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Major donors and the charity image problem

My Uncle John and his wife, my Aunty Judy are two of my favourite relatives.  They have worked hard all their lives, endured challenges, taken some big risks and are now (mostly) retired and in a position where many would start to think about philanthropy and / or taking on a trustee role.

Except Uncle John is not keen on charities.

He is a very generous man, supports numerous causes through donating / participating in events (plus my aunty volunteers at their local hospice shop) but overall, his experience and perception is that charities tend to be:


  • run by inexperienced people
  • inefficient and wasteful
  • lacking in innovation;
  • frustrating and unsatisfying to engage with on a management / governance level.


None taken Uncle John 😉


John has decided to retain a consultancy role at the company he built instead of becoming a trustee.  It gives him a sense of purpose and the ability to make a tangible difference / improvement to the lives of his employees and customers.

My Uncle John is not alone in these thoughts.  In 2019, Barclays produced an excellent report entitled ‘Barriers to Giving’ which explored the reasons that the percentage of High Net Worth individuals giving to charities is considerably lower outside the US (it’s a brilliant report and a MUST read for fundraisers operating in this space).

Amongst the many barriers to giving, the report stated:


“Unfortunately, many wealthy individuals lack the requisite faith and trust in the way charities are run, with one in four identifying this as a major barrier to giving more and advisers recognising this as a serious problem. This is possibly linked to their lack of knowledge and experience of charities – which is also identified as a major barrier by a similar number (23%).”


Charities.  We have an image problem.


So, what can we do when we’re trying to induct more individuals into the wonderful world of philanthropy?

Read on for three ideas to help you combat the charity image problem…


Make sure that approaches are peer led where possible. 


People give to people, and people are more likely to give to people that they know, like and trust.

For example, LarkOwl sells online training and consultancy.  We have learned that potential customers need to hear from us a minimum of 4 – 7 times before then even think about investing in us.  Much of our consultancy work comes to us through personally recommendation / word of mouth.

It’s the same for philanthropy.  If your charity already has major donors, meet with them.


  • Talk to them about the barriers which exist for others.
  • Ask your satisfied donors to share their experiences of giving to you with the networks and friends.
  • Ask them if they’d be happy to approach specific people on your behalf (if you believe there to be a link).
  • Perhaps when we’re allowed to again, ask them to host an event for you or to send invites out on your behalf.


The ask will be so much more powerful coming from a friend or trusted colleague.  Check out this article for more on the psychology of social proof.


Demonstrate your impact by putting a price on the outcomes you achieve


Major donors view donations as investments.  Particularly for those who are self-made and who view every single penny as incredibly hard won.


So talk their language.


Ensure your proposals comprise simple, compelling arguments for support, using ROI data to show how a donation makes an impact.  For example (and these are totally made up…):


  • £1,000 will keep one mile of rural footpath in good condition for walkers for a year
  • £18,000 will pay for a state of the art bariatric bed for our new hospice, enabling as comfortable as possible a death for around 40 local people over the next three years
  • £15 million will serve around 3,000 local people each year for the next twenty years in our state of the art new premature baby unit. 30% fewer babies will be stillborn and up to 50% of premature babies will be able to leave hospital earlier.


Remember not to ‘we’ all over your copy (thank you Beth Upton for always reminding me of this!).


Don’t talk about the benefit to your organisation.  Talk about the benefit to those you serve. 


If you have trialled a few delivery options at different price points, feel free to describe each of them and explain why you’ve settled on your preferred option.

You’ll need to be able to explain your workings in great detail.


Leadership and the importance of personal brand


If there’s a chance your donors might be worried about the quality of leadership in your organisation and you know that your charity is run by a competent, inspiring leader who is smashing it out of the park then be sure to introduce them.

One of my clients is a charity with a relatively new charity CEO.  His background is in the commercial sector (Film and TV production).  He is also an investor and is well networked within both the local business community and with potential major donors both locally and further afield.

I know that when he is in front of people, soliciting support for the work of his charity, that he will have a higher chance of success because his reputation and his prior commercial success will reassure donors that he is going to steward their money well.

It’s likely that he will also have plenty in common with fellow business owners / investors and will find many topics on which to connect.

Remember the power of know, like, trust.



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Posted in Fundraising, Major gift fundraising.