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Making a Killer First Impression on Donors

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Published May 12, 2014 Reading Time: 5 minutes

First impressions matter. A lot. People often come to conclusions about others within one second of meeting them. And once a first impression is made, it tends to stick, even when evidence exists to prove the contrary.

Most people know this and consider it when they know they will be applying for a job or meeting new people, but first impressions also matter for nonprofit organizations. Starting off on the right foot can be the difference between landing a valuable donor or falling off their radar. In this post, we will go over the different mediums through which an organization might make its first impression on a donor and what qualities can leave donors with a favorable attitude.

Where Are You Meeting Donors?

When we think about first impressions, we often think of two professionals meeting face-to-face and shaking hands. Although this is still an important part of fundraising, there are many other mediums through which a donor might first encounter your organization.

Most often, a donor will first come across a nonprofit in one of the following ways:

  • The organization’s website
  • An email
  • A phone call
  • Social media
  • Or the old standby, an in-person introduction

To improve the first impression donors receive, you must first think about the environment they’ll be encountering your organization. One simple way to do this is to simply ask in surveys or on your donation form where the respondent first came in contact with you. Not only will this help you know which mediums are already a first point of contact, it will help you see which are most effective in securing donations.

While there is some variation in the different ways you first encounter a donor, there are three qualities that are important to any first impression.

  1. Appearance
  2. Clarity
  3. Tone

You can remember these qualities as an acronym because your goal is to leave an impression that makes donors want to ACT . Let’s go through these factors and see why they are important and how to cultivate them in any medium.


Just like it sounds; people often make judgments instantaneously, and that doesn’t leave much time for conversation or interaction. Unfortunately, first impressions are determined by what the donor sees at first glance.

This makes it relatively simple to plan for a good impression in person. When you are meeting a potential donor, you are essentially in a job interview; if things go well, someone is going to give you money to perform some tasks. You wouldn’t go to a job interview with bed head and sandals. So if you know you will be meeting potential donors, take a few extra minutes to look smart. Posture can also have a huge impact on how others perceive you. This TED talk explains how making an adjustment to your posture can change hormone levels, making you feel more confident and look more appealing to others.

The final ingredient of an in-person first impression is a smile. No, really. Research has shown that people who are smiling are rated as more attractive than those with neutral expressions and that more attractive people are rated higher in positive traits like competence. So if you want to make yourself (and by extension your organization) more attractive to donors, smiling is an easy way to do it.

But what about the appearance of a first impression when it isn’t made in person?

When it comes to first impressions through e-mail, social media, websites, or even printed materials, your main focus is design and branding. The 2013 Burk Donor Survey reported that “57% of donors said they set not-for-profit communications aside that appear to be uninteresting on first glance.”

You want to design your donor communications to be engaging and interesting. Some elements you can experiment with are color, typography, and pictures. If you are working on a website or email, you can set up an A/B Test to see which designs receive more clicks and donations.


The next quality you should consider when preparing for first impressions is clarity. This is especially important for your website because many of the other mediums will lead back there. To communicate clearly during a first impression, you need to use language the audience understands. Donors shouldn’t need a dictionary to comprehend your mission statement.

Whether you are speaking to a donor in person, crafting an email, or writing copy for your organization’s home page, avoid jargon and industry-specific language. Donors are hesitant to make gifts if they don’t know what their money will be used for.

You should also anticipate questions and concerns from potential donors and make that information readily available. This means making your website and social media easy to navigate. According to a study by Jakob Nielsen, donors want to know about a nonprofit’s mission and goals as well as how donations are used, but this information isn’t always easy to find.

If donors can’t find these key details, they may move on to another organization. And don’t forget to make your web site mobile-friendly, because when mobile users can’t find what they need, 61% will simply leave the site. By keeping your language and your web site navigation clear and intuitive, you make it easier for donors to evaluate your organization and decide to give.


So far we’ve covered appearance (what people see during a first impression) and clarity (how you help people understand your organization) but the last quality you need to think of in a first impression is tone. Tone is how you interact, the feelings you express and evoke from others. Your tone can positive or negative, excited or annoyed, hopeful or worried. It’s the difference between saying “we can eradicate malaria within ten years!” (positive, hopeful) or saying “if we don’t act, thousands of people will die from malaria” (negative, somber). There is no one correct tone because one tone may be effective on one audience but not another. You should, however, be aware of your tone and ask if its appropriate for the situation.

In a face-to-face interaction, tone is expressed through the sound of one’s voice and the choice of words. On a website or social media page, imagery and color can also impact tone. To create an effective first impression, you can determine what tone you would like to use in this interaction. Do you want to impress upon the donor the severity of the problem? Or maybe you want to show them how people are being helped by your programs. A strong tone can move people to action, and that is exactly what you want your first impression to do.

The Fast Track to Fundraising

In a perfect world, your first meeting with a donor would convince them to donate right away. But even if that doesn’t happen, a good first impression sets you up for success in the future.

Think of your first impression as a highway entrance with a choice to go right or left. One way will get you to your destination (donation) as quickly as possible and the other way will take you further away. It will still be possible to turn around and reach your destination, but it will take a lot more time and navigation. It’s best to be prepared and get on the right path from the start.

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The Pocket Guide to Fundraising Psychology

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