Q: What’s the Difference Between a Donor and a Sponsor?

Q: What’s the Difference Between a Donor and a Sponsor?


1 February 2022


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


A: A donor continues to give when the event is cancelled.


I’m noticing a number of Board members recently who have seriously curbed their giving in 2020 and 2021 or who have stopped giving at all. When I’ve asked about it, one of the answers I get has been that they give through their business – that their business is a sponsor of this or that event – and that the events they were sponsoring were cancelled for 2020 and 2021.

This pattern reveals an important misunderstanding in our fundraising programs. We want Board members to give because they believe in the mission and want to support it. That essential interest – and commitment – is paramount in a Board member.

If a Board member chooses to give through their business (or family foundation) instead of through their personal checkbook, that’s great. And assuming that their gift is large enough to qualify, it’s also great if they wish to have their business recognized as a sponsor of one of the events.

But that’s about recognition. Not about the gift itself. We want Board members to give because they believe in the mission. When that’s true, their giving continues even when the event gets cancelled. They are donors.

Why they give and how they get recognized are two different things.


BTW – in at least a couple of situations, the Board members were not even solicited. The event cancellation was done on the fly and event sponsors were not solicited. Board member sponsors were forgotten in the process. Two things wrong here: Board members should NEVER be forgotten, and event sponsors should be solicited immediately after events, as opposed to immediately before. (See also: The Secret to Renewing Event Sponsors – Revealed!)


I think there are several things we can do to reinforce this paradigm. (Or change it if you are one of the organizations having trouble.)

First, we can ask Board members to make their giving intentions known early in the year. Like before March 1 for example. This practice will have multiple benefits, including creating an opportunity to negotiate their recognition. (See also: Board Campaign Mechanics)

For example, a Board member might elect to give $2,500 by making monthly $250 payments through their business beginning in March. And they might tell you that they want $1,000 to renew their Donor Circle membership, $1,000 to have their business recognized as a Salamander Festival sponsor, and $500 for Stewardship Endowment.

Second, we can make it clear that ALL Board members are explicitly invited to ALL organizational events regardless of whether they are sponsor or not. We want Board members to be there to work! We don’t ask staff members to pay to work at the event. We shouldn’t ask Board members to pay either. But we should expect them to work.

Again – how they are recognized for their giving is a separate issue.

And third, we can account for the event without including Board member sponsorships. This means that when you add up the event’s revenue, you do not include revenue that came from Board members.

Board member Carol’s ABC Consultants might be recognized at the event as a sponsor, but the $1,000 she paid for the recognition counts as a Board gift and not as event revenue.

In this way, it is clear to everyone that Carol’s gift should still be expected, even if the event is cancelled.

Because she’s giving in support of the mission. Because she’s a donor.

Wouldn’t have it any other way.


Cheers, and Have a great week!




Photo by extravaganza396 courtesy Pixabay


PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.



Share this!
  • Jill Boullion
    Posted at 09:57h, 01 February

    Sally, A question about your DAF. So many of the DAF donations we receive only include a donor name, and Fidelity (Vanguard, whoever) will not give us any contact information for the donor. Did that organization know you in other ways before you donated?

    • Sally Cross
      Posted at 11:22h, 01 February

      Jill, that’s interesting to hear, and not my experience at the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley. We receive quite a few DAF gifts, as well as sponsor them, and in the majority of cases, we are provided the advisors name and address. Our grants are sent with a letter that encourages acknowledgments be sent either to us or directly to the advisor (if they so choose). Those that we do receive are always forwarded on to the donor. In this case, it is a local organization and I am known to them (or so I thought!).

  • David Lillard
    Posted at 09:04h, 01 February

    The sponsor v. donor issue can become a total mess when someone is recruited to the board because their company is a sponsor, like a brand manager for an outdoor clothing company. That person might be the world’s best partner for an event sponsor and a really wonderful person; but that doesn’t mean they are thinking like a board member. If they resign from the board when they get a new job, it’s clear what the relationship was about.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 09:45h, 01 February

      Right! So the more important question relates to how that Board member was recruited in the first place. Ideally, s/he would have been identified primarily because of her interest in and commitment to the mission. And ideally, that interest and commitment would have already resulted in financial support. In other words, s/he would already be a donor. And her giving would continue even if the event gets cancelled.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • sallyjcross
    Posted at 07:36h, 01 February

    HI David, please add “donor advised funds” to the list of mechanisms a board member can give from. Small point, but I still see way too many nonprofits treat DAF grants as not requiring even the most basic donor stewardship. As an example, last year I gave a gift from my DAF (ok, technically, I recommended a grant to the community foundation sponsor) to a local organization (not a land trust). Not only have I received no thank you of any kind, but in January received an email from them summarizing my 2021 support as $0.00. Not sure they’ll be on my list any longer. Sorry for the rant….

    • David Allen
      Posted at 09:29h, 01 February

      Great points! DAF grants need to be included in the list of ways a Board member can give. So, too, IRA distributions.

      The technicality you reference is important, and it reveals another common problem. Those end-of-year letters are often generated by Finance. While they may be technically correct, they sort of miss the point. The term of art is “soft credit.” The gift you directed is not tax deductible, but it still deserves a soft credit mention in the end-of-year letter.

      Thank you for your comment!