At Fidelity Charitable, we are often asked by nonprofit organizations, “How can we better work with major donors to make more of an impact?” And my reply is always the same: the best way to make an impact with major donors is to engage with them.
Nonprofits often face challenges when trying to secure ongoing, unrestricted support from major donors, which is sometimes fueled by a lack of connection between the donor and the nonprofits they support. Unrestricted funds are the most valuable funds a major donor can give to a nonprofit, and when given, it is often an indication that an organization is aligned well with — and has the trust of — the donor.
A few years ago, I worked with a donor who was excited about funding a new midwifery initiative in East Africa. When providing a mid-year report to the donor on the success of the project, the nonprofit indicated that 700 midwives had been employed in the last year. The donor’s response was to ask whether the organization considered that to be a success or a failure — was the goal to train 500 midwives or 1,000?
The conversation that followed was a critical turning point in that donor-nonprofit relationship. The nonprofit was able to explain that midwifery had never been formally practiced in the region, so the numbers didn’t tell the whole story. The nonprofit was focused on cultural and social norm change to win the hearts and minds of the community to embrace a new practice; their openness to training — and using — the 700 midwives was a major success.
Hidden in the story of this gift is another great success: the trust and openness built between the donor and nonprofit. What could have been perceived as pushback or criticism from the donor was instead seen for what it was: a genuine desire to learn from the organization, to gain a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities in the region, and to help address the findings with continued funding.
One way, we have found, to create this stronger understanding from the start of a donor-nonprofit relationship is for donors and nonprofits to co-draft a letter of intention that highlights the organization’s mission. This defines a more productive and transparent set of goals that the donor and nonprofit can work towards collectively.
More than metrics
When a major donor initiates a conversation about results and impact, it’s natural for a nonprofit leader to launch into an explanation using quantitative metrics. Many nonprofits are accustomed to providing numbers, data sets, and other outputs to foundation and government funders who often require them.
While numbers can be helpful in demonstrating results, they don’t always provide deeper insight into the challenges and opportunities that nonprofits face. Nonprofits would benefit from digging into the greater context with major donors—educating them on the issue area to shape more knowledgeable and effective supporters. The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s latest report, Crucial Donors: How Major Individual Givers Can Be Support Nonprofits, underscores this notion—emphasizing that strong relationships between major donors and nonprofits are critical to more effective partnerships.
My work at Fidelity Charitable reaffirms this idea every day. Most of the major donors I work with connect deeply with stories of the people and places touched by a nonprofit’s work. Donors are seeking meaning and purpose — and nonprofits will nurture more productive and rewarding donor relationships when they move beyond the numbers and begin to connect with a donor’s personal values and sense of commitment, responsibility, and intention.
Eager for deeper engagement
At a recent workshop hosted by Fidelity Charitable, a group of major donors came together to learn more about building strategic philanthropic frameworks that align with their personal missions and values. All of the attendees had been giving major gifts for at least 10 years and were looking to deepen their commitment and accelerate their major gifts to deepen their impact.
Over the course of the weekend, we had many discussions about how to measure a nonprofit’s effectiveness and impact, and it became clear how deeply donors feel a desire to understand the heart of the issues that they care about. We encouraged donors to dig deep when considering how to approach their grantmaking strategy and to make sure they feel connected with an organization’s vision, believe in its leadership, and understand how its mission aligns with their personal values. But those conversations can be difficult to broach with nonprofit leaders.
In fact, our donors said that they would sometimes approach conversations asking for metrics and data points simply because it’s an easier conversation to have. As non-experts in the field, donors can sometimes feel lost in conversations about the nonprofit’s mission and vision for the future. To that end, nonprofits have a responsibility to use these conversations as an opportunity to engage more deeply and help donors understand what they’re trying to achieve, the challenges they’re facing, how they define success, and why they approach the challenge in this way. These are the conversations that get to the root of philanthropy — making the world a better place — and will build strong, lasting, and symbiotic partnerships.
One donor put it simply: “There is a lot of chatter about operating costs, marketing costs, measuring results and making real impact — but at the end of the day, we just want to hear what is most valuable to the organization and hear the inside story on those things from people who are or have actually been in the trenches.”
Building connections for greater impact
Major donors are eager to engage more deeply with the organizations they support and to make more effective giving choices. In fact, 60 percent of Fidelity Charitable’s grant dollars went “where needed most” in 2018—reinforcing the connection and trust that our donors have in each nonprofit’s core mission and its leadership’s vision. CEP’s new Crucial Donors report highlights this same trend, citing that major individual donors are 27 percent more likely to make unrestricted gifts than staffed foundation funders, and that 61 percent of nonprofit leaders prefer to receive funding from and cultivate relationships with major individual givers. From my experience working with major givers, this was not surprising.
Similarly, after a weekend of discussion on strategic philanthropy and effectiveness at our recent workshop, all of the major donor attendees made a pledge to make unrestricted, multiyear commitments to nonprofit organizations working on projects related to social impact — such as education equity or criminal justice. This pledge serves to demonstrate that donors who understand how to effectively support nonprofits are eager to put that knowledge into action.
To fuel this enthusiasm, it’s up to nonprofits to build stronger relationships with their major donors — opening the dialogue by moving to a personal, relational connection with the donor. When nonprofits begin connecting the organization’s mission to the donor’s personal experiences, we will begin to see donors measure success more by the things that matter most: the progress of the organization’s leadership and the experiences of the beneficiaries. And a deeper appreciation for the organization and the multiple dimensions of its work may also influence donors to more often direct their funds in the form of flexible, long-term support.
Over and over again, our work at Fidelity Charitable affirms that philanthropy is deeply personal. Incorporating more narrative- or systems-based results into the way we define success means that more major gifts will address the core mission of an organization. Moving away from results that are more metrics-based and instead are either narrative- or systems-based means that more major gifts will address the core mission of an organization. This can be transformative for both donors and the nonprofits they support: donors will feel more deeply connected to the issues that they care about, and nonprofits will gain more informed major donors that are truly invested in the organization’s mission and success.
Elaine Martyn is vice president and managing director of the Private Donor Group at Fidelity Charitable.
 2019 Fidelity Charitable Giving Report.