The Pitch Path: An Ultimate Guide to Pitching a Major Donor
Late one night I got an email from one of our students, Daniel*: “Do you have time for a quick call?”
Daniel founded a startup in 2019 aimed at providing local investigative journalism and had been doing great work building their readership and breaking important stories. His success fueled faster growth, which brought with it more expenses. Money was tight. They needed new donors to continue their expansion, and like many nonprofit leaders, Daniel was struggling to master the art of fundraising. He was scheduled to meet a group of major donors, and was unsure whether his pitch had the right stuff. We worked on it together.
The next day I emailed him to ask how it went. He replied with a single word: “100K!”
For people who don’t know the ins and outs of fundraising, what I did to retool Daniel’s pitch can seem like magic—a mystical ability that only “natural born fundraisers” have. But fundraising is not magic. It’s a method. There is a unique system for building a great fundraising pitch that just about anyone can learn. It’s what we teach in our workshops. It’s called the Pitch Path.
(Update: We create a step-by-step video course on building a pitch available on Udemy: How to Ask for a 6-Figure Donation).
There are two things we’ve learned from coaching hundreds of nonprofit leaders with their pitch. First, Daniel’s case is not unique. Many highly skilled nonprofit leaders struggle when it comes to fundraising. For a lucky few it feels like a natural talent, but for the rest, it’s often the most intimidating, difficult, and uncomfortable part of the job.
Second, those leaders are already doing great work, they just need help communicating about it with donors. They already have great products, so to speak; they just need better packaging. That packaging comes in the form of the Pitch Path, which I’m going to explain below. Following this path will help get you to the point that raising $100k in a single day feels second nature.
It’s easy to think successful fundraising starts with a big donation. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? You make a big ask, the donor says yes, you get a big check, and then you’re free to plan the big things you’re going to do with the money, right?
Not exactly. In fact, this way of thinking gets things entirely backward.
Successful fundraising doesn’t start with a big donation, it starts with a big vision of your organization’s future—of what you’re going to be doing over the next few years.
If you don’t yet know what you’re going to do with a major donation, why would a donor feel confident funding you? Here’s an analogy. Imagine one of your donors and you need an Uber to get to a nearby town. Which would inspire more confidence:
- Option A – you open the app, pick a random address in the town, and plan to figure out where to go once you get there.
- Option B – you open the app and input a specific destination while explaining to your donor how great the destination is and what it’s going to be like when you get there?
Option B obviously inspires more confidence in your donor. A big vision is like that. It paints a clear, positive, and exciting picture of where your nonprofit will be in 2-3 years.
A big vision doesn’t need to be complicated. It’s simply knowing where your nonprofit is going in the next few years and being able to describe what that future looks like.
Avoid Poverty Mindset
There’s one major roadblock to thinking big and creating a big vision. It’s called the Poverty Mindset.
The Poverty Mindset allows short-term costs and challenges to obstruct your long-term view. You get stuck thinking about the things that are currently holding you back (your website needs a redesign, a key employee just left, your laptop is old and its battery only lasts 17 minutes) instead of looking forward to what you could accomplish if you overcame these short-term challenges.
A great example of the Poverty Mindset comes from one of our students, Jon, who took over a struggling nonprofit. As Jon walked through its offices for the first time, he noticed something strange: the office was unusually dark. Most of the lightbulbs, it seemed, had burned out. The staff explained that in order to save money they’d not been replacing burned-out bulbs. Jon immediately went out and purchased new lightbulbs with his own money. He explained to his team that while he appreciated their short-term sacrifice, they needed to think of the long-term impact it would have on their morale working in a place that quite literally got darker and darker with each passing month—not to mention the impression it would make on any donors who stopped by! To achieve their vision they needed to think bigger. They needed to focus less on what would happen over the next few months, and more on what they could achieve over the next few years.
Effective fundraising never originates from the Poverty Mindset. It always starts with thinking big. There’s no magic formula for thinking big. Start by asking yourself a few simple questions:
- What impact could your nonprofit have with double the fundraising?
- What would be possible?
- What could you change?
- How long would it take?
Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll be in a position to come up with a big vision: simply describe what the future will look like if donors partner with you: where are you going with their help, and what will it look like when you get there?
Once you have a big vision for the future, it’s time to start working on your Pitch Path.
The Pitch Path
Like it or not, most of our buying decisions in life originate with our emotions. It’s only after we’ve made the decision that we try to justify it with facts. Charitable donations are no different.
Think about a fundraising pitch you’ve responded to. Something about the particular organization or appeal strikes an emotional chord with you. Maybe it’s the mission, or the staff, or the people they help—whatever it is, that chord resonates with you until you feel motivated to donate. It’s only after that point that you backfill your reasons for doing so.
Designing a great pitch works organically with this very human process. It starts by appealing to donors’ emotions with powerful stories of your impact on people’s lives, but it also supports the motivation to donate with a clear explanation of how you are going to execute your mission.
A successful pitch cannot appeal to emotion alone; you need to build donor confidence that you can execute your proposals. If you appeal to emotion alone, some donors might respond, but most will be skeptical that you have an executable plan for getting the job done. If, on the other hand, you describe the execution alone, the donor will understand how you plan to achieve your goals, but they won’t connect with those goals on an emotional level and won’t feel motivated to support them.
One thing we’ve learned from coaching hundreds of nonprofit leaders is that most are naturally good at appealing either to emotion or to execution. The key to walking the Pitch Path with confidence is to start with your natural strength, and then refine your path further by developing either the emotion side or the execution side. To understand how this works, let’s look at the steps of the Pitch Path, which is represented by the graphic on the right.
If you look at it, you’ll notice a pattern: the Pitch Path moves back and forth between appeals to emotion on the right side and descriptions of execution on the left side. At each step of the path you’ll want to move back and forth, talking about execution to talking about emotion. This oscillating pattern becomes clearer as we go through each step of the Pitch Path.
8 Parts of the Pitch Path
Now we’ll break down the 8 steps of the Pitch Path. To help show you what they look like, we’ve included sample text from one of our students, Marcie, who is the co-founder of the Grace Center Foundation, a wonderful nonprofit based in Ethiopia.
1. The Thank You
Begin your pitch by thanking the donor. If it’s a potential donor you want to thank them for taking the time to meet with you. If it’s an existing donor, thank them for their total giving. It’s a good reminder for you and for them of how much you have partnered together in the past.
This needs to be a heartfelt thank you. Your donor has invested tens of thousands of dollars into your organization, and it really wouldn’t be possible without them.
Here’s a template for the thank you:
“Hi Sarah, thank you for taking the time to meet with me. It’s always so nice to get to sit down and speak with you. You’ve been a great partner with [organization name] these past X years. In fact, you’ve given over $N, and without your partnership, we wouldn’t be where we are today. So thank you for your generosity.”
After you thank the donor, pause for a moment. The pause is to make sure the donor has time to appreciate the thank you and how much their partnership means to your organization before you more to the next section.
2. The Mission
This is where you tell the donor what your organization does. Most major donors give to many organizations in the same nonprofit sector because they care passionately about a particular issue. By reminding them of your mission and why your organization exists, you are putting your entire pitch in perspective: why your organization’s work matters to the issues they care about and what the ultimate goal is.
It’s important that you describe what your organization does in everyday language that’s simple, non-technical, and concise. As a rough guide, think of how would you describe your organization to a friend over coffee.
Here’s an example from Marcie’s pitch:
“The Grace Center was founded with one mission: to help children and families in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. We know poverty and hardship doesn’t get solved with one-sized fits all approach, that’s why we provide a holistic approach to helping mothers and children at our center. We do this with our free infant daycare, school scholarships and support, daily meals, and job training.”
3. The Need
At this stage in the Pitch Path you will describe the important needs that your organization fills in a concrete way that donors will remember and will inspire them to give. Your goal is to create an emotional connection with donors using a story about why you exist and what kind of people you help. Typically, that story takes one of two forms:
An origin story: this tells the story of why your organization was founded and what the need was. This story can take many forms, but what’s key is to convey the passion and the idea of why people put in the effort to get this organization off the ground. Origin stories have their own natural momentum—especially for organizations that have been around for a while. Your organization’s initial success was likely inspired by its origin story—something that got people excited to give and commit to this work.
In the example from the Grace Center, Marcie could tell the story about her experience as a 19-year-old teaching English in Ethiopia, seeing firsthand the need for infant childcare, and how it led her to co-found the organization.
- A need story: you tell the story of someone in need whom you have helped. As a general rule, the more recent the story, the better. What’s most important, though, is to tell the story in a memorable way. Think about some vivid details that you can work in to etch the story in donors’ minds.
In Marcie’s case, she could tell the story of a newborn baby who was abandoned in a field, and later found by a farmer who brought him to the Grace Center where they provided medical care and nursed him back to health.
You can think of the need stage as giving a human face to your mission. In the mission step of the Pitch Path, you say what your organization does; in the need stage, you show it. You are taking the more abstract description from the mission stage and describing its concrete human dimensions in a way people will remember.
4. The Plans for Today
Now that donors understand and feel an emotional connection to the needs your organization fills, it’s time to describe what you’re working on right now, along with some concrete accomplishments, and proof of what you’re doing.
The goal of this stage is to build donor confidence by describing how you are currently executing the mission in order to fill the need. You’re showing that you are the best at addressing the need by displaying your domain expertise.
At this stage, it’s okay to nerd out for 30 seconds and explain something in detail, but you want to say just enough to build confidence in your competence. Saying too little can leave your donors unsure of your ability to execute; saying too much can leave them feeling bored or stupid.
A great trick for finding the right balance is using what Malcolm Gladwell calls “candy”: tidbits of information so interesting that people will want to share them with others. Major donors often talk about their philanthropic decisions with other people—usually spouses, advisers, or people they trust. When you give them an interesting tidbit in a memorable wrapper, you give them something they can easily share with others. Here’s an example:
“All around the world, 2020 has been a year of adapting to new challenges. When Covid shut down Bahir Dar, we knew that more families than ever would need daily meals. In Ethiopia, there’s no Walmart down the street for stocking up on supplies. Most people only have enough food for one or two days. In response, we revamped our meals program so we could provide food and meal pick-up in a socially-distanced manner. Some of the mothers at the Center even worked on sewing face masks for the staff and marking off 6 ft squares for people to wait in line.
“And food wasn’t the only thing in short supply. The city’s water had been constantly turned on and off all year. To meet the demand for clean water, our team began digging a well to provide a consistent supply of water to our families and the surrounding community. Progress on the well was halted by the lockdown. In response, we worked with the local government and others to get permission to continue our work and complete the well. Over 2,000 people now have a reliable source of water thanks to your support and our relentless team, who pushed through every obstacle they faced.”
5. The Impact
Now that donors have heard your mission, feel the need, and know what you are working on today, it’s time to show the impact of your work. This is a great place to incorporate a story of success by describing an individual or group that has been helped by the projects described in the previous stage.
Here’s an example:
“The well effort has been amazing. In fact, one family sat down and told me what it meant for them. Last year at this time, their 13-year-old daughter would carry water almost half a mile so they could have clean water for her little sister. Now with a clean well 100 yards from their home that same daughter is in school. Here’s a picture of her on her second day of school. She still is responsible for bringing the families water, but now it takes 15 minutes instead of 3 hours. There are dozens of stories just like this. This is the impact of what we do.”
When telling a story here you want to provide vivid details that make donors feel like they are right there with you witnessing firsthand the impact of your work. To illustrate this point, consider how the following two stories impact you:
Story 1: “Nyala would get the water every day for her family and walk 2 miles each day. She carried two buckets.”
Story 2: “Each day Nyala would wake up before sunrise, pick up her two red sun-bleached buckets, and begin walking the half-mile on her first of many trips for water.”
A good rule to follow comes from the award-winning storyteller Matthew Dicks in his book Storyworthy: “Make sure that every moment of your story has a location attached.”
Once you have talked about the impact of your work, you are ready to move to what the future holds.
6. The Plans for the Future
This stage lays out what you want to accomplish as an organization in the next 1 to 3 years. It aims at describing 2-4 big goals or big areas you are working in.
Your goals here are twofold: (1) To build confidence that you’ve thought about the future and have a plan to continue the impact of your work; (2) to give donors one or two memorable initiatives that they can talk about in their conversations with other people.
Here’s an example:
“Because of this impact, we will expand next year and have three big goals for the next two years. Goal #1, Goal #2, and Goal #3”
What you want to convey here is a big picture of what you will be doing over this time. Depending on what that is, this could be a good place to work in some interesting facts or “candy” that we mentioned under step 4 The Plans for Today.
7. The Hope
Once you have laid out your plans for the future, you’ll be heading into your close and want to end your Pitch Path on a high note.
Think positive and talk positive: tell the donors how the world is going to be better because they and your nonprofit are partnering together to change the future. Here’s where you can work in a short hopeful story in which you describe the possibilities that will become realities with your organization’s success. You want to paint the picture of how that success could impact one individual or a group of individuals.
One way of painting this picture takes a martini-glass approach: start with the general, zoom in on one specific person, then zoom back out to the general. For example, Marcie could finish telling the story about the child that was abandoned and rescued.
“While this year has not gone as planned, over and over I’m amazed to see how much God works and heals the children brought into the Grace Center. When that little baby was brought in by the farmer, we didn’t know if he’d survive the night. But look at him now [shows a picture of health 6-month-old]. His wounds are healed, and he’s a happy little boy. But what’s even more exciting to think about is how over the next few months we will work to match him with an Ethiopian family to be adopted. That little baby has hope, and will have a wonderful family and a bright future because of donors like you.”
8. The Ask
This is where you ask for the donation. There are two ways to approach the ask. For renewing an existing donor, you should ask for a specific amount, for example:
“That why I’m asking you to continue your partnership with us to make this great work happen with a donation of $N.”
For a new donor—or any case in which you don’t know how much to ask for—you can use a range. We call this the Elevator Close and have a great video and sample script that you can access below.
Once you ask for the donation, stop talking. Don’t talk. Just wait. Sometimes this will be painful, but it’s important that you remain silent and wait for the donor to speak first.
Writing your Pitch Path
Now that you know the key steps of creating a great donor pitch, here’s how we’d recommend creating your own Pitch Path.
- Take a few minutes and write a couple of bullet points down for each of the sections.
- Open up a Word Doc or Google doc and use your computer’s dictation software (hit “fn” key twice on a Mac) and just talk through your bullet point to create your first draft. This makes your draft much more conversational—a truer reflection of how you naturally speak.
- Once you’ve dictated your first draft, take a break. Come back to your pitch a little later and then review and edit it. Watch for places where you are excited reading it or you lean in wanting to know more. That’s usually a sign that it’s connecting with you and that passion will come out in your pitch.
- Your goal is to write a 750-900 words pitch that takes about 7-8 minutes to deliver.
- At this phase in our workshop, we would have you meet with a pitch coach to strengthen the language in your pitch. During our coaching sessions, we listen to your pitch from a major donors perspective and give you specific one-on-one feedback on how to improve any areas of weakness.
- When you have a draft that you feel works, you can practice your delivery and memorize the specific words and emotions you want to convey. A great way to practice is to record yourself on your phone giving the pitch and then review it. We all hate seeing ourselves on video, but it helps you improve quickly.
Once you’ve drafted your pitch and memorized it, you can start using it in formal donor meetings and other less formal contexts such as media interviews, conversations with board members, or even casual conversations.
What’s great about our Pitch Path structure is it’s modular: you don’t have to use the whole thing; you can instead use smaller sections of it as needed. If someone sitting next to you on a plane asks what you do, you can immediately launch into your Mission and Need story. If a donor casually asks you for a short update on what’s happened this year, you can rehearse your plans for today and tell your impact story.
Each time you repeat your pitch in formal and informal settings it becomes more and more a part of your thinking and how you approach your work. That big vision of what you dream of accomplishing becomes more and more attainable as you partner with donors to make it happen and tell the story of the work you do right now.
And there’s another key benefit we hear about over and over from nonprofit leaders who develop a clear Pitch Path: peace of mind—the confidence that comes from knowing exactly what you are going to say to a donor, the confidence of knowing you can share your big vision, make an emotional connection with your stories, and provide concrete details about how you’ll execute your plans and get the job done.
Take 10 minutes right now and start writing your own Pitch Path.
- What’s your big vision for the future of your nonprofit? How will you tell the story of the people you impact?
- How will the future be different because you, your team, and your donors have partnered together to make the world a better place?
If you are interested in learning more:
We create a step-by-step video course on building a pitch available on Udemy: How to Ask for a 6-Figure Donation).
For more information on our other fundraising training visit our website at 7FigureFundraising.com
*Students name has been changed