Mid-level donors and the element of surprise

Published by Maeve Strathy on

DonorPyramindIf you knew there was a pile of money that people wanted to give to you that you weren’t getting, wouldn’t you commit some time and energy to getting it?

Yes, fundraisers, I know you would.

Enter intermediate donors… leadership donors… “the muddle in the middle”. Whatever you call them, mid-level donors continue to be a bit of a mystery to fundraisers. But they’re there! They’re not annual donors and not yet major donors, but they want to give you more money than they’re giving you right now, and the benefits to you include:

  1. More money now (obviously)
  2. Some stability in the middle of your giving pyramid (cliche, but true)
  3. Future major gifts (should these donors have the capacity for it)

So how do we reach out to these elusive mid-level donors? I’m a fundraiser focused on this group of donors at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and I’ve been running the program in earnest for a little over a year now. The program has existed at Laurier for a little while, but it’s still in its infancy, so it’s been a year of trying, testing, learning, and growing, and I’ve loved every minute of it. What do I love most about mid-level donors?

The element of surprise.

Back when I was in my late teens, I became a camp counsellor, and I worked with the “intermediate” girls, ages 12-14 or thereabouts. Many of us look back on that “tween” age as our most awkward time, and don’t get me wrong, the girls I worked with were awkward, but they were equally awesome. They were more “with it” than the junior girls, but less jaded than the senior girls. They were a little more self-conscious than they’d been a few years ago, but they were still willing to have fun for fun’s sake and not be embarrassed by it.

pleasant-supriseMid-level donors are the same, and that’s why the element of surprise is so much fun!

I once called a woman who had been giving to the university every year since she graduated. It was $50 here, $100 there, and occasionally a bigger gift around $500. For our annual giving program, it’s the $500 mark that shows that leadership giving potential, but more exciting was her consecutive giving. We thought she deserved some acknowledgement for that, so I called her to recognize her giving, and you know what she said?

“I didn’t know I was a philanthropist!”

High net worth individuals are pretty used to having fundraisers call them, but mid-level donors are surprised by it! They’re delighted to be acknowledged and thanked, and are shocked you’re there to meet them for those reasons. Sure, you want to make that connection to discuss future support, but I try to start my meetings and phone calls with the message of not being sure they’ve ever been really thanked and wanting to make sure they are. I make a point of saying thank you and pausing to let it sink in for them. Mid-level donors aren’t jaded; I can tell they really feel that gratitude.

If you’re building a mid-level donor program, play on that element of surprise.

Here are five ways you can surprise your mid-level donors today:

  1. Contact someone who’s been giving less than $500 for 10 consecutive years and set up an in-person meeting. Make sure they know that they’re a philanthropist!
  2. Slightly tweak your planned direct mailing for mid-level donors. It won’t take a lot of work and you’re sending it out anyway! Add a variable paragraph that acknowledges their past support in a different way. Personalize it by noting the area that they last supported. It doesn’t have to be big, but it has to be special.
  3. Hand-address all envelopes for your mid-level donors, and see if you can get their mailings in something other than a #10 envelope. Make your letter stand out in their pile of bills.
  4. Find meaningful, restricted giving opportunities at the mid-level; sometimes giving opportunities are either unrestricted or major and there isn’t much in between. Spend some time identifying ways someone can really make an impact at the $1,000 level so that mid-level donors can feel more invested in their giving. It’ll pay off even more so in the future.
  5. Call the mid-level donor that gave most recently and say thank you!

“First-time donors who get a personal thank you within 48 hours are 4x more likely to give a second gift.” – Tom Ahern

The best part of the element of surprise is that you’ll have fun doing it! Good luck!

What do you do to surprise your mid-level donors???

Maeve Strathy

Maeve Strathy is a passionate fundraising professional, focused on inspiring donors to make an impact on the causes they love through philanthropy. Her full-time work is as a Fundraising Strategist with Blakely, providing strategy for charities on integrated direct response campaigns. Previously, she developed the mid-level giving program at Wilfrid Laurier University, and built a young alumni giving program at Trinity College School. Maeve also supports the fundraising efforts of independent arts and culture organizations, namely MYOpera. In her spare time, Maeve likes to work out, watch TV and movies, read, cook, and write for her fundraising and philanthropy-focused blog, www.whatgivesphilanthropy.com.


Dean Dietrich · August 2, 2015 at 08:44

It is good to hear about your program working with these mid-level donors. It is one of the great, neglected groups in major gift fundraising. Working, as I do, in prospect research, I know that there is a huge amount of untapped potential in this pool, but it’s hard to get most fundraisers interested in working with them because few of them have the capacity or the inclination to make major gifts. Some of them definitely can and do, though. Of course, many of them will remain mid-level donors, but as you point out, many can be planned gift prospects, and every so often, you’ll find a few who can turn into major donors if the fundraiser handles the relationship carefully.

    Maeve Strathy · August 3, 2015 at 20:04

    You hit all the nails on their heads, Dean! I think prospect researchers are the ones most excited about mid-level donors… and most frustrated by the fundraisers who won’t reach out to them! It’s a huge pool of potential, so we need to keep at it to show just how much potential there is… and then maybe fundraisers will get more excited, too!

Harvey McKinnon · October 26, 2015 at 23:01

As much as I appreciate Tom Ahern as an intellect, trainer and wine connoisseur, this quote above doesn’t make sense to me.

Most organizations don’t thank their donors quickly (sad as that is) but most still get more than 25% of them making as second gift.

Say you have 1,000 new donors and you normally get 40% making a second gift (our clients do). Thanking them quickly or not, you will not get 4 times the number of them making a second gift.

40% X 4 times gives you 160%, or it means everyone gives again and 600 extra non-existent donors also give.

Maybe this formula works for special event donors, or some digital donors but not for the mail.

    Maeve Strathy · November 14, 2015 at 22:31

    Thanks for reading, Harvey! It’s not my quote originally, but I think it’s all in the word “likely”. One donor is 4x more likely to make a second gift. It’s not that 4x the number of donors who get thanked within 48 hours WILL give, it’s that with that kind of stewardship, each one of those donors is more likely to.

    I guess the message is, let’s do everything we can to make that second gift more likely.

    Again, it’s not my quote, but that’s my interpretation.

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