asking a donor for a meeting without being prepared is a surefire way to waste their time—and yours. If you don’t have a clear purpose for the meeting, the donor will be able to sense it and they’ll be less likely to want to meet with you again in the future. Before setting up any meeting with a donor, take some time to do your research and prepare an outline of what you’d like to discuss. That way, when you sit down with the donor, you can hit the ground running and make the most of your time together.

5. Asking Too Soon

Another mistake that reps make is asking for too much too soon. Remember — cultivate the relationship first. If you go in for the ask too early, you risk turning the donor off and damaging the relationship.

Asking for a donation is certainly the goal of any meeting with a potential donor, but being too pushy is a surefire way to turn them off. There is a fine line between being assertive and being pushy, and it is important to tread carefully. Remember that you are trying to build a relationship with this person—not just get their money. If you come across as too pushy or sales-y, you risk pushing the donor away entirely.

When it comes time to ask a donor for a gift, it’s important to strike a balance between bringing up money too soon and not bringing it up at all. If you bring up money too soon in the relationship, it can come across as pushy or insensitive—especially if the donor has just suffered a setback or lost someone close to them. On the other hand, if you wait too long before asking for money, it might give off the impression that you’re not interested in getting financial support from them at all—which could damage your relationship going forward.

6. Making an Unrealistic Ask

It’s important to remember that not every prospective donor is able or willing to make a six-figure gift. Asking for an amount that’s outside of a prospective donor’s ability to give is not only unrealistic, but it can also damage your relationship with that individual. When making your ask, be sure to keep in mind the prospect’s giving history and capacity, as well as any other factors that could impact their ability to give.

Asking for too much at the outset—particularly if you’re just starting to work with a new donor—is often a mistake. Not only does it put unnecessary pressure on the donor, but it also runs the risk of souring the relationship if they’re not able to give as much as you asked for. Don’t make the ask until you understand the amount a donor is ready to give.

Another mistake major donor reps make is not timing their ask correctly. For example, if you’re asking for a financial gift, you’ll want to make sure that the donor is in a good place financially. If they’re experiencing hardship, then it’s probably not the right time to ask. The same goes for asks that require time or energy on the part of the donor. You’ll want to make sure they have enough time and energy to give before making your ask.

7. Not Asking for Feedback

Even the best fundraisers aren’t mind readers! If you’re unsure about how your donor relations strategy is going or if there’s room for improvement, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback directly from your donors. They’ll be happy to let you know what they like (and don’t like) about working with your organization, and their insights can help you fine-tune your approach moving forward.

Active listening is a skill that all donor representatives must master if they want to be successful. When meeting with donors, it’s important to pay attention to what they’re saying and ask follow-up questions to demonstrate that you’re engaged in the conversation. Additionally, avoid interrupting or cutting off donors when they’re speaking. Instead, give them the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings without interruption. Doing so will show that you value their input and feedback.

8. Not Including the Appropriate Parties in the Ask

One of the most common—and costly—mistakes that major donor reps make is not including all the decision makers in the ask. This can be a particular problem when working with families or closely held businesses, where there may be multiple people involved in making philanthropic decisions.

Before you make an ask, always be sure to identify and include all the key decision makers. The last thing you want is to have a family foundation or business owner say they would have given if only they had been involved in the conversation from the start.

9. Failing to Discover What Speaks to Your Donor’s Heart

When meeting with potential donors, it is important to build rapport and create a trusting relationship. Remember that people give to people, not organizations. You need to be able to connect with the donor on a personal level in order to earn their trust—and their donation. Some simple ways to build rapport include using the donor’s name frequently, maintaining eye contact, and listening more than you talk.

Donors often have a heart for a specific issue. You should have a good understanding of their philanthropic history and what issues they are passionate about. This information will help you make a personal connection with the donor and tailor your pitch to their specific interests. Don’t have a lot of giving history for a donor? Ask them! Donors love to talk about what they’re passionate about.

10. Not Discovering the Type of Information a Donor Wants

When soliciting gifts, it’s easy to get caught up in what your organization needs and lose sight of what’s important to the donor—but if you want them to give, that’s exactly what you need to avoid doing. Instead of leading with information about your organization’s programs or initiatives, start by talking about the donor and what motivates them to give in the first place. Once you’ve made that connection, you can then talk about how their gift will help further your mission—not the other way around.

There are different types of donors, some want to hear compelling stories of impact while others want to know their investment in your organization will be an effective one. Each of these donors needs different types of information to make a decision. Ask the donor what information is helpful for them to make a decision.

11. Giving Up Too Soon

One of the biggest mistakes reps make is giving up too soon. Just because a donor says no doesn’t mean that they’re never going to give—it might just mean that they’re not ready yet. Don’t give up too soon if a donor says no to an ask—whether it’s for financial support or for volunteering their time. Instead, use it as an opportunity to learn more about their interests and priorities. It might take some time (and additional cultivation), but it could eventually lead to a major gift down the road. Keep working at it and eventually you’ll find success.

When asking for major gifts, it’s important to remember that the process takes time—often much longer than you might expect. Don’t give up too soon! It can take months or even years of relationship-building before a donor feels comfortable making a large gift. Sooner or later, though, your persistence will pay off if you believe in your cause and remain committed to your mission.

12. Not Following Up

Once you’ve made your ask, it’s important to follow up in a timely manner. Thank the donor for their time and reiterate your ask in writing so there is no confusion about what you are requesting. If the donor expresses interest in giving but needs more time to make a decision, be sure to follow up periodically until you either receive a yes or no answer. Failing to follow up in a timely manner could result in the loss of a major gift.

While it is important to cultivate new relationships with potential donors, you should not neglect your current donors in the process. These are the people who have already shown an interest in your organization and have contributed financially in the past. It is important to keep them engaged by staying in touch and keeping them updated on your work. If you neglect your current donors, they may decide to take their business elsewhere.

13. Understanding the “No”

As a fundraiser, one of the most difficult things to hear is the word “no” from a prospective donor. You’ve put in the hard work of identifying and researching a potential donor, only to have your efforts rebuffed. It can be disheartening, to say the least.

Before you get too discouraged, though, it’s important to understand that there are many reasons why donors might say no—and that there are ways to prevent these reasons from happening in the first place.

A donor may not have a heart for the specific cause you’re pitching them. They’re not saying “no” to you, they’re saying “no” to something that is not speaking to their heart. People are more likely to donate to an organization if they have a personal connection to it—if they know someone who has been affected by your work, for example, or if they share your mission or values. If a potential donor doesn’t have any sort of personal connection to your organization, they’re far less likely to give money—no matter how much they may want to help in general terms. Therefore, it’s important to try and establish some sort of personal connection before making an ask. This could mean sharing your own story or experiences with them, or simply taking the time to get to know them as individuals rather than just potential donors.

Another reason why donors might say no is because they weren’t given enough information about your organization or how their donation would be used. When asking for donations, make sure you take the time to explain who you are and what you do—don’t assume that everyone knows about your work already! It’s also important to be clear about how their donation will be used and what impact it will have; people want to know that their money is going towards something tangible and worthwhile. If you take the time to provide potential donors with all of the necessary information upfront, you’re more likely than not to get a positive response.

Another common reason why donors might say no is because the ask was poorly timed. Perhaps you reached out during a busy or stressful time in their life, or maybe they just hadn’t had enough time to build up a relationship with your organization. Either way, timing is everything when it comes to asking for donations. Make sure you do your research and reach out at a time when they’re likely to be receptive to your request.

Finally, another reason why potential donors might say no is because they’ve already given money elsewhere—perhaps even recently! While this may seem like an unfair reason for saying no, it’s important not remember that people are limited in how much money they can give away at any given time. If someone has already given money elsewhere recently, chances are they won’t have much left over for other organizations—no matter how much they care about your cause. Therefore, it’s important not take it personally if someone says no for this reason; instead, politely thank them for considering making a donation and move on to other prospects who may be able (and willing) to give at this time.

Last but not least, it’s important not to take rejection personally when soliciting major gifts. It’s not uncommon for donors to say no—even after establishing a good relationship with them—so don’t take it to heart when it happens. Remember that there are many factors that go into a person’s decision to give (or not give), so it’s not personal. Keep your head up and keep moving forward—the right donor is out there waiting for you!


By avoiding these thirteen major mistakes, you will be well on your way to becoming a successful major gift fundraiser! Remember that relationships are key—so focus on connecting with your donors on a personal level and showing them how much their support means to your organization. With these tips in mind, go out there and change some lives!


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