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December 4, 2021
Critical Questions to Ask Your Donors
By Susan Wolf Ditkoff

Susan Wolf Ditkoff
Susan Wolf Ditkoff
To build successful relationships with donors, nonprofit leaders need to ask the right questions #147; questions that can lead to deeper relationships and unlock meaningful, long-term engagement in their cause.

A recently compiled series of extended interviews with a broad cross section of philanthropists reveal how they pick causes to champion and work with grantees, how they define success, measure results, and adapt their strategies over time. Most importantly, the interviews show how the strongest donor-grantee relationships grow organically from an authentic connection between a philanthropist’s deep passions and the work of the nonprofits they support.

Savvy nonprofit leaders should ask donors three questions to uncover such potential connections:

Question 1: Why Are You Passionate about What We Do?
This question focuses your discussion on the donor’s motivation. They may be passionate about one or more “anchors” to their giving: people (e.g., women and girls), or problems (disease research), or places (their hometown), or programs (mentoring), or even certain philosophies (supporting social entrepreneurship or fostering innovation). Their motivations might be quite personal, driven by their unique experiences or family values.

Here’s what some say:
  • Josh Bekenstein, managing director, Bain Capital: “There’s a mutuality of interest. [Grantees have] done you a favor because they are going to help you accomplish a goal...You’re both doing something for each other.”

  • Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot: “Somebody came to me that was working for me and said I want to say goodbye...because I’m dying.” Marcus contacted an organization he knew that dealt with cancer patients, and that organization saved the employee’s life. This “turning point” profoundly affected Marcus; his first foray was sitting on that nonprofit’s board for 35 years and raising over $100 million in that time.
Question 2: What Does “Success” Look Like for You?
Increasingly, donors express an impatience for results. But the best philanthropists balance that impatience with the recognition that they need to be committed for the long haul if they are to realize their philanthropic ambitions. Once you understand the change your philanthropists want to see in the world, you can decide how to explore the alignment between their vision and yours. Therefore, understanding how your donors define success and measure results is critical.

For example:
  • Michael J. Fox, actor: “As a patient, the word —cure’ is a magical word...But we don't know the cause [of Parkinson ’s disease] so it's very hard to find a cure.... I realized that if we can just halt progression and eliminate symptoms, which may not be a cure....but I’ll feel really good about our work.”

  • Steve Case, founder of AOL: “We have done the first internet revolution, getting everyone connected. The next internet revolution is...using these [technological] tools to build awareness around topics you care about, engage other people in those activities...That’s what our philanthropy is focused on.”
Question 3: How Involved Do You Want to Be in Making this Change Happen?
Some donors want to write a check, feel the glow, and move on. But a growing number want to give more than money and will offer their expertise and networks to benefit your shared cause. Learning your donors’ perspectives can help you calibrate their engagement, and uncover the skills and influences they can utilize to strengthen your organization and advance your shared cause.

For example:
  • David Rubenstein, co-founder, The Carlyle Group: “Writing a check and then just going about your business isn’t as important to me as being involved with what you do, thinking about why you’re giving away the money, trying to help the organization with your energy or ideas and time as well as with the money.”

  • Eli Broad, co-founder of KB Homes: “I think the role of philanthropy is to do things that government can’t do or is unwilling to do.” Unlike politicians, Broad can’t lose his job as a philanthropist, “so we take risks they’re not willing to.”
Different philanthropists will feel differently on these key areas. Learning about their perspectives can help you calibrate their engagement and uncover the skills and influences they can utilize to strengthen your organization and advance your shared cause. Asking these questions won’t guarantee a check, but it is the first critical step in building deep, authentic relationships over the long haul with your highest potential donors.

Learn more about them from a free collection of more than 1,000 short video clips, titled Conversations with Remarkable Givers, drawn from more than 50 original interviews conducted with philanthropists and foundation leaders.

Susan Wolf Ditkoff is a partner at The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit advisor to mission-driven organizations and philanthropists that collaborates with social sector leaders. Visit them at
February 2013
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