7 Questions You Should Ask Your Top Donors Every Year

Guest Post by Brian Saber

It’s often said the key to being a good fundraiser is curiosity.

Over the years, my dear buddy and Northwestern Settlement House President Ron Manderschied would ask me, “how did you know that?” about a Settlement donor… and I’d say, “I asked.”

I love asking people about themselves and learning what makes them tick. Most people enjoy someone taking an interest in them. It makes them feel good. While people won’t always remember what you say to them, they always remember how you made them feel.

So, it goes without saying that you should always be curious about your donors and ask them about their lives:

  • How are you (and your family/kids/partner)?
  • What on the horizon are you most excited about personally?
  • What’s new since we were last in touch?
  • What are you doing for selfcare during COVID?
  • How’s work?
  • What’s your favorite hobby?
  • What’s your background (born/raised/school)?

By the way, I refer to top donors because it’s simply impossible to have these discussions with every donor. I am a big believer on focusing our efforts where the ROI will be greatest, especially given the sparse resources we have. With limited time, we should never forget the Pareto Principle – 80% of the results come from 20% of the efforts (and broadly speaking, most of a non-profit’s funding usually comes from a small percentage of donors).

The 7 Questions

Beyond that, there are lots of open-ended questions to help you understand and strengthen the relationship between your donors and the organization. Questions that help you understand what’s important to your donors and how to steward them. Questions that help them feel their opinion matters. And it does.

At the end of the day, our work has to align with our donors’ values, and vice versa. If the match isn’t there, I’d question the value of the gift.

Here are seven questions to ask your top donors every year. I hope you notice almost every question above and below starts with “How” or “What,” because these tend to have pretty straight-forward answers. “Why” is a much more philosophical question and isn’t always easy or comfortable to answer in the moment. So, unless you know a donor well, it’s probably best to avoid “Why.”

1. Do you know how much of an impact your gift is making and how much we value you as a donor?

Here’s an exception to the how/what rule. It might lead to a simple yes/no response, but it opens the door either way to tell them about their impact and how we value them.

2.  How are we doing?

You might be surprised to hear they don’t actually know. They might know what you’re doing but not be able to evaluate how effective those programs are. This is the chance to tell them.

3.  What would you like to know about us?

We make the mistake in telling donors what we think they want to know rather than asking them first so we’re sure we’re on track. Donors won’t remember a ton of what we tell them, so we need to be sure to tell them what’s most important to them.

4. What concerns or questions about our programs – or anything about us – do you have?

This is a more direct opportunity to find out if anything is wrong and to address it. You might hear some of this when you ask “How are we doing?” but chances are they’ll be more open on this front if you ask directly.

5.  How are your thoughts about charitable giving evolving?

While we generally know the basics of why they support us, we often don’t understand their charitable motivations and directions. To the extent we learn these, we can put their support in that context. For instance, If they say they’re starting to focus more locally and you’re a national charity, you know to talk about your local efforts primarily rather than what you’re accomplishing nationally, or to talk about how you make similar impacts in communities across the country.

6.  What are you hoping we tackle in the future?

Donors are least likely to have thoughts about this, but it’s helpful to know as you develop future programs that need support. This also gives you a further sense of the types of programs and services of interest to them.

7.  Would you consider getting further/deeper involved with us?

Involvement leads to giving sooner than giving leads to involvement. They may never have considered making an impact in a different way other than donating if that’s how they first developed their relationship with your organization. The more involved they are the more invested they’ll be and the more they will end up contributing.

One last thought, and it’s something I coined:

“Ask short questions and hope for long answers. If you get a short answer, ask another short question.”

Don’t be that person in the audience who stands up to ask a question…and a few minutes later you’re still wondering what the question is!

Here’s to getting to know our donors better and helping them feel as important as they are!

Brian Saber


Brian Saber, president of Asking Matters, is one of the field’s preeminent experts on the art and science of asking for charitable gifts face-to-face. He has spent more than 30 years working in the non-profit world and has personally solicited thousands of donors as a director of development, executive director, board member, and consultant.

Brian harnessed all that frontline experience to become a sought-after trainer, coach and consultant around the country and beyond. His work is transformative. He leads workshops and trainings, presents webinars, delivers keynotes, and coaches top-level staff, taking organizations to the next level. Clients have included Prevent Child Abuse America, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, National Public Radio, Volunteers of America, the U.S. Olympic Committee, The Salvation Army, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, AFP International, numerous AFP chapters, the North American YMCA Development Conference, and others.

Brian is the author of Asking Styles: Revolutionize Your Fundraising, hailed by the Jerry Panas as “the best antidote I’ve read on taking the fear out of asking,” and Boards and Asking Styles: A Roadmap to Success.


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