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Angel Donors Get Their Wings
Philanthropic Trends

Michelle Cramer, CFRE, President & CEO


It happened again just last week: one of our nonprofit Executive Directors called to tell me that they had received a gift of $500,000 to their campaign from an unexpected donor.

“We barely knew this person, and out of the blue, they called to learn more about our project,” she said, bursting with excitement. “And then today, they called me and said they wanted to give $500,000! He just asked for us to keep the gift anonymous.”

Was I shocked? No. I have seen these kinds of donors appear in almost every campaign for three decades, and I call them “Angel Donors.” They are people who have perhaps been watching you over the years, volunteering, or just want to make an incredible impact on your organization. They stun staff and volunteers with their generosity and leave everyone in awe.

What makes an angel donor?

Over the years, I have noticed some typical characteristics among angel donors:

  • They tend to not be attention-seekers, preferring to fly under the radar. Because of this, they often ask to remain anonymous.
  • Sometimes they work behind the scenes at an organization, serving on a committee or volunteering. They might even be an employee.
  • They might have a close connection with the nonprofit leader, a volunteer, a staff member, or someone who has benefited from the organization’s services.
  • They love knowing their gift is going to make a significant impact on the organization and even inspire others to give.

When you need them most, these donors appear to answer your prayers!

How can you “open the door” for an angel donor to swoop in?

An angel donor’s appearance might seem like a lucky break. But with faith, hard work, and an open heart, your organization can make a miracle happen! Even the Bible says:

“Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.”

Hebrews 13:2

This is definitely true of angel donors. If someone new asks to learn more about your organization, tell your story without asking them to donate. Just let your passion for your mission shine through as you answer their questions. Angels might also be hiding among your current donors, right now. That’s why it’s important to thank them consistently and show them how they have impacted their community through storytelling, photos, and videos.

Don’t be afraid to dream big and share your ambitions with others. Angel donors are usually inspired by lofty goals. If you share your transformational vision, you could find someone with the passion and resources to bring that vision to life.

How do you thank angel donors?

This is the toughest part about getting a gift from an angel donor: recognizing it without letting people know who gave it. If your angel donor already has a relationship with your organization, it is easier. After all, a current donor, volunteer, or employee can attend public campaign events without starting rumors. But for an angel donor who came out of nowhere, it’s better to hold a private celebration with only a small select group of organization leaders who can keep a secret.

If this donor doesn’t want their name on a plaque, they can always ask that their gift be named in someone else’s honor. Here are just a few examples:

  • An angel donor to a humane society could name a room for their beloved childhood pet.
  • An angel donor to a school might honor the teacher who inspired them.
  • An angel donor to a church could name a conference room after a beloved retired pastor.

However if your donor does not want any naming rights, recognition, or celebration at all, you must honor their wishes (which can be difficult when you are overwhelmed with gratitude!).

There is a potential downside to announcing a large gift: you might see the flow of smaller donations slow down. To prevent this, you can ask your angel donor to frame their contribution as a matching gift during the public phase of the campaign. That way your broad base of donors can make twice the impact with every dollar they give! You can also ask your angel donor to tell the story of why they made their gift. Sharing this story—without sharing their identity—can inspire others.


During this season of giving, I want to thank all the angel donors out there. Your generosity has changed lives and made a difference in the world. You make me believe in miracles, and you’ve definitely earned your wings!

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