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Building Relationships

The most important aspect of fundraising is relationship building. If you want to find greater success in your money raising efforts, you must develop a culture of philanthropy, which is a phrase that refers to an organization’s attitude toward philanthropy and fundraising. A good culture of philanthropy is one where all members of a team understand that they are an ambassador for philanthropy and fund development—both directly and indirectly. If you want to have a good culture of philanthropy in your unit, you need to develop a warm, welcoming, and inclusive environment at each and every opportunity for your members, donors, and guests. Specifically within fundraising, you must build good relationships with your supporters—not simply to gain financial support—but to help supporters understand the impact of their investment.


In short, a good culture of philanthropy is one that uses donor-centric fundraising, an approach to raising money that inspires donors to remain loyal longer and give more generously. There are many ways to incorporate donor centrism into your projects. One example of being donor-centric is providing prompt and meaningful acknowledgements whenever gifts are made and sending updates to donors describing what was accomplished through their donation.

Why is relationship building important?

How do I develop long term fundraising relationships?

The Donor Cycle, illustrated below, indicates the four stages required to develop long-term fundraising relationships.

Within this diagram, the identification stage refers to gathering and analyzing information you find/receive about potential donors. To the degree possible, researching and identifying background information on the potential donor is vital during this stage. This may sound overwhelming, but simple internet searches can be a great starting point. 

The cultivation stage refers to building a relationship with the potential donor to prepare your request for funds. This includes meeting a potential donor for coffee/lunch, having conversations at meetings and events, sending articles or information that the donor might find interesting, etc. You should tailor your cultivation to fit each donor’s specific interests.

Once you have built a good foundation, you can transition to the solicitation stage, which is where you request a donation from a potential donor. Before soliciting, identify a specific amount or range for the “Ask” based on your knowledge of the prospect. The best “Ask” will include both an amount and an explanation of what the donor’s investment will accomplish (also known as the “outcome”). Should you receive a donation, you will then move into the stewardship stage, where you will continue to update and engage the donor. It is vitally important to remember that the relationship does not end after you receive a gift.

How do I break the ice with potential donors?

Meaningful conversations are key in relationship building. The goal when having a conversation with potential donors is to understand them better and develop their interest in the CAF. Some beginner questions you can use include:

  • How did you hear about the CAF?

  • How did you get involved with the CAF?

  • What brought you here today to the [Event, airshow, unit meeting, etc.]?

  • Do you have an interest in supporting the CAF's mission?

  • What do you find most challenging about [shared interest e.g., historic preservation, youth education, etc,]?

  • What would you say are some of your strongest beliefs about [shared interest]?

  • The interest in [shared interest] seems to be (growing/waning). Why do you think that is? 

  • What feedback do you have about today's [event]


If you receive an interesting answer, use these follow up questions to learn more:

  • What makes you say that?

  • Why do you feel that way?

  • Can you give me an example?

  • Has that ever happened before?

Be prepared for responses that may be unexpected or that you may not agree with. Remember, you are trying to build a good relationship. Be empathetic to a donor’s response rather than defensive. If you indicate that you will share their thoughts or information with others, follow through.

How do I connect with current supporters that I don't know very well?

On-going communication with current supporters, along with pursuing new supporters is important. Good feedback is a vital tool.  Here are a few questions to use with supporters.

  • How did you first get involved with the CAF?

  • What makes you want to be involved with the CAF?

  • When your friends/family find out that you (volunteer/donate/etc) with the CAF, what do they say or ask?

  • What is it like to support the CAF?

  • What was your first impression of the CAF?

  • What has surprised you most about the CAF?

  • If you could change one thing about the CAF, what would it be?

  • What would you tell someone who is considering supporting the CAF?

Donor retention rates across the philanthropic landscape have weakened over the past 10 years, currently averaging below 50%. Nearly 1 in 5 wealthy individuals stopped giving to at least one charity last year and every $100 gained was offset by $91 in losses through gift attrition. When surveyed, the top three reasons that donors provided for ending their philanthropy with an organization was: too frequent solicitation, household circumstance changes, and belief that the organization was ineffective or didn't communicate its effectiveness well. This shows us that its important not to burn our donors out with constant requests and to continue to refine and sharpen our image and messages.

Here are some specific ways you can help increase the likelihood of continued donor support: 

  • Honor any requests for privacy or anonymity

  • Honor requests for how contributions should be used

  • Acknowledge all gifts with a thank you note

  • Communicate the specific impact of the gift to the donor

  • Offer board membership or other volunteer involvement opportunities to donors 

Can I build relationships over the phone?

While it can certainly be easier to build relationships in person, a phone call is also an excellent opportunity to develop donor/support relations. Whether you are phoning potential or current donors, have an objective for the call in mind (i.e. what is the purpose of the call). Before connecting, identify the type of call and prepare what you want to say.

  • Contact Call

    • “Have you seen our recent newsletter?”

    • “Will you be attending (upcoming event)?”

    • “I thought of you when…”

  • Thank You Call

    • “I’m calling to personally thank you for…”

    • “I wanted to let you know how much your gift helped our organization.”

    • “I wanted to inform you know how much our organization has raised and thank you for being a part of it.”

  • Advice Call

    • “We need some help and I think you might be able to assist.”

    • “I wanted to pick your brain about…”

    • “Can you help me think through…”

  • “Join Us” Call

    • “I am inviting you to attend a meeting to discuss…”

    • “I wanted to personally invite you to our upcoming event.”


Always remember to thank whomever you are speaking to at the end of the call, whether it is for specific support or just taking the time to speak with you.

Can I build relationships through the mail?

Letters are a great way to help build relationships. If you are writing a letter or personal note to a current or potential donor, make it personal. Specifically acknowledging your donor is a way to create a donor-centric culture of philanthropy and continue to build relationships. Use warm, engaging phrases like: “It was great to see you at (event)!” or “Your support means a lot to us.” Where possible, clearly articulate what happened (or will happen) because of their donation (the outcome). (Reminder: as outlined in the Unit Finance Guide, such thank you notes do not include any monetary amount. Please refer to the Finance Manual for additional information.)

Not everyone who is interested in your projects may be willing or able to open their checkbooks. However, they may be interested in providing an equally important commodity: their time! A recent report by CCS Fundraising showed that 1 in 4 Americans volunteered, which equals almost 63 million people. Additionally, 50% of wealthy households volunteered their time--twice the rate of the general population.  In order to keep people engaged, financial gifts should not always be the end-goal. Approach your relationship building efforts from a donor-centric perspective that creates the best partnership between you and supporters.

What if I have a good relationship, but it hasn't translated into dollars?

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