Sometimes It’s a Zebra: Attention to Detail Raises More Money

Photo by Adriaan Greyling on

There’s no way around it: If you want to excel at fundraising, you have got to pay attention to small details. Clearly, you have to spell people’s names right, and update addresses. For extra credit, remember your donor’s grandchildren’s names, and even their dogs’ names. To go to the next level, concentrate on picking up on the subtle things that people are telling you. Did she just say in passing that she’ll always remember the summers she spent on her grandparents’ farm? Is she suddenly telling you all about her art collection because she’s thinking of donating it? 

Here’s a story – a true one – that shows some practical steps for making the details work for you. 


I got to know an amazingly generous and fun loving donor a couple of years ago. She was 90-something and full of energy. One day my CEO and I picked her up and on the way to lunch, the donor pointed to a pasture and wondered out loud if those were the camels she had heard about. It’s not like there are lots of camels here in southeastern Pennsylvania, but one farmer was keeping a few of them. 

Wow! My thoughts were racing and I had to really concentrate on driving while talking livestock with this self-described farm girl. 

I dug a little deeper, and asked questions. She hadn’t seen them herself, but one of her friends kept talking about those camels. As I asked questions, she told some great childhood stories. She knew a lot about farm animals. She learned it from following her grandfather around the family farm from a young age. 

Within seconds I had an idea, and I blurted it out.

Thoughtfully Respond

I picked up the conversation with her and said that the camels were on the other end of the county, too far out of the way for us to see today. But there was a zebra I knew of and it was on the way to the restaurant.

Ha! Did it sound like I was making this up? 

She lit up with delight, and said she would love to see it. As we drove along the narrow back road, this donor (and my CEO, for that matter!) asked more questions about where exactly we were going. It looked like we were lost in the middle of acres of cornfields. I assured them that I knew where I was, and that I lived only a few miles away. 

Finally, we drove up a small hill, and there it was. A zebra in the countryside of Pennsylvania. The farmer had put it into a large pen close to the road, and had even put a small donation box on one of the fence posts, and a little sign, “Help feed the zebra.”

I wish I had a picture of the look on this dear woman’s face when she saw the zebra. Delight. Joy. Mischief. Fun. Surprise. 

We snapped a few pictures, talked about how strange it was to find an African animal in our neck of the woods, and headed on to lunch. 

Ok, I get that this example is kinda out there. What are the chances you’re going to drive a donor around looking for exotic animals?

The lesson is to always listen and respond depending on the donor’s interests, conversation, preferences, and timing. Ask a couple of follow-up questions. 

If you go in with an agenda and try to bend the donor to it, you’re going to miss out on building trust and raising more money for your organization. Worse, you might offend the person and lose her support altogether.


You know I logged on to our donor database and put all of this into this donor’s record. It only took a few minutes, and months later when I was trying to remember her preference for lunch spots, it was all right there. I think I uploaded one of the zebra pics, too. 

Please do not underestimate the importance of writing down the details. You don’t need to write a novella for every donor interaction, but you need the important parts. 

How did she answer your questions? 

What did she say about her family?

What follow-up did you plan with her? 

Did you make an ask?

Capture these and other details from every phone call, in-person meeting, snail mailing, and tips from other people. If you don’t have codes in your database, create them. If you don’t have a database, start with spreadsheets for each of your segments.

These are private records, so you and your donor do not need to worry that these personal things are going to circulate. I’ve come to think of them as akin to electronic medical records. I don’t want to have to tell my entire medical history every time I go to the doctor’s office, so I’m glad that they have all of it documented in my record. The same goes for donors. 

Have you ever had someone get your information wrong because it wasn’t documented appropriately?

I am a monthly donor to a regional organization. I keep getting solicitations from them. And I keep telling them they’re getting it wrong. Last year, I got an appeal letter stating my most recent annual gift and asking me to increase it. They got the amount wrong. I had never given that much before, and now that they keep messing up, I doubt that I’ll ever give at that level. If they had just documented my history correctly, they would have had a chance to inspire me to give more. In fact, if they keep messing up like this, they’re going to lose me.


Look for patterns in your data, or even anecdotally from your conversations with donors. Are there lots of folks who support your organization who also 

… like the same kinds of restaurants?

… have grandchildren under the age of 10?

… graduated from the same high school or college? 

… belong to the same faith community? 

If you’re not at this sophisticated level yet, please make sure you at least get the basic segments right. 

… Monthly donors (see annoyed example above)

… Planned giving donors

… People who love your mission but have never given a red cent

… The lovely folks who faithfully send a check every December. For the same amount. Since 1973. 

… The ones who have asked you to never solicit them again. Ever. Or Else. 

Use it

On the individual level, let’s go back to the zebra example… 

You know we used those pics of the donor with the zebra. This is a person who does not text or email, so we had some good old fashioned hard copy prints made and mailed them to her. She loved them!

And when it was time for her private foundation to pre-select organizations to apply for grants, she made sure we were invited. 

On the segment level, customize your approach to each of your cohorts. From the people who love kumquats to those who are excited about your new program for orphaned kittens. Invite them to intimate gatherings or tours. Talk about the things that they have told you they care deeply about. Customize your appeal letter for each group. The kumquat lovers get a letter with a picture of the beautiful fruit and a story about the trees they’re saving with their donation. You get the idea.

We’re living in an age of ultra customization. Online tools have given us platforms and flexibility to curate the internet and the world around us, and to automate how and when we digest content. Smart fundraisers are leveraging these tools and others to make sure donors get individual and special experiences. It’s not difficult, but it takes some planning and a lot of attention to detail. 

I get it. You might be a small cog in a fundraising machine at a large organization. You have to follow the plan and use the methods of the organization. There’s still some wiggle room. Absolutely stick with those priorities, and while you’re carrying out the plan, pay attention to how the donor responds. Tweak and customize the experience for your donor. Ask her what she thinks of the plan, the asks, the approach. And take that information back to your department, your boss, your boss’ boss. 

Want more? I’m here to help, and for the month of December I’m offering free 30 minute phone calls with free tips to revive your fundraising. Let’s talk soon… reserve your spot today!

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