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Knapp’s Relational Model: The Key to Raising More Major (and Planned) Gifts

How does your organization currently raise major gifts? Do you go out to lunch with key prospects? Are you wealth-screening your database and then engaging with those who have the highest “score?”

How are successful and growing nonprofits raising major gifts? If they rely solely on wealth screening and occasional one-to-one meetings they’ll either get lucky or be wrong. Which is unfortunate, because one thing you learn quickly about our sector is that there is a general lack of resources; time, budget, and staff to name a few. Most fundraisers can’t afford to travel and meet the wrong prospect — it’s simply too expensive.

Regardless of what tactic you use to prospect, most everyone agrees that raising major gifts (and planned gifts too) is relationship-driven. What makes this seemingly obvious observation complex is that gift officers and fundraisers who facilitate raising major gifts need to build a relationship between their organization and their prospect, not between themselves and the prospect. This subtle distinction is often the cause friction and anxiety at many nonprofits.

You might think of the Fundraising Report Card® blog as being solely focused on data and metrics, but over the next few weeks we’ll be discussing relationship building and major gifts. We’ll approach these topics with research and share only information that is validated by data. If your organization aspires to raise more major or planned gifts, you’ll want to make sure you’re subscribed to get email updates. This will be a three part series.

Let’s dive in.

Knapp’s Relational Model

Relationships are tricky. They’re also scientific. Many smart people have dedicated their lives to researching and understanding why human beings interact with one another. One such researcher, Dr. Mark Knapp, has provided incredible insight into the reasons why (and how) humans build relationships. Dr. Knapp is the author of Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction and, Interpersonal Communication and Human Relationships, among others. His work is world-renowned, revolutionary, and practical.

Once you learn Knapp’s relational model, it becomes clear that it should be the baseline for how organizations raise major gifts. The model, a ten step process for relationship development, is broken into two phases — coming together and coming apart. The steps described in the model should be conducted one at a time and in consecutive sequence to make sure they are effective. It’s also important to note and understand that the steps describe what seems to happen and not necessarily what should happen.

The 5 steps of coming together are:

  1. Initiating
  2. Experimenting
  3. Intensifying
  4. Integrating
  5. Bonding

For part one of our three part series on raising major gifts, we’ll walk through each of these five steps. Next week we’ll discuss the implications each have with regard to your constituents, and finally, during week three we’ll describe specific tactics you can use to facilitate moving supporters through each of the five steps.

Raising major gifts, and securing planned gifts can be greatly aided by following Knapp’s relational model. The challenges we’ll face are plenty, and we’ll describe them below, but bear in mind that as a fundraiser one of your primary responsibilities is simply facilitating a supporter’s experience through this process.


Relationships have to start somewhere, and that “somewhere” has a distinct name in Knapp’s relational model — initiation.

Knapp’s research suggests that the initiation stage lasts a mere 15 seconds. The old adage “dress to impress” has never been more true. Old-school sales training preaches the importance of meeting a prospect in your finest suit and tie. Does Knapp’s research back that up?

First impressions are important, and wearing nice clothing can potentially play a role in that, but why is it so important? Knapp’s research shows that during the initiation step, individuals strive to remove uncertainty from a situation. By reducing uncertainty we become more relaxed and comfortable. When we are relaxed and comfortable we’re open to sharing more information about ourselves.

Does appearing clean, responsible, and not disheveled help enable this? Most likely. Physical, and more frequently digital, appearance play a role in this stage of relationship building, and every prospect needs to be considered a unique case. When engaging with anyone on behalf of your organization it is best to appear disarming and friendly.

If you’re in Silicon Valley raising funds from local venture capitalists you may want to wear a t-shirt and jeans — that will help your prospect reduce uncertainty, “Oh, she’s one of us.” But, if you’re in New York City you may want to consider your nicest suit.

The initiation step happens both physically when you meet in-person with a supporter, and digitally when your supporter engages with you or your organization online. This means that copywriting and design also play a role in the initiation phase. Your organization has 15 seconds to make a positive first impression. It’s also helpful if your own tone and demeanor match the “brand” of your organization. This helps your constituents feel continuity and integrity in the organization’s image and mission.


After initial first impressions have been made, individuals generally begin to “experiment” with one another. The experimentation stage of Knapp’s relational model describes the process of self-disclosure, also known as “small talk.”

We’ve all experienced it — you meet someone new and after introducing yourself you begin to discuss the weather or current events. This back and forth conversation, ebbing and flowing from yesterday’s high temperature to weekend plans to mutual interests, is part of the experimentation phase. Most of the time your conversation swiftly ends after discussing how warm it’s been recently, but on occasion you may genuinely hit it off with the other person and the conversation keeps going.

It’s important to note that Knapp’s research has found that most all relationships never make it past this stage. If two parties cannot find alignment during this mutual self-disclosure process then they will fade away. If, on the other hand they do find areas of common interest or experience they may come closer together.

Essentially, after making initial conscious and subconscious judgements of another person, we then attempt to identify if our values and experiences are aligned. If they are, great! If they aren’t, we move on.

How does this apply to developing a relationship between an individual and organization? It’s challenging to execute, but relatively simple to comprehend. We need to learn if a supporter shares a common interest in our organization’s mission and vision. As a representative of your organization, can you share distinct examples and stories of the organization’s mission at work? Does the person you are engaging with show alignment? Can they share their own stories and experiences that align with the mission? If the answer is yes, then the relationship has a chance of making it to the next step.


After small talk comes more intimate conversation. During the intensifying step of the coming together process the two parties involved dive deeper into experimentation and self-disclosure. Whereas prior discussion related to relatively high-level, non-personal experiences and emotions, the intensifying stage begins the process of sharing more personal details.

During this step of relational development both parties strive to identify if there is mutual affection and attachment. Do we both share the same interests, and have our experiences shaped us similarly?

It’s also during the intensifying stage that Knapp found individuals secretly “testing” one another to confirm that they should intensify the relationship. (Baxter, L. A., & Wilmot, W. W. (1984). Secret tests. Human Communication Research, 11, 171–201.) There are 5 distinct “tests:”

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