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How to Connect with Donors

Thomas Wolf


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Acclaim for
How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise

“Story by story, this book is brimming with wisdom. Inspiring but practical, rooted in long experience but immediately applicable, it proves Tom’s point: that fundraising is all about building relationships.”

            - Rushworth M. Kidder, President
            Institute for Global Ethics
            Trustee, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation

“Tom Wolf focuses on the relationship side of fundraising, and therefore provides welcome relief as the craft becomes increasingly metric-oriented – the number of calls, meetings, asks. He provides great encouragement to use more imagination, time, and care in connecting to people.”

            - Christine W. Letts, Senior Associate Dean
            Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in the Practice of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership
            Harvard Kennedy School

“How to Connect with Donors provides us with the insights we all need to be at our best and at our most effective. Tom gives us his best with a light and humorous touch.”

- Tony Woodcock, President
            New England Conservatory

“With colorful and provocative stories Tom Wolf reminds us that fundraising is an art not a science. It is about people, not about institutions. When did you last enjoy a book about asking people for money?”            

- Michael Marsicano, President and CEO
            Foundation for the Carolinas

“The stories in How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise vividly provide examples of what makes for a successful fundraising effort and a successful fundraiser.      

  - Jeffrey P. Bonner, Ph.D
            Dana Brown President & CEO
            Saint Louis Zoo

“Tom Wolf addresses the practical and ethical dilemmas and unexpected joys of fundraising with candor and wit.”

- Paul Brest, President, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
Dean Emeritus, Stanford Law School

“Tom Wolf compresses decades of experience into a very salient and easily read presentation. It’s particularly valuable for the volunteers who are the foundation of fundraising for most not-for-profit organizations.” 

  - David F. Hales, President
            College of the Atlantic

“Fundraising is always about two things: relationships and storytelling. Tom Wolf understands both, and he has the skill as a storyteller to put the importance of relationship into just the right narrative context.”

- Maxwell King, Former President of The Heinz Endowments and Chair of the Board of The Council             on Foundations

“Practical, funny, clear, innovative – Tom Wolf’s book is all these things and more. His real world experiences demystify the art of asking for money and remind us that giving always starts with the heart.”  

           - Lee W. Salter,  President & CEO
            The McConnell Foundation


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How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise
by Thomas Wolf, 109 pp., $24.95. (Click here for quantity discount information)

Reality check.

Can you, as the title of this new book by Thomas Wolf says, really double the money you raise?

That depends.

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If you’re already raising a sizable sum, then, yes, you might well double your revenue by heeding Wolf’s advice.

But if you’re raising only modest amounts now, then you should be able to triple or even quadruple your charitable income.

One thing is certain. Most fundraisers haven’t been raising nearly the amount they could, argues Wolf.

Too often we see donors through the lens of retention rates, average gifts, moves management, and gift table place setters.

It’s as if our donors have become video game avatars we can manipulate.


OF RELATED INTEREST: A watershed book, The 11 Questions Every Donor Asks prepares you for the tough questions you’ll inevitably face from prospective donors. Harvey McKinnon identifies 11 such questions, ranging from “Why me?” to “Will my gift make a difference?” to “Will I have a say over how you use my gift?” And the suggested answers are illuminating. Whether you’re a board member, volunteer, or staff, your ability to respond to these 11 questions will largely determine your fundraising success.

While that may help us harvest low-hanging gifts, fundraisers who reap the real bounty do something many neglect in this era of Facebook. They engage their donors in a multitude of ways, large and small.

Not that it’s always easy to relate to your donors and treat them as the key partners they are.

What about when your donor is too demanding? What about when you feel too close to ask? What about when the gift you receive is disappointing? Worst of all, how do you relate, with any degree of authenticity, to a donor you find somewhat offensive?

As a first step, you follow Wolf’s advice, which he offers through irresistible, real-life stories about donors.

How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise convincingly shows that successful fundraising is all about turning a name into a relationship.

When you do that, the money will flow.

About the Author

Dr. Thomas Wolf’s career encompasses the fields of philanthropy, nonprofit management, education, and the arts.

After serving as the founding Director of the New England Foundation for the Arts for seven years, he established a consulting firm in 1983 (now called WolfBrown) to assist nonprofit organizations and the philanthropic sector. 

Helping his clients increase fundraising results and improve management practices, he also assisted 10 of the 50 largest U.S. foundations and various government agencies with their grants programs. 
At the same time, his workshops and convocations for trustees, administrators, and volunteers have earned him national recognition.

Wolf holds a doctorate in education from Harvard, and has taught at Harvard and Boston Universities. He is the author of the definitive textbook on nonprofit management that has been in print for over a quarter century (now titled Managing a Nonprofit Organization in the 21st Century) and he has written numerous other books and articles.

A professional flutist whose career included touring with the Goldovsky Opera Theatre and founding Bay Chamber Concerts in Maine, he is currently listed in the International Who’s Who of Music.

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Table of Contents


  1. I’d love to get to know you better
  2. Enough about me!
  3. What’s wrong with talking about money?
  4. It’s the donor’s ballgame
  5. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!
  6. Remember the children
  7. Can you be too close to ask?
  8. Why isn’t he giving?!
  9. When donors disappoint
  10. Recovering from a fumble
  11. But I can’t stand the fellow!
  12. Whose friend are you anyway?
  13. We honor his memory
  14. Grantmakers need attention too        


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Excerpt This article is excerpted from Thomas Wolf's How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise. ©Emerson & Church, Publishers. To obtain reprint permission, call 508-359-0019.

It’s the Donor’s Ballgame

A little old man shuffles up to the ticket office at the University of Michigan and asks whether he might buy a ticket for the big game with Ohio State the next day. “Something near the 50 yard line would be nice,” he says.

The ticket seller guffaws. “There hasn’t been a ticket available for that game for weeks … anywhere in the stadium.”

“Okay,” the little man says and walks away.

About an hour later, the athletic director and the football coach are summoned to an emergency meeting. The President is apoplectic. “An alum just walked into my office a few minutes ago and is talking about giving the University a hundred million dollars. In our conversation, he mentioned that he couldn’t get a ticket to the Ohio State game tomorrow. I don’t care if you have to bounce the President of the United States or the Pope, give him anything he wants.”

By the time the little man returns to the ticket office, the band has been assembled and they’re playing the school song. The athletic director apologizes for the previous error and says, “There was a mis-understanding. Of course we have a ticket for you – the seat is in the President’s box, will that suffice?”

“Well I don’t want to put you to any trouble, but that would be fine.”

“And the President’s limo will pick you up and bring you to a special brunch before the game. Will that be okay?”

“Yes, very nice and much too generous,” is his modest answer.

“And is there anything else we can do for you?”

“Well can you tell me when the game starts?”

“What time would you like it to start?” asks the athletic director.

This delicious, over-the-top story makes an important point – if you want to be successful with donors, give them what they want (assuming you can, of course).

Start with the easy stuff – a birthday card, a note of congratulations when a child graduates, a get-well note when the donor is sick. Then there are other small gifts that can make a big difference – the more personal the better.

In the summer, for example, I make homemade vinegar with herbs from our family garden and concoct an apple rose-hip sauce from our orchard. I make little gifts of these for friends, including some donors. I enjoy doing it and because the gifts are totally unnecessary, they give the recipients obvious pleasure.

In some cases, a donor may request a favor – one that could provide a special opportunity for you. “Any chance you can get a ticket to your sold-out opening for my friend Bob?” “Could someone at the office give me a lift to the board meeting?” “I wonder if one of your curators would come with me to a gallery as I’m thinking about buying a particular painting.”

In each of these cases, the favor may simply be a way of doing something nice or it may lead to more substantial long-term results. Friend Bob may be another prospect. The lift to the board meeting might be a chance to talk about a special project needing funding. The trip to the gallery may result in a painting that ultimately is bequeathed to the curator’s institution. Whether or not any of these things happen, the nice gesture will certainly be remembered and probably reciprocated in some way.

But the question of how to cater to donors’ wishes takes on a different cast when the request directly impacts your organizational activities. Sometimes a donor may want you to hire a friend or family member, or take on a new program, or build something. That poses no problem if these are things you’re going to do anyway. But sometimes it’s a little more complicated. The request may actually run counter to your plans or policies.

One of my own greatest regrets was hiring an individual based on the urging of a donor. Not only was the decision wrong initially, but undoing it alienated the donor far more than simply saying I’d take his opinions into account when we looked at the candidates.

At other times the dilemma of trying to please (or appease) a donor emanates from a situation over which the organization has no control. My friend Barbara Bentley, who for many years has headed the Friends of Baxter State Park in Maine, told me of one such situation.

“We have a generous member who carefully reads all our minutes and publications and then asks if he might help out, make our lives a little easier by helping us to pay for such and such. He loves to identify the project and then write a check. He’s done this a number of times, and of course we’re grateful.

“But although the Park we support is an independent entity, it’s regulated by the State of Maine and we’re not allowed to earmark gifts. Our donor has always found this hard to understand. For close to 25 years, he tried to give a large sum for trails and maintenance but wasn’t able to make it work legally.

Then, during the Katahdin Lake Campaign a few years back, the Governor and Attorney General got together – when time to raise the necessary millions was running out – and figured out a legal vehicle for accepting almost $10 million from this gentleman for a designated purpose.”

Wow, you might say. That’s a no-brainer! What took them so long? Of course they should have done what the donor wanted. But the issue was a legal one and the complex actions were only worthwhile once it was clear that an extraordinary gift was in the offing.

Yet even when a gift is large, the situation isn’t always so clear cut. Sometimes what the donor wants is simply not in the best interests of the organization. One of my mentors was Boris Goldovsky, whose eponymous Goldovsky Opera Theatre was supported by many public and private funders. In training me, he recounted what he called his “least favorite fundraising story.”

“I remember sitting down with people from a major foundation who told me they were willing to give a six figure gift if I’d undertake a national tour of the opera ‘Carmen.’ In my heart I knew it wasn’t right for us – the production was too big given the size of the gift – but I took the money anyway because it was a prestigious foundation.

“It was the largest gift in the Opera’s history. I wanted to list the foundation in our group of supporters, so I told myself it would all work out in the end. But I was wrong. It didn’t work out. A year later was the only time in 40 years the Opera came close to bankruptcy and all because of a gift I shouldn’t have taken.”

In such cases, how do you say no in a way that doesn’t leave a sour taste in a donor’s mouth? Irene was a master at this.

At a dinner party one evening, she was describing an organization for which she volunteered to a slightly inebriated elderly gent.

“Brilliant, brilliant,” he’d exclaim every few minutes, often interrupting her in mid-sentence, and then, “I have a great idea how I could help.” He launched into a slightly incoherent description of a totally inappropriate idea for a program. I caught Irene’s eye and smiled as if to say, “Let’s see how you get out of this.” Meanwhile the gentleman claimed to have a blank check in his wallet and was prepared to write it out on the spot.

“How wonderful,” exclaimed Irene. “You are truly inspired. And I hope someday our organization will have matured to the point where we can accept such a gift. If we took it now, we couldn’t possibly do your idea justice. But I can’t tell you how grateful I am. You’ve given me such good ideas to bring back to the board to inspire them and I will mention this at our next meeting.”

I don’t know whether it is what she said or how she said it (or both), but the irony is that despite turning down the donor’s request, Irene received his generous gift anyway.

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