Since I turned 40 I have run three marathons and countless shorter races. I invest in the experience by training throughout the year, watching what I eat, and building my endurance. But on race day, one thing is consistent regardless of whether it is in San Francisco, Washington, DC, or Boston – the last 1/10 mile is the most consequential. It is where all my investment comes together, where I can see the reward for my efforts, and where I just cannot tolerate a problem – the finish line is in sight.

But as a nonprofit executive, I cringe every time I see a client, peer, or industry leader messing up the last 1/10 mile of their investments in major donor relationships. What I mean is that they work so hard to plan an event or campaign, they do everything right, then they mess up the one small item toward the end that kills it all. We all make mistakes and nobody is perfect, but so much of this is avoidable and that is what gets me. A few examples I have seen in recently months:

  • The website doesn’t work. I received an e-mail message from a nonprofit regarding a fundraising race and decided to register. When I clicked on the “Register Today” link in late August, I received a message indicating that registration would be available starting in May. This group worked hard to find and engage me, but lost me through an obtuse on-boarding process that they don’t appear to have road-tested before putting it online.


  • The recognition is wrong. On one recent project, I looked at the donor list of a nonprofit on their website. Most of the names were familiar or logical, but one stood out. It was an odd spelling on a last name, so I ran a few searches using everything from Google to wealth screening software. The bottom line was that nonprofit had spelled the donor’s name incorrectly. I’m guessing that the tax form that went to the donor similarly had the name misspelled as well. Donors like to see themselves recognized on websites, so I bet she checked for her name. Upon seeing the misspelling, I wouldn’t be surprised it the donor didn’t make any subsequent contributions to the organization.


  • The proposal does not match the discovery. Discovery meetings are worth their weight in gold. When a prospective donor agrees to sit with you and tell you what challenge they are trying to overcome or goal they are trying to achieve, they are essentially giving you a roadmap to securing their donation. But I have seen instances where a development officer has the meeting and uses it as a forum to sell the organization, rather than listening to what the donor has to say. If the proposal that follows is not in sync with what was conveyed in the meeting, the donor is left feeling that they were not heard.


  • There is no immediate follow-up. In my book, this is a sin. I take great pride in sending follow-up notes – whether my preferred handwritten note or, if time is tight, a simple email note of appreciation. This allows me to acknowledge the donor (or other counter-party) and reaffirm and commitments what were made in our last meeting. But I often see folks work hard to identify potential donors, come up with creative strategies to engage them, and invest time in preparing to have a good meeting. It then confounds me when they have the meeting and fail to take the five minutes required to write the follow-up note and get it in the mail.

What we are doing in the major donor cultivation space is largely seduction. We are identifying people who already have an interest or need and introducing them to a cause or organization that meets that need. In this context, small things matter. How would you feel on a first date if the guy asking you out handed you the bill when dinner was over without having discussed it in advance? What about after the date, when there was no follow up email, text, or call to say they had a nice time? The details count disproportionately more than they might otherwise, so be sure to give them equal attention as you work to build the relationship.