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Thomas Wolf

Thomas Wolf is a principal with the consulting firm WolfBrown. He is the author of How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise. Among his other books is Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together.

Recent Posts by Thomas Wolf:

Four Keys to Cultivating a Donor


Adapted from How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise

A few years ago I was invited to a party where the only person I knew was the host. My wife was away so I was on my own.

After greeting the host and ordering a drink, I steeled myself for what promised to be a long evening. At that moment a young man came up and introduced himself. “You’re Tom Wolf,” he said. “I’ve been waiting to meet you. If you have a minute, I’d love you to come over here and meet some of my friends.”

Later I learned the host had deputized a group of people to act as a welcoming crew and my new friend was simply doing his job. Did I feel manipulated? Not at all. It was a wonderful evening and I met a lot of new and interesting people.

The next year, when the party’s host sent me a fundraising letter, he referred to the evening and said how much his young friend had enjoyed talking with me. I didn’t hesitate before putting a check in the return envelope. I felt connected.

In this vein, let me offer four cultivation tips that I discuss in greater depth in my book, How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise.

Beware of Strangers

“It’s all about turning a name into a relationship.” So said one of my mentors, the late Francis Bosworth, executive director of a settlement house in Philadelphia.

In teaching me the elements of “friendraising,” Boz counseled patience coupled with genuine interest. “The contributions will come in time (or they won’t), but that isn’t the place to begin. Never ask a stranger for a large gift.”

This latter advice was a bit of an exaggeration. We request donations from plenty of people we don’t know and are often successful doing so. But in an age when fundraising books and courses teach the science and metrics of list building, Boz’s emphatic wisdom was an important complement for two reasons.

First, it was built on the idea that prospect lists take on much greater value when the names become flesh-and-blood people and, second, that a major benefit of this approach is that it often results in turning the casual small donor into an intensely loyal and large one.

Impress Your Donors by Listening

Another early mentor, Peter, taught me the importance of using an early fundraising call primarily as an opportunity to form or deepen a relationship. You don’t endlessly talk about yourself or your organization.

“Think about the people you like to spend time with,” says Peter. “Are they the ones who constantly focus the conversation on themselves or those who show interest in you?”

Peter continues: “Would that every fundraiser took a crash course in empathy. Call it the art of good listening. It’s often the difference between success and failure.”

Since it sets the tone and helps to form your prospect’s initial impression, good listening is especially important at the beginning of a fundraising call. Take your cue from the great English novelist, Thomas Hardy, who said: “That man’s silence is wonderful to listen to.” Be like that man.

Remember the Children

After decades of fundraising, I’m sometimes asked, “What’s the worst mistake you’ve made in your career?” It’s a question I can answer without hesitation because the mistake is one I made not just once, but countless times … and at great cost. Simply put, I didn’t pay enough attention to my donors’ children.

Needless to say, donors age and in time leave us. For those with a good deal of money, much of their wealth will live on after them. Where there are children, it’s the younger generation that will ultimately control where the family philanthropic donors are directed.

I’m not suggesting we cultivate friendships with six-year-olds. But youngsters grow into adults quickly and establish their own philanthropic preferences. When their parents’ estates are finally passed on, the kids in many cases have already established loyalties to organizations different from the ones their parents supported. Simply put, befriending the children can help prevent the family philanthropy from straying once the parents are gone.

Move On from Disappointment

A regular donor of ours, Madelyn had recently divorced and remarried and her new husband was quite wealthy. With her first husband, Madelyn had always made a contribution to our organization which, given their economic situation, I considered generous.

She came to many of our activities and professed great interest in our work. With the organization taking on a new project that I knew would interest her, and with Madelyn now having access to greater wealth, I went to see her and asked for $5,000. She said it sounded interesting and she’d discuss it with her husband.

A week later I received a letter explaining that with two children in college, things were a bit tight and they wouldn’t be making a gift. I was surprised and a little disappointed, but let it go. Until I took my car in for service the next week!

I asked the dealer, an old friend, how things were going. He happened to mention Madelyn and her new husband and how in the last year they’d bought two new cars—in cash—one of them a luxury sedan.

I was livid. Here was one of my long-time donors, now affluent and crying poor. I went to the development committee and spewed forth various invectives. Their reaction surprised me. “Tom, you’re no longer rational about this,” they said. “You’re too upset. We’ll take them off your list and give them to someone else.”

It was good advice. In real life when our friends disappoint and anger us, we can move on. But in the world of fundraising we can’t afford to. We need to figure out a way to continue the relationships or our organizations will be seriously impoverished.

The preceding is a guest blog post by Thomas Wolf is a principal with the consulting firm WolfBrown. In addition to How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise, he is the author of Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together.

The Board's Role in Donor Cultivation


Here's a dilemma. Your organization has a new board member—let's call her Maisie.

She is personally wealthy and knows a lot of people who could be prospects for major gifts (indeed, that's why you asked her to join the board and were thrilled when she accepted). You hope she'll provide entree to a whole new donor pool.

Maisie comes to her first development committee meeting. She's already promised to do her share. You present her with logical prospects to solicit and anticipate great results. But in every instance Maisie's response is the same. "Well of course I know them. But I couldn't possibly ask them for money." Then the next sentence is either "They're some of my closest friends" or "They're relatives."

What to do? For the moment, let's discuss what you shouldn't do:

  • First, don't insist. It's amazing how many of us do, often with poor results. We don't want to accept a no from someone like Maisie because we're certain she'll succeed. But if Maisie isn't comfortable asking, of if she does agree reluctantly, then it's likely she'll be a terrible solicitor. If you push too hard, the whole thing could end unpleasantly—you might even find yourself minus a board member.
  • Second, be willing to put off soliciting some of the people you felt were perfect prospects for Maisie—at least for a while. Once she has her feet on the ground and has success asking others, she may change her mind. I've seen this happen countless times.
  • Third, don't let Maisie off the hook. She may not be the best solicitor, at least not yet, but there are other ways she can help.

As I explain in my book, How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise, I learned early on how the process works when people feel they can't approach family and friends. My parents, who were generous and willing to help raise money, were continually asked to serve on boards. No surprise there. But there was one group my mother and father never approached—relatives. There was an unwritten family rule—"We don't solicit one another." As you would guess, that frustrated a lot of organizations that had anticipated easy pickings when my parents joined their boards.

It frustrated my mother, too, as she did want to help financially. Fortunately, under the tutelage of a fundraising master, she learned just how to do that.

Roland was executive director of an organization where my mother served as a board member. She loved what the group did and wanted to improve their bottom line. "I wish there was something I could do," she told Roland."But I'd be booted out of the family."

"Oh, but you can help," Roland said. And over the next month, he and my mother and the development staff developed a list of key family members with my mother telling them everything she knew about each one—age, occupation, interests, children with ages and where they went to school, things their children had done of which they were particularly proud. It was an information dump so large my mother wondered how it could possibly be useful.

But useful it was. As Roland and his staff and other board members met the relatives, they were primed. As such, they could link aspects of their organization's activities to areas of interest for each family member. Sometimes it led nowhere ... but occasionally a connection was made. And as one family member after another came into the fold, the dominoes started to fall and many became donors.

Board members have a special status in the game of donor cultivation. Their word offers more credibility than a staff member's. So talking up an organization, telling a prospect why doing board service is so satisfying, can be a critical first step in introducing that individual to an organization. In fact, when I conduct board trainings, I tell each member that every gathering they attend is a cultivation event, and if they don't have at least one conversation with a potential donor, then these board members aren't doing their job.

There is one last area of donor cultivation uniquely suited to a board member—that of cultivating fellow trustees. If you've been in the field for long, you're aware that no group of individuals has more responsibility for giving than the board. Yet often their giving potential is under-realized.

That's why each trustee should be thought of as a prospect and each should receive the kind of attention reserved for the most important donors. I always assume that a trustee will give more if properly cultivated. This is not a job for staff—only fellow trustees can do it. And when they do it well, everyone feels good.

The preceding is a guest post by Thomas Wolf, a principal with the consulting firm WolfBrown. He is the author of How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise. Among his other books is Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together.

Questions I'm Most Often Asked about Cultivating Donors

For years I've taught fundraising. I've presented scores of fundraising seminars and workshops and taught a class on the subject at Harvard. My students have included both beginners and people who have been in the field for several years. I've been asked many of the same questions over my career. The ones I answer below are also explored more thoroughly in my book, How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise.

There's an individual we'd love to involve, but no one on the staff or board has an entrée to her. How would you suggest we start the process of cultivation?

When I was in college, I was extremely attracted to a girl I didn't know. So I sought out those who knew her and asked them to put us together in situations that would be fun for her and show me in a flattering light. It seems to have worked. I've been married to that woman for 46 years now. Finding people to match me up with prospective donors is a never-ending goal of mine.

What would you say is the single most effective cultivation activity many overlook?

People ask me this all the time and it drives me batty. One size doesn't fit all. The most effective cultivation techniques for one prospect aren't the same for another. There's no magic bullet or formula that works with everyone. As those with any experience know, fundraising is all about the personal, and shaping relationships on the basis of what makes people unique. So, if pressed, I'd say the single most important cultivation activity—some overlook it, some don't—is searching for those unique qualities and predilections.

We're all familiar with the conventional ways of cultivating donors, such as sending birthday cards, relevant news clippings, and event invitations. Share some of the more unconventional ones you've used or heard of others using.

Recently, I received a card from England from someone whose organization I support. More than two years before we'd been talking about the English pre-Raphaelite William Morris, a man whose work I've always admired. In our conversation, I mentioned Morris's beautiful home in the rural town of Kelmscott and said it was worth a visit. The card I received after such a long interval of time read as follows: "Dear Tom. Just visited Kelmscott. Wow! You made my day, month, and year. Thanks." This is the kind of personal messaging that means so much more to me as a donor than a birthday card that I know was prompted by someone's electronic calendar.

What are some of the differences between cultivating younger donors and older donors?

One of the things I notice about my own giving and that of my son is that he and his wife spend a lot more time at charity events with friends. They seem to enjoy the social aspects of their philanthropy that frankly my wife and I now try to avoid. There's also the difference in technology. I don't think my son ever responds to a request—even a personal one—that comes via the U.S. Postal Service. Come to think of it, I doubt whether he receives many. Yet for me, the computer isn't philanthropy friendly and I do look at and respond to snail mail.

What are some specific ways to measure the effectiveness of a cultivation program?

While many things have changed in the world of philanthropy, some have not. Effectiveness is all about looking at the numbers. How many people were solicited? How many responded? What was the average contribution? What was the mean? How does it compare with last year? I also like to use a control group. That is, I divide my prospects into two groups that are matched as closely as possible. One group receives a new cultivation approach, the other doesn't. Assuming that the new cultivation techniques bring in more money, is the difference sufficient to justify the effort and cost?

How many cultivating activities would you recommend in a given year?

I used to believe in the old adage "the more often you connect and the more often you ask, the more you will receive." But I was once stung by the words of a donor who said, "If you don't leave me alone, I'm going to stop giving to you." As a donor myself, I understand the irritation. On the other hand, while I may not like to be asked for money more than once a year, I do enjoy being contacted more often if there's something of genuine interest. When an organization is in touch with me and they're not asking for money, they're often laying important groundwork for the "ask" that'll come later.

What's a sure sign we're overdoing cultivation?

I had a board member who used to joke, "I love this organization, but when my friends see me coming down the street, they cross to the other side." I knew what she meant (she had the nickname "The Jackhammer"). My general rule of thumb is that on an annual basis you'll only get one ask for general support and a second for a fundraising event. Cultivation needs to be geared to this schedule. Of course, special asks will come up from time to time—think capital campaign—and they're in addition to the regular flow. But the trick in your cultivation is to be sure it's clear these special asks don't cannibalize the regular flow of funds.

What is the most glaring misunderstanding executive directors and development officers have about donor cultivation?

That effective cultivation always means trying to be friends with your donors. That can happen, but it's neither the goal nor the most frequent outcome. Cultivation is about building strong relationships … and there are all kinds. Over the years, some of my donors have been like mentors and teachers, and I've treated them respectfully in that way. Others have been people who needed something from me that I could provide, but they had no interest in being close.

The single most important thing readers can take away from How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise is ...?

How simple it is to be a good fundraiser. Yes, there are technicalities that can be mastered—especially in areas like capital campaigns and planned giving. But for the most part, it's about relationship building, and most of us know how to do that, whether or not we've ever asked for a dime. It pleases me so much when I see people who never thought they could raise money turn out to be masters of the art because they realize that being genuine and being themselves is the most important aspect of the process.

© 2014, Emerson & Church Publishers

Dr. Thomas Wolf's career encompasses the fields of philanthropy, nonprofit management, education, and the arts. After serving as the founding director of the New England Foundation for the Arts for seven years, he established a consulting firm in 1983 (now called WolfBrown) to assist nonprofit organizations and the philanthropic sector.


Befriending Your Donors: Interview with Fundraiser Thomas Wolf

Thomas Wolf, author of How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise, recently spoke with his publisher about donor relations. GuideStar has published two excerpts from the book (see the links on the right), and we're pleased to be able to share Dr. Wolf's additional thoughts with you.

Your book is about relating to donors, at times befriending them. A cynical person might say that's a manipulative ploy to snare money.

That's an attitude I've never understood. I like people. I like getting to know them whether they have money or turn out to be donors. Invariably, our relating makes them feel good and makes me feel good—especially when we strike a bond or find common interests. Why should there be an invisible barrier just because someone is a potential supporter?

You have a would-be donor on your radar: he has money and community influence. Problem is you detest the fellow. What's your strategy?

This is a great challenge. I find it difficult to build a relationship with someone I don't respect. And I'm loath to fake it. On the other hand, I've been wrong about people who I didn't think I'd like and who turned out to be genuinely interesting and kind. So everyone gets a chance in my book. But if it's not a good match, I'll look for another fundraising volunteer. Interestingly, there's almost always someone who will take up the challenge.

You say that if you were to choose one potential donor you'd like to make friends with, it would be the wealthy individual who says (or implies) that he or she doesn't want to talk about money and doesn't want to be solicited. That sounds counter-intuitive.

There are many wealthy people who don't want to talk about money and others who tell you they don't want to be solicited. It's a challenge, certainly, but it can be overcome. One of my mentors was just such a person. He didn't like talking about his personal giving but he did love to talk about what was going on with the organization. And more than anything, he liked to give advice. I asked for it frequently. Sometimes he would become especially interested in an idea and would ask, "How much would it take to do that?" And that would usually lead to a nice check.

Can you be too close to someone to ask them for money? And, if so, what's Plan B?

Absolutely. There are people I won't solicit because the relationship is too close. But I will help others develop a plan of action and I don't mind opening the door for other fundraisers, making the introduction. One of my boyhood friends—a man with quite a lot of money—is someone I finally decided I could solicit. But I asked him first if he'd mind or would he rather be solicited by someone else. We had a good laugh, went off for a beer, and I came away with a contribution.

Your book makes it clear that connecting with donors can take a while. When all the good work and time invested fails, it must be awfully frustrating, is it not?

Ted Williams was one of my heroes—he was a great hitter for the Boston Red Sox and practiced hard to get better and better. But when he stood at the plate, even with his remarkable hand-eye coordination, he realized he'd fail more often than not. One season he batted .406—an amazing average. That means, the greatest hitter perhaps of all time struck out, grounded out, and popped up more often than he got a hit. Fundraising is like that. You work hard but you don't expect 100 percent success. You just try to improve your average and hit for extra bases when you can.

You're a huge proponent of thank you letters, aren't you?

I write "thank you" letters obsessively—they're one of the secrets of truly effective fundraising. Sometimes people ask me: "What should I say in my letters?" That's a completely wrong-headed question. The whole point is that there is no formula. The letters must be personal, often citing some wonderful thing a donor or a member of the organizational family has done recently. Sometimes I send an article that I know will be of interest or share something humorous. And often the best letters are those I send for no reason at all—a note or a card that says I'm thinking of them.

You claim in your book that you can predict "with a fair degree of accuracy who's going to be an effective fundraiser and who isn't." Tell me the clues you pick up.

Self-confidence combined with interest in other people. These are individuals willing to look me in the eye, offer a firm handshake, and show curiosity. They're willing to engage, and, most important, they show a talent for listening. On the other side, I've rarely met a good fundraiser who scowls a lot or looks depressed. The first three letters of fundraising are "f-u-n," after all.

Many have the impression that fundraisers have to be gregarious. Need introverts apply?

It's funny—some gregarious people are terrible fundraisers. Everything's about them. On the other hand, skillful fundraisers can be modest and quiet—and great at listening. They draw out the donor and find topics he or she wants to talk about. But it is true, if you lack self-confidence, you probably won't be good at raising money. You have to be able to make others feel comfortable.

What's the worst mistake a fundraiser can make?

If there's one mistake I've made all too often, it's not paying attention to donors' children. They're the ones, after all, who will someday come into the family wealth. And once they do, it's too late to cultivate a relationship. Because kids like to strike out on their own and usually don't want to mimic their parents' philanthropy, I try to find activities and programs for them that are completely different from the ones their mothers and fathers are supporting.


© 2013, Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Dr. Thomas Wolf's career encompasses the fields of philanthropy, nonprofit management, education, and the arts. After serving as the founding director of the New England Foundation for the Arts for seven years, he established a consulting firm in 1983 (now called WolfBrown) to assist nonprofit organizations and the philanthropic sector and assisted 10 of the 50 largest U.S. foundations and various government agencies with their grants programs. The author of numerous books and articles, Wolf is also a professional flutist listed in the International Who's Who of Music.

Connecting with Donors: An Interview with Dr. Thomas Wolf

Thomas Wolf recently spoke with his publisher about the topic of his new book, How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise. GuideStar has published two excerpts from the book (see the links on the right), and we're pleased to be able to share Dr. Wolf's additional thoughts with you.

Many in fundraising aren't extroverts. Can they be successful in connecting with donors as you prescribe?

Fundraising's Worst Mistake

Excerpt from How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise

It's the Donor's Ballgame

Excerpt from How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise