The Five Steps of Proposal Writing – Step #1: Know Your Donor

“I’m gonna just write up a proposal and get it out there to my donors,” the determined MGO said.  And that’s how he defined an important step in his success in raising major gift money.

As I’ve looked at this whole area of proposal writing for major donors I find that a great deal of emphasis, by many of the authors, is placed on the actual writing of the case, proposal, or whatever you want to call it.

In fact, in preparation for this series on proposal writing I dug out all my resources on the subject and discovered that I agreed with about 20% of what the authors were saying.  That’s not to say I have a corner on truth on this subject.  It’s just that I don’t think the proper context is created for proposal writing.

Let me explain.

When I look at much of what is out there on this subject, all the material starts with “create a need statement”  or “create a theme” or an some instruction on how to begin to draft some element of the actual proposal.  This is all good, but I think it starts in the wrong place.  Why?  Because it doesn’t start with the donor, THE most IMPORTANT part of the whole equation.

That’s why I think the first step in creating an effective proposal for a donor is to Know Your Donor.  Seems obvious, doesn’t it?  You might be saying:  “Well, Richard, of course – everyone knows that is the first step!”  Really? I don’t think so.  I find many MGOs who are engaged in proposal writing and actually start with program and “writing it up” before they interact with the target audience – the donor herself.

I think this is symptomatic of a deeply held belief about donors that keeps them in a secondary position in the value hierarchy of all the people in the non-profit.  The donor is simply a source of cash.  It is program and what WE do that is actually more important!  Big mistake and the wrong path to take.

Knowing the donor is the first place a MGO should start in creating a proposal.

  1. Who is this person?
  2. What do they want and need in this relationship?

Those are the two key questions to answer before you start writing.

I think, by now, you have discerned that Jeff and I are really wound up on this subject of knowing the donor.  We keep saying over and over again how important it is to know and value these good people who are giving you money.  Why do we keep repeating this?  Because not enough time and effort is given to this important contextual task.  But rather than moan about all of that, I’m going to turn my attention, and this post, to how you can know your donor better.  Here are the key points:

  1. Do the Google thing.  Find out as much as you can about jobs, awards, assets, interests, connections, etc… If you are not a research type person, have someone do this work who is.  You need to follow the trails Google surfaces.  There is so much information in just this one source.  Another good source of information is  If the donor is an attorney go to for additional info.  If a doctor,
  2. Do wealth and asset research.  Wealth Engine, Blackbaud, etc. are good tools for wealth overlays and asset information.  Also,,, are all good sources.
  3. Research past giving – to you and to others.  The “to you” bit is easier. You want to know past designations or interests, amounts, etc.  Also, you want to know what motivated the gift.  Was it a direct mail piece, a personal visit, an event – what was it?  There are plenty of clues in your donor data.  For giving outside your organization, start with for political giving.  If the person has a family foundation, get the 990 for the organization and see what they gave to and how much. A great source for giving of all kinds is  Check it out.  Follow all the trails on all of these sites for rich and valuable information.
  4. Get information from the donor.  Probably the best source of information you can have is driven by your curiosity.  When you have contact with the donor, asking a lot of questions about interests, inclinations, involvements and passions is a key to finding out what motivates your donor.  Avoid zooming in on the information that relates to your non-profit.  Instead, find out what makes the donor tick.  Asking the donor what he or she is interested in giving to in YOUR organization may not, at first, yield as much information as asking what interests the donor pursues in ALL of their giving. The most successful fundraisers are those that can, over time, secure relevant information that will inform their approach to the donor.  General and genuine curiosity and interest in the donor will yield far more information, and trust, than pecking away at what you want to know about how they think about you.  Keep this important principle in mind.

You can’t do enough to Know Your Donor.  There is nothing more important than this one activity.  And if you value the donor as a partner vs. a source of cash, you will naturally want to know them as you should.



About Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry

Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry have over 55 years of experience fundraising for non-profits. Richard Perry was co-owner of Domain Group until 2005. Jeff Schreifels was a Senior Strategist for Domain Group for 12 years. They came together a few years ago to start Veritus Group, a full-service major gift fundraising agency. Veritus Group has a unique, data-driven approach unlike any agency focused on major gifts. Jeff and Richard are passionate about their work, passionate about life and hopes this blog will provide you with insights and tangible benefits for you and your work. Thank you for reading!
This entry was posted in Donor-Centered, Major Gift Officers, Non-Profits, Philanthopy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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