3 Simple Questions that Get Donors to Give

Ellen Bristol

October 12, 2022

About the Author

Ellen Bristol

Ellen Bristol, President of Bristol Strategy Group, is a nonprofit thought leader in fundraising effectiveness and nonprofit management optimization. She has a passion for helping small to medium sized nonprofit organizations, NGO’s, and social enterprises build and grow fundraising capacity, adapting classic principles of the process-management discipline to this all-important strategic function.


Conventional wisdom reminds us to listen more than we talk when we’re out there cultivating donors. But are we “listening” for the right information? Do we know what answers we want to hear? In the world of professional fundraising, the questions we ask are as important as, and maybe more important than, the words we are listening to. We need to ask questions that give us the answers we need to hear. Asking the right questions the right way changes the donor-cultivation game in significant ways, to the advantage of both parties.

Try these questions. They may seem stupid-simple at first glance, but they are magic at getting prospects to open up.


  • The Success Question: “What do you want to achieve with your charitable giving?”
  • The Frustration Question: “What do you want to avoid by giving to charity?”
  • The “Right-Charity” Question: “What helps you decide which charities to support?”


They elevate the fundraiser to the level of peer with the prospective funder. They make it easy, even for people who don’t raise money professionally, to open the conversation and begin relationships. And they tell you what your donors think and feel – in your donors’ language. Best of all they change the conversation from adversarial – “Give me money now because we need it!” – to relationship-building – “Let’s get to know each other and see where it goes.”

These Three Simple Questions show respectful interest centered on the donor and his or her reasons for giving, personal advancement, reputation-building, desire to redress wrongs, or any other sentiment that provokes charitable giving.  Questions like these create an atmosphere that gives both parties permission to say “we are not really right for one another,” and still part on good terms. And considering the cost of your scarce and precious time, that answer is a desirable one if you want to invest in prospects with potential for high lifetime value.


Your organization is justifiably proud of its mission, programs and outcomes. That’s fine, but before you start bragging about your wonderfulness, find out what your funders want to support and why.  Corporate partners want to get points for being good corporate citizens, and enhance their brands. Grant-making foundations want to invest in organizations that will prosper. Donors are motivated by complex issues, from a passionate commitment to your nonprofit’s cause to their desire to hobnob with the rich and famous.

Understand how your nonprofit and its programs impact your funders’ charitable philosophy, motivations for giving, and expectations. While you need to raise money to run the organization, donors give for a variety of reasons. They believe in you. Maybe your nonprofit served them or a relative. They feel an obligation to give back. Maybe they seek the social prestige they might obtain by donating to your nonprofit. The way to find out? Ask them.


Make sure you’re talking to the right person – the decision maker. You might not know that at first, so use similar questioning techniques to find out. If you’re talking to a foundation’s junior support staff, a salesperson at the corporate sponsor, or the donor prospect’s brother-in-law’s dog groomer, those people can’t make the decision. Go ahead and find out their role. They’re certainly worth cultivating if they can introduce or sponsor you to the right person.

To put this all more succinctly – stop chasing the money! If you’re not talking to the right person, rethink it. If you’re trying to cultivate a “donor” who really doesn’t want what you offer, or you have to redesign your whole program just to win a grant, cut it out. Or I’ll yell at you.


Good questioning skills may come naturally to some people; the rest of us need to be taught. Here’s how to ask persuasive questions, questions that persuade others to do whatever it is that YOU are trying to get THEM to achieve. These skills are valuable if you are fundraising, managing others, or dealing with unruly children.

As you read through the Four Steps, please think of a specific prospective funder, and use that prospect as your ‘case study.’ Write down how you would execute each Step, with that funder in mind.

  • Step 1: Plan for Questioning. Before you ask any questions, figure out what it is you are trying to accomplish. In the context of this report, you are trying to establish trust and learn if the prospect represents a good, bad, or indifferent investment for your nonprofit. So you need to know whom you are questioning, what their role is (i.e. major donor, corporate executive, grant-maker staff), what their charitable goals may be, and most important, what answers you want to hear. Know the answers you want to hear, before you hear them.
    • Who am I questioning, by name and type of prospective funder?
    • What am I trying to accomplish with this/these questions?
    • What answers am I looking for?
  • Step 2: Ask. Go ahead and ask your question. Be direct without being confrontational. For one thing, the prospect is already aware you’re seeking a charitable gift. There is no need to pussy-foot around.
  • Step 3: Listen and Evaluate. Pay attention and listen actively. As you listen, ask yourself a few questions, such as the following. Write down your own examples where shown.
    • What did I hear (the facts, the things the prospect actually said)?
    • What does that tell me (the meaning behind the facts)?
    • Can we (our nonprofit) fulfill their expectations?
    • Are their expectations and yours in alignment? In other words, can you provide the service, support, recognition, visibility etc. that seems to be important to this prospect?
    • What actions or responses would be appropriate at this time?
  • Step Four: Respond or Take Action. This is where you really begin to gain trust. As you take the fourth step, keep your focus on the donor and not on your own needs.
  • Summarize what you heard. “If I understand you correctly, you said this and that, and so on. Did I get that right?”
    • Ask for clarification if necessary. “In other words, …. Am I correct? Oh, I misunderstood, could you clarify for me.”
    • Commit to a response. “OK, I think I’ve got it. You would like to know something about such and such, how we produce these outcomes/those statistics, what other major funders support us, etc. etc…. Let me tell you… / I’ll get back to you… / I’ll provide you with that ….”

Then, keep your promises!


Question #1: The Success Question, to elicit the donor’s positive motivators.

This question is very simple: “What do you want to achieve with your charitable giving?” Like all three Questions, these words offer enough variations and options to keep your prospect talking for hours. Here are some variations and elaborations on the Success theme:

  • What inspires you to give to charity? What causes or missions are most likely to draw your attention? Why?
  • What do you want your gifts to accomplish?
  • Why is that important to you?
  • If the nonprofit that you support were to be completely successful, what would that do for you? Why would that be important to you?

As you can see, the Success Question alone will open enormous amounts of back-and-forth discussions with your prospect, as well as with a current funder. In fact, there is no limit to the number of times you can find a use for some variation of the Success Question.

IF AND ONLY IF: If you are interviewing a current donor, it is legitimate for you to ask specific questions about your nonprofit, such as “what inspires you to give to our nonprofit year after year?” “Why is our nonprofit important to you?” and the like. Current donors are the best source for learning what motivates future donors.

QUESTION #2: THE ‘AVOID’ QUESTION, to elicit the donor’s negative motivators

The second question is the ‘Avoid’ question: “What do you want to avoid by making charitable donations?” This question elicits the flip side of the ‘Success’ questions, giving more perspective into donor’s motivations. It offers many variations.

  • When you think about the causes you support, what do you want those causes to fix, wipe out or resolve?
  • What is it about the [issue, problem, disease, social condition] that bothers or concerns you so much; how does that affect your charitable decisions?
  • What’s at stake if your preferred charities are not able to achieve their mission?
  • What do you think or fear might happen, if [this social or medical, etc., issue] is not resolved?
  • Why is that important to you?

NOTE: Some people respond better to Success Questions, while some open up with Avoid Questions. Using both techniques produces more complete insights and engages trust more deeply and quickly. The Avoid Question is highly unexpected and demonstrates your grasp of and respect for the prospect’s reasons for charitable giving. Use both approaches.

QUESTION #3: THE ‘RIGHT CHARITY’ QUESTION, to elicit donor expectations about service and recognition.

The ‘Right Charity’ question asks: “How do you decide which charities to support?” Like the first two questions, it can be presented many ways, but its real purpose is to find out how the prospect makes the decision to give. Here are some variations on the theme, but please don’t ask them all!

  • How do you choose the charities you want to support? What would you need to see or hear from a nonprofit for you to make a significant commitment?
  • What would a charity need to show you, after you’ve made your gift, to convince you that you had made a wise investment?
  • When selecting a charity, what is uppermost in your mind?
  • Have you ever decided not to invest in a charity, or even withdrawn your support from one? Why did that happen?
  • When you think about other charities that you have supported or currently support, what did you like best about them? Why was that important to you?
  • What about charities that disappointed you, or that you would be reluctant to invest in, other than their mission or cause? Why did they disappoint you, what were you trying to avoid?

Remember, most affluent philanthropists support other nonprofits and causes. Be extremely diplomatic when asking the Right-Charity question. Don’t trash the competition. These funders will have to decide if it’s worth their while to add your organization to their portfolio, or even dump one of their charities and replace it with yours; you don’t want to call their earlier decisions into question.


Sometimes these simple questions succeed beyond expectations and the prospect leaps ahead to offer financial support. First, take a deep breath. Bursting into tears, falling down, and kissing the prospect’s loafers is probably not a good reaction. Now, test for clarification. It is all right to say something like, “Are you saying you’d like to support us?” If the answer is yes, first say thanks and then start working on the details – how much, when, for what. Make sure you understand their expectations, and they understand your gift acceptance policies, payment methods, stewardship, and recognition practices.


The Three Simple Questions provide you with dozens of conversation starters and deliver probing insights. They are easy to ask, and prospects like to answer them – the focus is on them and not on you. Get everybody into the act – board, staff, volunteers. The benefits are worth it.

  • You’ll foster a more intimate relationship with current donors
  • Board members, volunteers, and even non-fundraising staff find these questions easier to use than the traditional “ask”
  • You’ll obtain flawless insights into donor motivation
  • You’ll find out fast if this prospect justifies more of your time – or none at all.

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