Your Donor’s Voice | Sharpe Group
Posted May 2nd, 2017

Your Donor’s Voice

Smiling senior businessman leaning on table and pointing to sitting audience of four people. Rear view of audience.

Note: In the print version of Give & Take, this story is running in two parts. Part one was featured in the May 2017 issue and part two will appear in the June 2017 issue. The article is available online below in its entirety.

Donor testimonials can be an essential part of sharing your mission.

Advertisers have long known the power of positive customer testimonials to attract other customers and sales. In the commercial context, where “buyer beware” is all too often very good advice, a sincerely told and uncompensated testimonial or positive review online can be far more persuasive than simply a seller’s request to have you purchase a product or service. The use of testimonials has proved effective in the world of charitable giving as well. In our experience, the most successful gift planning programs have found that the good words of present and prior donors can be very helpful indeed.

Testimonials in gift planning marketing

A good gift planning marketing strategy begins with providing information about the variety of options your organization or institution offers. A concern with this approach, however, is that a steady stream of complex gift planning scenarios may run the risk of seeming overly technical, tedious or sterile. While it is sometimes necessary to provide details about the technical aspects of a plan, testimonials from donors can be a wonderful complement to this information.

For example, suppose you run a story in your gift planning newsletter about a couple who created a gift annuity for the benefit of your organization. This testimonial will not only illustrate an inspiring gift story, but it can also serve as a backdrop against which to explain what a gift annuity is and how such a gift fits in with the real-life financial plans of an actual couple.

Through testimonials you allow donors to explain their gift plans to other donors in their own voices. Often, it is the human side of the story and not the technical planning aspects that captures the interest of a peer. In other words, when communicating gift planning opportunities, put as much emphasis on the who and why as you do on the what, when and how of the gift. The what, when and how are pretty much the same for everyone—it is the who and why that set your organization apart.

Another challenge facing the development executive is the fact that providing gift planning information is one thing, but “asking for” or “closing” the gift is quite another. In fact, some believe that it is inappropriate and can be counter-productive to push to “close” many planned gifts. Most would agree it is inappropriate for a staff member to call and ask, “Have you been to your attorney, faced your mortality and incurred a legal fee yet?” or “Hurry up and sign those trust documents before the end of our fiscal year!” Another donor, however, can say in a testimonial story: “We went to our attorney and made new wills. It was well worth the modest cost and brought us peace of mind. Anyone who believes in this organization like we do should do the same without delay.”

Peer encouragement

It’s no secret that in many outright major gift efforts, such as a traditional capital campaign, the use of peer identification and influence can be an integral part of the process. Loyal supporters are routinely asked to approach friends to make a gift in a campaign setting or upgrade their regular giving.

This tactic may be less appropriate, however, in the context of gifts that involve a donor’s overall financial and estate plans, personal family issues, health concerns, etc. Indeed, the use of volunteers in direct donor contact to discuss options such as charitable bequests is normally very rare due to the personal and confidential nature of these discussions.

Testimonials can be used, however, to provide peer encouragement. Your featured donor can say, in effect, “We did it, and you should, too!” We have never seen a negative reaction to such a story. Also, because some people falsely believe that only the very wealthy leave charitable bequests and enter into other types of planned gifts, the details of the featured donor’s own life can relay the message that people from all walks of life can participate in this wonderful form of giving.

Choosing the donor

One of the most important aspects of creating a donor testimonial is determining the “right” donor to highlight. Some might suppose that the donors who make the largest gifts would be the best interview prospects. But high-dollar donors do not necessarily have the most interesting stories to tell about their gifts and may actually serve to lessen the motivation of donors of more modest means. Donors who are more representative of the typical constituent may, on the other hand, motivate persons like them while still inspiring those capable of making more substantial contributions.

The first step in narrowing your search for an appropriate donor to interview is to determine the subject of the mailing in which the story will be included. For example, a mailing promoting the benefits of gift annuities would be best complemented by a donor testimonial from someone who has established a gift annuity with your organization or institution. A donor interview can serve to better explain a gift annuity’s real-life benefits.

Also be careful to choose diverse donors for testimonials. Try to feature donors who are married, single, childless and alternate where possible between men and women, keeping in mind what you know about the makeup of your constituency. The goal is to have as many people as possible identify with donors featured in interviews over time.

Focus on the why of the gift

While there is undoubtedly a need to tell donors about the technical aspects of specific gifts, the donor testimonial is not primarily designed for this task. In our experience, donor testimonials work best when they focus on the motivation behind the gifts rather than the intricate details of gift plans. The what, when, and how of the gift can be handled in other sections of your communication piece. Your interview should thus focus on who the donors are and why they made their gifts. Some questions include:

  • What motivated you to make your gift?
  • How did you first become involved with this organization?
  • Have you or family members been personally served by the institution? (If applicable)
  • With all the places to give your money, why did you choose this one?
  • What do you hope to accomplish through your gifts?

When they can relate the motivation behind their gifts, other donors reading the story may think, “This person feels the same way about XYZ charity that I do. Maybe I can make a difference through giving, too.”

Putting a face with a name

If space allows, use photographs of the donors featured in testimonials. It does not need to be a professional photograph—just a head and shoulders shot of the donor or donors with a simple background. Be sure to check with your production sources to make sure the photo will reproduce well.


With the growing amount of gift planning information reaching your donors, they may well feel overwhelmed. The donor story can be your best tool to bring the process back home for the donor. The donor testimonial brings readers out of the financial details of giving and back to the heart of the matter—one person’s desire to give to make great things happen. There is no substitute for informing donors about how plans work and how different ways of giving can benefit them, but increasingly it will be important to show readers people like them who actually complete such gifts for the benefit of your cause.

Sharpe Group editors can work with you to create donor stories for your Sharpe Group Gift Planning Newsletter. For more information, click here. Or contact us at 901.680.5300 or

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The publisher of Sharpe Insights is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Sharpe Insights may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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