Perspective from a Philanthropist

By Chris Larsen
Founder and Principal of Next-Level Income 

As a business owner and active member in the community, my business, family, and I are often asked for financial support for various causes. The causes are many and we developed a system and annual plan, much like a budget, to determine where and how much we donate. We also leave a small discretionary amount for when there are local needs or friends that reach out for help. For instance, a mother of one of my son’s classmates recently died in a tragic accident. We have both the desire and space in our “giving budget” to assist their family during this time of grief.  

Annual & Quarterly Plans
While not everyone that you contact will have a specific plan, or budget, it can help to understand how business owners think. Successful businesses have annual and quarterly targets. If you are speaking to a business owner, you should focus on “speaking their language”. Begin by educating yourself on the individual, their business and any other pertinent information that may assist you in not only building a relationship but sharing that you care and understand where the donor is coming from. This information will serve you well throughout the process. 

As an aside, you must have a CRM or system where you keep detailed notes on each donor, their gift, and their individual goals. How do you get this information? 

Putting Together a Successful Sales Plan
Not only do I currently own and manage multiple businesses, but I also spent over two decades in sales. Fundraising is sales. You are selling a cause and the donor is looking for a specific value in that cause. Those in sales often take the approach of immediately sharing the “value” that they are selling. In reality, they are talking about features, etc. This is a scattershot strategy that hopes to intersect with the buyer or donor’s goals. The success rate is unpredictable. How can you increase your success rate when speaking with donors without wasting their time? 

What are your donors’ goals for their gift?
As you initially develop a relationship and have discussions with donors, I encourage you to take the opposite approach of the above. Here are the steps that I follow when speaking to a client:  

1. “What are your business goals and personal goals for the year?”  

By beginning the relationship and conversation with THEM and what they want to achieve you are immediately differentiating yourself from the competition. This not only provides you the opportunity to truly learn about your client or donor, but it also will disarm the donor since they are expecting to be “sold” at this point. Continue to inquire and gather information.   

2. “Do you have a giving budget for the year? How do you determine where to allocate your time and resources?”  

Your donor may not have an answer here, but you could phrase this in terms of business and share how you understand as a business owner they probably have plans, budgets, and goals. If they don’t have this in place, perhaps you can provide a tool through your program to help them craft this? Imagine having someone that you expect to ask you for something, actually gives you something of value first! You can also poll your current donors to help you craft something like this. This can also be a valuable tool to follow up on a regular (annual, quarterly) basis. If a donor shares this information with you, you have a ready-made template for how to approach your discussion going forward. 

3.     After you understand more about your donor’s business and goals, you are in a position to share more about your cause or school’s mission. Since you know more about your donor or client’s goals, you can tailor your message to these goals. What are some topics that can help your donor make an informed decision? 

Your Organization’s Financial Impact
As you find out what a donor’s goals are, you now must determine if your organization would be a good fit for their goals. Remember that business owners think in terms of ROI or Return on Investment. When I’m approached with a giving opportunity, I want to know the kind of impact this is going to make. Some questions that I look to answer: 

  •       How much goes to overhead and administration? 
  •       How much directly impacts the local community? 
  •       How will this donation reverberate and multiply across the world? 
  •       Will it affect multiple generations? 
  •       Are there case studies or actual examples?


Having not only qualitative metrics, but also an impactful story will greatly improve your success rate. A video, testimonial or other emotional story will provide a meaningful push beyond just numbers.  

Current Political Climate 
It would behoove you to understand any current national, state or local-level policies that are currently unfolding that may impact your donor’s business or personal goals. You must tread lightly here, but understanding these very important factors can be a large differentiator as well. Oftentimes, donors can feel isolated depending on their views and struggles. 

Does your group help to impact these? Do you have connections in your network that can help your donors in their goals? Again, this is an area of value that you can provide that goes above and beyond the “feel good” impact. 

Why have I repeatedly given my money and time to some and not others?  
What do we look for when donating to a cause or organization? We have our own values and goals that we want to align with when it comes to specific causes. I like to find organizations whose mission overlaps with my company’s mission. On a personal side, I want to align with groups who are local and also make a meaningful impact in areas of personal interest.  

On the contrary, the times I have separated from a cause has been due to that cause not operating in a manner that is congruent with its principles. Was this optics or a true reality? In this specific instance, it was actual actions taken by the group that I felt did not align with the principles and values that we initially discussed and agreed were mutually valuable. However even the perception of misalignment can dissuade donors from moving forward.  

Communication is King
The common theme among all of the discussed topics is undergirded by strong communication. You can’t understand donors’ goals without communicating. While having a “system” to communicate may seem counterintuitive, it actually simplifies the process. In my business we have a process that we call “Automated Authenticity”. Note that this is not “fake”, this is a process to make sure that we are collecting and understanding information that is important to our clients. We want to be authentic, and we want to demonstrate that we care about what is important to our clients. At the core is our system of asking the right questions and taking the time to note the answers. 

All of this provides the basis to maintain communication as we continue to build relationships. 

How do you gather feedback? 

One of the key traits I look for in a cause is do they value my feedback? How are you communicating with your donors? Do you regularly solicit feedback? What about advice? Donors, especially those with successful businesses can be a wealth of knowledge. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from this valuable group! 

Repeat Donors and Referrals 
Remember that when it comes to sales, you can prospect for new clients, but focusing on your current clients or donors is going to be the easiest and most impactful. Every dollar lost must be replaced by a new dollar or donor. By building a strong database chock full of information that can improve the value of the conversations that you have can make this process that much easier.  

Devote as much time to follow up and even asking advice from current donors. This buy-in will improve not only your donations but will also make your role that much easier. 

The Network
While discretion is important, are there opportunities where you can bring your donor network together? Can you host events where they can interact with each other? The intangible and tangible benefits of these sorts of events can be massively impactful. Taking a unique view of not only asking for value but providing value can be a huge differentiator. 

When dealing with donors, especially those with businesses, remember that they are all people. However, they do tend to think in terms of business. Remember to gather information on how to best communicate the value that your specific organization brings, how you can address their concerns and, most importantly, how you can communicate sustainable to not only gather, but continue to foster a growing network that can help your cause as well as the donors that make it possible.