How to Get Your Major Donors to Refer New Prospects to Your Organization


Every non-profit needs new major donors… but most organizations have a difficult time trying to meet new prospects with the capacity to make major gifts.

Non-profit fundraisers try all different sorts of tactics to find new major prospects.  Some organizations send out introductory letters to people they have no connection with (“cold” letters), but never hear back.  Other non-profits constantly harass their board members to bring in new donations, but end up with frustrated board members (and a frustrated staff).

Thankfully, there is a better way.  In my experience, the single best way to find new major donors is by asking your current donors to open up their networks to you.  We call this process “getting donor referrals.”  Here’s how it is done…

What is a Donor Referral?

Simply put, a donor referral is when one of your current donors, board members, or volunteers introduces you to one of their friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, business partners, clients, or vendors.  The introduction can be done in person, on the phone, or through e-mail.

No matter how the person makes the introduction, it is an opportunity for your donor to tell their contact why they support your organization, and to put them in touch with a member of your team.  Ideally, your fundraising team can take it from there… once the warm introduction is made, your job as a fundraiser is to determine the person’s interest, build a relationship with them, and walk them down the fundraising funnel.

Why Donor Referrals Matter

Referrals matter for two main reasons.  First, people with the capacity to give major gifts tend to know other people with the same capacity.  Your major donors likely work with, live near, and socialize with others who have the financial ability to make major gifts.

The second reason why donor referrals are so important is because cold prospecting is hard, especially when it comes to major donors.  People with the capacity to give large gifts are often approached by dozens of non-profits per year (if not more).  Even if you do succeed in piquing the interest of a major donor prospect, it will take a long period of cultivation before you are able to ask for a major gift.

On the other hand, if you are introduced to a new major donor prospect by someone the prospect trusts, such as a business partner or friend, you “jump to the head of the line.”  The person automatically trusts your organization, since their friend or colleague has vouched for you.  This gives you a huge head start in the cultivation process, gives you easy access to new prospects, and will enable you to move to an ask much earlier than if you had not received an introduction.

The Two Most Important Rules for Garnering Referrals

There are two very important rules that you will need to keep in mind in order to successfully solicit referrals from your current donors and supporters:

Rule #1: You Have to Build Trust with Your Donors

If you want your donors make referrals, you need to make sure that they trust you and your organization.  They know how you treat your donors… and will assume that you will treat their friends and colleagues the same way you have treated them.  Are you regularly thanking and recognizing your current donors?  Are you being open and transparent with them, and meeting with them or calling them to cultivate them, without always asking for a gift?

If you’re not stewarding your current donors the right way, they won’t be willing to introduce you to their own friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

Rule #2: You Have to Ask

Remember that if you want your donors to make referrals, you need to ask them to do so.  Very few donors will offer to introduce you to their contacts without being asked to do so.

Also, remember that when you ask, not every donor will say yes.  That’s ok… many donors don’t feel comfortable making these sorts of introductions.  In my experience, even if you are doing a good job stewarding your major donors, only about 10-20% of them will feel comfortable actively making introductions for you.  Don’t get discouraged… those 10-20% who say yes will make a huge difference for your organization.

How to Ask for Referrals

The best way to ask for referrals is to be direct.  Sit down with your current donors (or call them on the phone) and ask them, “Who else do you know that might be interested in our work?”

My recommendation is to make this type of ask one-on-one.  Asking in a group setting (such as at a board meeting) is not nearly as effective.  Similarly, sending an e-mail or letter to one of your donors asking for referrals is unlikely to produce results.

In my experience, a referral ask is best made as a stand-alone ask.  I have seen some fundraisers ask for a gift, and then in the same meeting ask for referrals.  In many cases, the donor will feel that you are downplaying the impact of their gift if they say yes to a donation ask and then you follow-up with a referral ask.  Ask your donors for money first.  Then, thank them, recognize, steward them, and continue to build the relationship.  After that is done, go back for a second meeting to ask for referrals.

Bonus Tip: Using Non-Ask Events to Make Referrals Easy

Here’s a great idea for making it easy for your donors to make referrals… use non-ask events!  (For more on how to hold non-ask events, read Using the Non-Ask Event Strategy to Fill Your Donor Pipeline).  Approach your donors, tell them about your next non-ask event, and ask them to come and to bring along a few friends as a way to introduce them to your non-profit.  It’s an easy and low-pressure way for your donors to refer their friends and colleagues to your organization.

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Photo Credit: Didriks