Navigating Game-Changing Grants

Donor Engagement

Communicating Effectively With Donors
“Donor relations are a long-lasting and demanding activity that requires lots of attention and dedication to build and keep trust. For us $10,000 is as important as $1 million, because at least 70% of the money we raise, we donate. Funders should see us as partners in a common mission because we also help them access a level of society that they cannot reach by themselves. You must be aligned with what you trust, and that is what we offer to funders, a trustworthy mechanism that has proven to make a real difference in philanthropy.”

- Vanessa Purper, Program Manager, Casa Socio-Environmental Fund

Donor stewardship is one of the most critical issues when organizations receive a large, high-profile gift of this kind. While it may help attract new donors, there is a risk that it could also signal to existing donors to move resources elsewhere. Some organizations reported that the gift validated their work and excited more donors to contribute to them. However, others suggested that donors misunderstood the gift as a signal that said no more giving was needed. Navigating these situations is tricky and holds significant consequences for fundraising and overall organizational growth. It therefore came as no surprise that donor messaging was a challenge facing organizations receiving windfall gifts. Most organizations were grateful for the unrestricted nature of funding that this gift unusually provided and hoped that other donors would be open to exploring this model in their own giving.


Reframe the windfall gift as a transformational opportunity for donors to be a part of, rather than a fix-all.

Organizations acknowledged that after announcing the gift publicly, some of their long-term funders wanted to divert funds to other organizations with the misconception that the windfall gift meets sustainable resource needs. It is a common frustration that funders pressure organizations to scale up and then pull back funding once they become “too big,” an organization described. This sends a message that funders support the struggle that organizations go through, but not their stability. A focus on donor messaging is critical for organizations to address the possibility of donor flight. An effective communications strategy can help organizations articulate the growing need for continued funding and that the gift does not eliminate the need for additional resources from other funders.

Lived Experiences

One of the organizations expressed the continued need for contributions from their existing donors, highlighting that although the windfall gift is the largest one, they had ever received, it was equivalent to their annual budget. That meant if all the other gifts stopped, they would only have one year of funding. They had to re-frame the funds not as a windfall, but as an opportunity, saying to their donors, “this particular opportunity will be transformational; do you want to be a part of this transformation?”

Some organizations used the SOAR framework (see Tools & Resources section)  to analyze strengths, opportunities, actions, and results to think through their messaging to other potential funders and donors, elevating news of their impact and amplified opportunities due to the gift, rather than making the focus of the gift messaging.

Emphasize to donors that large gifts are additive and not a replacement of needed support to continue working towards established goals.

There is potential to leverage a financial windfall to unlock additional funding if messaged appropriately. Organizations can use effective messaging to mobilize donors to give more to enhance and broaden their impact. It is important to emphasize that large funding bolsters an organization’s work towards its established plan but does not eliminate continued resource needs.

Lived Experience

An organization explained that the premise of their donor messaging was to affirm that the gift was not supporting a “special” project but allowing them to continue engaging and understanding the communities they work in, deeply and intentionally. This one-time gift was meant to be an additive, and not a replacement for existing donations which have allowed the important work to continue for all this time.

Communicate to donors that systems change, and long-term impact takes time and resources.

To truly shift the conditions in which communities exist or the issues that affect them, we must impress upon donors to fund systems change instead of funding the symptoms of social issues. Organizations that are working on complex social issues are often working to not only develop tactical solutions but ensure that they address the root causes and drivers of social problems. With this approach, organizations and funders can shape systems to be more equitable.

Organizations working on intersectional, systems change issues often feel penalized by funders and government donors who scrutinize whether they can demonstrate growth within short funding cycles. A change in donor mindset which facilitates longer time horizons for impact measurement and reporting is a crucial step. Similarly, systems-level work requires deeper community engagement and cross-sectoral collaboration, demanding more resources. Donor flight in organizations receiving windfall gifts can significantly affect their long-term programming.

Lived Experience

For some organizations, despite the grant being hugely helpful, it was less likely to have a truly transformational impact, given intersectional priorities which depended so heavily on fighting systemic issues of racism, gender equality, climate change, and similar issues. For example, an organization working in the gender and education space spoke of the need to communicate the dire learning crises in the world, highlighting that this gift would help to respond to the need, but independently could not solve the issues of decreasing literacy rates and gender inequality. The overarching message that the gift sent to both recipients and other donors was that to whom more is given, more is expected.

Continue organizational efforts to fundraise and engage donors to attract more funding and diversify your philanthropic base.

Nonprofit leaders view this gift as a validation of the organization, its mission, and its values. It brings pride, excitement, and an elevated energy internally within the organization, with an enthusiasm to seek additional fundraising opportunities. One of the organizations highlighted that while there has been donor flight, this gift opened another class of donors previously unavailable to the organization. From that perspective, this gift has helped diversify the philanthropic base for the organization and provide visibility to its work.

Lived Experiences

An organization shared that they drafted strategic communications to bring funders along on their expanding journey and deepened their relationships with small monthly donors.

Another organization revealed that they needed to change the types of conversations they were having with their funders. To engage with all classes of donors, they adapted their messaging to meet the needs of the donors. For instance, they explained their re-granting program, for donors who liked to fund small organizations. They also moved away from asking for restricted support and recrafted all grant opportunities as mission fulfillment.

Tools & Resources

  • A Field Guide to Relationship-Based Fundraising
    A downloadable resource designed to help organizations create a fundraising strategy and provide guidance to grow and diversify their income.
  • SOAR Framework
    A framework designed to evaluate your organization’s strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results.
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