Access to Donors – It’s Personal

Access to Donors – It’s Personal

An important concept in fundraising is that of “access” to current and potential donors. Access in fundraising means that if you send someone an email or leave a voice message, it will be returned. Each of us has a circle of friends, family, business colleagues, and so on that we have “access” to, and we bring that access along with us to our jobs and volunteer activities. However, that access isn’t automatically transferable to the organization; it needs to be exercised by the person it belongs to.

Organizational access is represented by the collective sum of the access each individual staff or board director has. When we discuss board diversity, one of the measures should be donor access. When new directors come to the board adding substantially new access to donors and the willingness to exercise that access on behalf of the organization, the organization becomes measurably stronger. When new directors’ access to donors is substantially the same as those already on the board, the opportunity to grow organizational access is lost.

Access can be abused, of course, and eventually lost completely. Relationships can be squandered, bridges burned. And they can take years or even decades to restore. Conversely, access can also be cultivated and developed. It can grow and flourish.

As a general rule, directors have greater access to donors than staff. They are “peers”. (The Executive Director is a notable exception to this rule and often has access equal to or even greater than other directors.) In seeking to raise money in ever larger amounts from high capacity prospects, staff can get frustrated that they cannot get an appointment, or sometimes even a return call. They don’t have sufficient “access.”

This can lead to an unfortunate negative spiral: fundraising staff who understand their job is to raise money see their inability to gain access to donors as a sign of professional weakness. Consequently they don’t ask for help. Meanwhile directors are equally slow to offer help. Some did not have a clear expectation that they would help raise money, but rather expected they would help spend the money wisely. Others may be reluctant to exercise the access they enjoy to address the needs of the organization. Staff members begin to spend more and more time protecting their jobs. Directors grow increasingly frustrated that staff members aren’t getting the job done. Eventually staff find greener pastures or are dismissed.

Both groups need to change their paradigm. Board directors need to see fundraising as their job and hold each other collectively accountable for using the access they have to getting it done. Development staff need to take advantage of the access that opens up for them, but to otherwise see their job as facilitating the work of the directors and helping them to cultivate and develop the donors to whom they have access toward the highest organizational benefit. The Executive Director can and must do both.

Your comments, responses, and questions are welcomed here and by email at



Photo Credit: Grandon Harris, courtesy Bayfield Regional Conservancy

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