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Building Trust Is Key to Success
By Megan Venzin
Strong philanthropic relationships don’t just blossom overnight. Patience, compassion
and rapport must exist before a donor will commit to making a major gift. The
development officer must solidify a foundation of trust before an exchange can take place.
“The decision to make a major gift can leave donors feeling vulnerable, both
emotionally and financially,” says Major Gift Strategist Tammy Zonker. “Couple
that with the fact that the average tenure of development staff is 18 to 24 months,
and you can see why donors might be hesitant to trust.” In fact, it takes about two
years to build sufficient trust with an organization’s development officer for the
donor to make his or her most generous gift according to a recent survey report
produced by Penelope Burke of Cygnus Research. In other words, it’s a long road to
major gift acquisition, but building trust along the way will pave a path toward
success. Zonker defines four behaviors that drive trust:
1. Empathy. 2. Connection. 3. Generosity. 4. Joy.
“Guiding our donors through this systematic process with intention can
accelerate the building of trust,” Zonker says. “There is a direct connection between
our behaviors as development professionals and the responses we can likely evoke in
our donors and prospective donors to increase loyalty and trust. These four
behaviors release the chemical oxytocin in the brain, which reduces the fear of
trusting.” Understanding how human behaviors and responses correspond will
guide not only the trust-building process, but also allow the development
professional to relate to his or her donor on a deeply personal level.
Zonker shares the following examples to demonstrate common behavioral
❑ When we are vulnerable, it evokes
empathy from the donor.
Vulnerability can be expressed
through storytelling or sharing
our personal connections to the
work, or by creating an immersive
❑ When we keep our promises, it
evokes connection with the donor. These promises can be stated commitments or
implied promises, such as timely and accurate gift acknowledgment or impact
❑ When we empower the donor, it inspires generosity. Empowering the donor can
be as simple as offering meaningful restricted gift opportunities or introducing
an organizational challenge that the donor can help solve.
❑ We must ensure our donors feel pure joy in their giving. When we engage them in
reflective dialogue, sharing the impacts of their most recent giving or the
outcomes of their long journeys of giving to our organization — the result is
joy, trust and loyalty.
Once trust is established, the relationship must be nurtured continuously.
Creating a systematic process for generating and distributing gift acknowledgment
letters that show gratitude is one way to ensure donors feel appreciated. Routine
follow-ups to relay program progress and outcomes keep donors involved while
“Understanding and applying this knowledge of how to build trust only
emphasizes the critical importance of ethics in fundraising,” Zonker says. “We must
have the highest and best intentions as we engage donors to create mutual benefit
for our donors and organizations we serve.”
Source: Tammy Zonker, Major Gift Strategist, Trainer and Keynote Speaker, Fundraising
Transformed, Detroit, MI. Phone (260) 438-9325. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Post-Campaign Success
Just because your capital campaign has
successfully concluded doesn’t mean the
party’s over. It’s important to share your
campaign’s success with donors. After
all, their generosity made it a success.
Involve donors in your post-
campaign period in the following ways:
• Convey appreciation in a personal
way through personal letters from
your organization’s CEO, campaign
chair and others.
• Follow through on naming gifts
with appropriate plaques. Check
with donors to be sure names are
spelled and listed correctly before
authorizing the engraving.
• Invite donors to celebrate in the
completion of renovated or newly
constructed capital projects to
which they contributed. Consider a
larger, all-inclusive celebration as
well as more individualized
• For donors who establish named
endowment funds, revisit the details
of the fund: how annual interest will
be used, the agreed-to name and
fund description and such.
Take Steps to Understand
To understand others’ perceptions of
your organization, ask.
Make a point to ask both donors
and nondonors the following question:
“What do you think of when I say (name
of your organization)?”
If you ask enough people, you will
see a clear image begin to emerge. That
collective perception will tell you
whether your cause is being perceived as
you wish it to be or if you need to take
steps to begin changing your image.
How you are perceived by the public
will dramatically impact your ability to
generate major gifts. And even if you
have a positive image, both donors and
nondonors will compare their
perceptions of your cause with other
worthy causes to determine which cause
most deserves their philanthropic