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Building Deep Donor Relationships: Fundamentals for Health and Research Fundraisers

A perspective for fundraisers in health and research, or anyone who wants to build deeper relationships with their donors when outcomes aren’t immediate or even guaranteed.

Many of us in the fundraising profession envy our colleagues who work at nonprofits with clear, assured outcomes; an input of X will get us to Y. But what about those of us who fundraise to further scientific research? Or to fund trials for drug development, where donors won’t see results for upwards of 20-30 years, or where those trials, not just might, but will often fail?


In my early days of fundraising at a research organization that also supported patient services, I leaned heavily on the patient services side of the “house” to give donors a sense of connection to something concrete. In retrospect, I likely missed out on opportunities to share with donors about the scientific progress that would change outcomes for future patients. But what if your mission doesn’t even involve patient services? How do you keep your donors engaged and invested while waiting for your organization’s big research breakthrough? Advances, however important, often occur at a snails’ pace and you could both be waiting a long time. Here are four fundamentals for strengthening donor relationships during those “in between” times:


  1. Authentic Partnership. Waiting is hard, and a good fundraiser will share authentically and openly with their donors about their own impatience with the work while also celebrating wins and focusing on its glass-half-full aspects. The difference can come down to framing. A compelling donor update does not focus on the fact that “10 trials failed this year,” but communicates that you are “one step closer to finding a cure and are committed to improving trials greatly” with that donor’s investment.
  2. Frequent Impact Sharing. The pace of your organization’s research may not feel like that of a startup, but embodying the startup mentality by communicating the impact of treatments and trials frequently to donors can be useful. Overcommunicating through webinars, update briefings, news links/reports, etc., without spamming donors is key. Many donors who support research are entrepreneurial by nature, taking risks to solve the big questions in their work, personal lives, and their philanthropy, and it can be fruitful to match their energy.
  3. Clear and Consistent Communication. Along the same lines, donors who support research have some penchant for being “in it” for the long haul, which means you’ll likely be communicating with them for quite some time. As with any good relationship, consistent and meaningful connection matters, and it is especially helpful to have some pre-developed content available for when things get busy, and it feels difficult to touch base.
  4. Leveraging the Personal Connection. So many donors have a personal connection to the disease state or medical condition. They support the cause because they know someone close to them who has passed away or been diagnosed. Stewarding those important relationships and sensitively referencing their personal connection in an appropriate, uplifting manner can turn those folks into deeper advocates for the cause.


By nature, scientific research, experiments, and trials fail often, and investment in such work requires risk and tenacity. Embodying that same entrepreneurial spirit in your own fundraising work through authentic partnership, frequent impact sharing, clear and consistent communication, and leveraging personal connection, coupled with the right value proposition and messaging, can go a long way in building deeper relationships with donors as you move toward larger research breakthroughs. Further, it may help you tap into your own creativity and the energy needed to fuel your journey as a relationship manager.


A black and white photo of a woman with long hair.

Kaitlin Kozora,

Senior Managing Director