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Learn Three Things from America’s Favorite Charities

Learn Three Things from America’s Favorite CharitiesA thousand donors were asked by Grey Matter Research to name their very favorite nonprofit. More than half of them named the same 20 organizations, and the top 5 favorites collected votes from more than one-third of all donors. With an average total income of $1.1 billion, America’s favorite 289 nonprofits are massive national and global operations.

While these giants have the attention of the public, we know they don’t corner the market on doing good work. So, what can a small or local nonprofit engaged in its day-to-day fundraising or in a capital campaign learn from these numbers and from the big brands that generate them?

Grey Matter Research identified three main factors that people cited for choosing a favorite: results (32 percent), trust (28 percent), and personal connection (22 percent). A whopping 82 percent of donors named one of these as the single biggest factor in selecting a favorite charity. These are the things people care about.

Take a look at each factor. Assess how important these things are to your leadership and how well you go about communicating them.


We often talk about the importance of focusing not just on the needs of your nonprofit but on the benefits it provides to those you serve, to the community, and to your donors. The benefits you provide are your results, and they should be a continuous focus of your messaging.

Communicating these benefits is particularly vital when engaging donors in a capital campaign. Give your fundraising prospects something solid to recall and to share when they think about your organization. Give them results that they would be excited to pass on to a friend.

There is a big push in the fundraising world to show your nonprofit’s effectiveness by telling stories. We love stories! But we also love numbers. For example, if you’re in healthcare talk about ER visits, babies delivered, or families that benefited from hospice. Personal stories are great, but numbers show the scope of your impact.


Review your nonprofit’s commitment to transparency. Is there more you can do to build trust? Showing what you’ve accomplished with past gifts is one way to build it. If a capital campaign has stalled and had to be rebooted, resolving issues of trust and showing exactly how you’ll avoid repeating the past should be first on your list.

We worked with a zoo several years ago. The board wanted to build a big new exhibit, but when we did the feasibility study, we found donors were reluctant to give because the zoo had left several smaller projects incomplete. The zoo lost the trust of its donors because it didn’t pay enough attention to small, seemingly inconsequential details. I remember one potential major-gift donor telling us they wouldn’t support the zoo’s capital campaign because it failed to give an old boa constrictor in the reptile exhibit a new log to lounge on.

We interact with hundreds of donors every year. We know firsthand the importance of trust and we know it takes much more time to build trust than to lose it. Trust begins with doing small things well, like that log for the boa. Practice proper stewardship by completing what you start and by being transparent with all communications.

Personal Connection

You know that creating a personal connection between donors and your nonprofit leads to improved fundraising. This is especially true in capital campaigns, during which personal connection often involves meeting face-to-face. Know your donors, and if you do not have a personal relationship with someone you hope makes a substantial investment in your nonprofit, please conduct your face-to-face asks with a team member who does know them personally. Why? Because people give to people. Yes, your nonprofit’s mission is of great importance, but so is the relationship the prospective donor has with the person or people asking them.

Personal connections that influence major-gift donations for capital campaigns don’t materialize through shared experiences. Being alumni of the same school is great for starting to build a relationship with a donor, but asking that donor to make a significant gift will require additional personal connection. Donors want to know why they should personally care about your organization enough to invest in it, and they want that message to be communicated by someone they trust.

Focus on the Factors

Most of us will never be as well-known as the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army, but we can all work to address the things people care about when choosing where to direct their charity: results, trust, and personal connection.

There’s much more to learn in The Donor Mindset Study VIII produced by Grey Matter Research. Click here to review their report.

Learn Three Things from America’s Favorite CharitiesKevin Wallace is president of, specializing in capital campaign planning and management. Kevin has 20 years of fundraising experience, conducting more than 70 campaign planning studies and capital campaigns around the country that have raised more than $175 million. Reach him at or visit

Topics: Donor Relations Nonprofit results Donor Stewardship Trust in Nonprofits Donor Research