October 2, 2023

5 Ways Nonprofits Turn Off Unsolicited Major Gifts Donors & Funders

Imagine this. You receive a voicemail from a lawyer. She’s calling because her client wants to make a six-figure gift. The client is considering several nonprofits; you’re her first choice right now. Can you talk?

Now imagine this—no voice mail.  

Why? You were on the list, but something you did or didn’t do turned the donor or lawyer off.

Nonprofit leaders want to support, especially unsolicited major gifts and windfalls. And they don’t want to turn anyone off. Might your nonprofit be accidentally doing this?

Identifying the Turn Offs

Here are five things that put off nonprofit investors based on my investigation into how unsolicited major gift donors and funders pick beneficiaries. (When you compare recipients with their peers, some stuff sticks out.) As a bonus, each includes a measurement option.

As you read, bear with me. This is not fun stuff. It is, however, a collection of items that are hard to see from the inside organizations with the potential to make a visible difference in your success.

Turn Off #1. Instantly Ask for Money

The nonprofit requests donations instantly.

While most nonprofit leaders refrain from doing this in person, many nonprofits immediately request donations on websites and social media.[1]

Why This Is a Turn Off

The investor wants to invest and seek a partner with value and a vision, but the nonprofit presses for an immediate contribution. It’s a goal mismatch!

Measure Yourself

Check your website. Do you lead with

  1. Value
  2. Vision
  3. Asking?

If you ask, does your ask whiff of begging? Or is donating now a bombardment?

Turn Off #2. Hide the Essentials

The nonprofit makes the investor guess:

  • What they do.
  • Where they are going.
  • How they plan to get there.

Either the prospect can’t easily find answers to these critical questions or, after a quick review, concludes they are missing. Hidden essentials repel investors on websites, and anywhere you have input on how you are listed, such as Charity Navigator and Candid.

Why This Is a Turn Off

The investor seeks to learn if they’ve identified a potential prospect. Ouch—if a nonprofit’s competitors made this research easy.

Measure Yourself

Don your newcomer’s shoes. How easy is it to get concise, clear answers to what you do, where you are going, and how you plan to get there?

Turn Off #3. Block Access

The only point of contact anywhere is a telephone number that leads to a confusing phone tree. Or to fill out a generic form: “If you would like more information about us, please fill out the form, and someone will get back to you.”

Why This Is a Turn Off

Investors or their representatives want to speak to the exec or their direct staff. Your barricades show that you have a challenge controlling inputs (incoming emails, telephone, and text messages). Your solution annoys investors.  

Measure Yourself

Imagine a lawyer’s working late. Can they find the exec’s telephone number or personal email to leave a message? (Note: How you handle this internally is a separate issue.)

Turn Off #4. Missing Accountability

Donors fill out a contact form and leave a voice mail. They wonder what’s next.

Why This Is a Turn Off

Without a specific next step, you leave prospects hanging. You’ve also inadvertently inserted doubt—maybe the support being considering isn’t welcome.

Measure Yourself

Review your response messages. How many include the magic words or the equivalent of: “What you will do by when” with a specific time and contact’s name? While checking, also look at your track record. Do you do what you say?

Turn Off #5. Arrogance

You give off a whiff of self-importance either online or in person.

Why This is a Turn Off

It suggests you don’t understand your work. Nonprofits are collective enterprises that build and lead durable communities. Or, as the Skoll Foundation states in its list of values, “We can’t do it alone. It takes a community to drive enduring impact.”

Measure Yourself

This turn off is tough to measure internally. Try this: consider your annual report, videos, presentations, etc. Who do these pieces imply does the work?

Why Turning Donors and Funders Matters?

While the statistics are unclear about how many donors and funders conduct research (one data point was less than 3 percent, a second 33 percent)—the number is growing since our phones let us research everything 24-7. Plus, many headlining-making grantors take the research approach.

When it comes to nonprofit investors comparing nonprofits, little things mean a lot. The good news is that very few nonprofits are doing most of these annoyances. Many inadvertently do one or two.

How about your nonprofit?

You can keep up with me. Subscribe to my newsletter, Karen’s CEO Solutions


[1] Notes: This is not a donate now button or similar options. It’s the barrage that’s chilling.

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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