7 top fundraising experts share strategies to boost donor trust


It’s no secret that one of the biggest threats facing nonprofits is the rapid decline in donor trust and confidence. At the same time, studies make it clear that trusting an organization is high on the list of reasons why a donor chooses to give. 

What can your nonprofit do about the problem of donor trust? We reached out to seven renowned fundraising consultants experts to learn how they see the challenge, and what they recommend doing to solve it. Their must-read insights range from strategy to tactics.

Tony Martignetti - Host, Tony Martignetti Nonprofit Radio

(I think the biggest contributor to declining donor trust is) not asking what donors want and adhering to their preferences in contact frequency, preferred channels, topics, acknowledgments, events, and other variables.

My recommendation: Ask and Adhere. Ask communications preferences by personal call (preferred), or survey, or however you collect donor info. Then adhere to what they tell you. If they want to be solicited once, in the month of August, by email, then do it. 

Learn more about Tony: Website, Podcasts

Tom Ahern, Author, and Expert in Donor Communications 

In survey after survey, "trust" ranks high as a factor in individual giving, sometimes even higher than impact. What can undermine trust? My usual suspects are poor reporting and a lack of donor-centricity. If you don't show me how much me and my act of philanthropy matter, then I can quickly fall out of love. The number of charities in America has grown like kudzu in the last decade; there are plenty to choose from. So, if you don't make me feel good about helping your cause, I won't stop giving ... I'll just stop giving to you.

Learn more about Tom: Website,  Twitter: @thattomahern 

Read our detailed guide to donor retention here!

Larry C Johnson, Founder, The Eight Principles 

Nonprofit organizations that do not make authentic relationships with their donors a priority (lose donor trust).

Start making donor values and dreams your number one priority. NUMBER ONE. Higher than finance. Higher than programming or “impact”. The irony here is that when you make your investors’ dreams and goals number one you raise a LOT more money and have a LOT greater impact on the community.

Learn more about Larry: Website, Twitter: @Larry_C_Johnson 

Bart Caylor, President, and Founder, Caylor Solutions, Inc.

As a communication professional, what we often find is that donor trust declines when communication and marketing are not about the donor. Too often, organizations treat the donors as a means to an end and make the communications all about the organization and their issues. While it is true that donors want to know that the organization's goals and reasons for the development, the donor does not want to see the organization as the hero...they ultimately want to see themselves as the hero. We all want to be in the story of success. Inviting donors into that story by making them the hero, making them feel good about their role, and making it about them will truly pull the donor in and build their trust. If they feel that their participation is optional and that they are little more than a cog in the system, their trust will erode as there is little depth in the relationship.

As mentioned in my previous answer, pivot your communications with donors to make them the hero in the story. Look at other brands for inspiration...Chick-fil-A and Apple both have loyal and passionate consumers based on the fact that both brands empower the consumer to be the hero. Chick-fil-A makes it so by creating an environment that makes the customer feel good about themselves: restaurants are clean, efficient, filled with employees with great attitudes. Even the subtle shift of "your welcome" to "my pleasure" pivots the communication to the customer rather than the company. Apple has brilliantly done this for years by providing products and services designed to empower the customer with tools to enhance their lives...not to tout features and benefits about Apple. A slight pivot in the way you communicate can and will go a long way.

Learn more about Bart: Website, Twitter: @bartcaylor

Amy Eisenstein, Fundraising Expert, Author, and CEO, Capital Campaign Toolkit

The biggest contributor to declining donor trust is negative media attention. I imagine that “bad actor” nonprofits are one in a million, but they get a huge spotlight when something goes wrong. As a result, donors become wary and don’t know who to trust.

My recommendation is for organizations to be open and honest with donors, especially when something doesn’t go as planned. Nonprofits are tackling the biggest problems in our society - hunger, homelessness, curing diseases and more. There’s no easy fix and savvy donors will go on the journey to achieve your mission with you if they better understand the challenges you face along the way.

Learn more about Amy: Website, Capital Campaign Toolkit, Twitter: @AmyEisenstein

Lori L. Jacobwith, Fundraising Culture Change Expert & Master Storyteller

(What’s the biggest contributor to the decline in donor trust?) In a word: Expectations. Donors feel when an organization expects them to give again vs. inspiring them to give again. There is no quicker way to turn off a donor than expecting they give again. If your donors don't feel great about what you've done with their previous contributions - because you haven't reported back to them - there isn't a reason to trust. And there is definitely no reason to give again. Emotions drive behaviors. Ensuring donors that feel great about the authenticity and clarity of communication in between asks DO give again and their trust deepens. 

I believe a relationship built on trust requires a firm belief in the reliability and truth of the work (or mission) and the use of funding. 

What inspires trust? 

  • Speaking the truth. Is there more to do? Explain WHY your work requires more resources of dollars, people and time. 
  • Putting a face on the impact of a donors' gift, regularly. 
  • Sharing "what it takes" to deliver on that impact. Costs, numbers of staff and volunteers - tell what it truly takes. Don't hold back. Tell the truth. 

Learn more about Lori: Website, Twitter: @LJacobwith

Gail Perry, President of Gail Perry Associates Fundraising Consultants

I think the approach of some nonprofit watchdogs contributes to the problem (of declining donor trust). These groups promote the idea that “good” nonprofits spend very little on administrative infrastructure.  So they have educated donors to think that spending money on anything but direct programs is "bad." These watchdog groups have helped stir up donor mistrust, by prompting donors to worry that the organization is not using their money properly.

I recommend transparency. Share financial statements, create pie charts of where the money goes and why. Be open about investing in infrastructure. 

Learn more about Gail: Website, Twitter: @GailPerrync

Putting it all together and boosting donor trust

From reading the experts takes on donor trust, a few clear recommendations emerge:

  • Establish authentic relationships with your supporters
  • Ask for and adhere to donor preferences
  • Share the details about costs, staff, volunteers, and what it really takes to make a difference
  • Be open and honest about your mission, goals, progress, and successes
  • Show donors how much you appreciate their support
  • Make it clear to donors the direct benefit that has come from their gift

Download our checklist to ensure that you are doing everything you can to build donor trust and confidence!

Download the Donor Trust & Confidence Checklist