This is the second of eight chapters on building donor loyalty. The Table of Contents below will take you to additional chapters.

Table of Contents

Chapter 2

A Strategy for Cultivating
Relationships with Donors

We cultivate relationships with donors in order to bring them closer to an organization and strengthen their connection with that organization.  There are many tools and techniques for cultivating donors, but before you can cultivate donors, you have to get them. So, a few words on donor acquisition need to preface our discussion of donor cultivation.

Donors almost invariably fall into one of two groups:

  • Those whose lives have been touched by the organization. Hospitals always put former patients high on their list of potential donors. Schools and universities have entire departments devoted to alumni relations. At the Cleveland Orchestra, we collected the names and addresses of everyone we could who purchased tickets.
  • Those not personally touched by the organization, but who are influenced and impressed by its work or its leadership.

Individual donors can fit easily into either of these categories. Foundations and corporations fall almost exclusively into the second group. However, it is possible that the people either recommending or approving grants and contributions may have been personally touched by the organization.

Every organization should have a database of users to prospect for donors. Even if the organization serves a clientele unlikely to be able to make gifts, those clients may lead to previously untapped sources. One of the first organizations I ever worked with was Big Brothers of Greater Cleveland, which at the time served more than 500 boys who did not have fathers at home. The mothers weren’t able to give much money, but a little research showed that 10% of them worked at a utility company. When we pointed this out in our solicitation of the utility and included endorsements from some of the employee-mothers, we received gifts in excess of the company’s usual. So, when it comes to finding donors: prospect, prospect, prospect and look for connections.

Now, on to donor cultivation. Fund-raising has many engaging and inspiring sayings. Three that give insight into donor cultivation are:

  • People give to people.
  • You don’t raise funds; you raise friends.
  • Fund-raising can be summed up in just three words – relationships, relationships, relationships.

At its heart, donor cultivation is about an organization’s staff and leadership developing relationships with those capable of giving support and making them friends of the organization.

I define donor cultivation as an organization-wide strategy and process to learn more about each donor’s interests, desired professional and social contacts, lifestyle, and philanthropic desires so that we can better initiate and respond to contact with a donor in order to develop a stronger relationship with that donor.

I can’t stress enough how important this definition is – how important it is to the future of an organization’s fund-raising efforts. Every successful fund-raising operation cultivates its donors – builds relationships with them. The most successful do it constantly and systematically.

Let’s parse this 48-word statement and examine its key components. Again, the definition, this time with its key components in bold type:

Donor cultivation is an organization-wide strategy and process to learn more about each donor’s interests, desired professional and social contacts, lifestyle, and philanthropic desires so that we can better initiate and respond to contact with a donor in order to develop a stronger relationship with that donor.

Organization-Wide

To be successful, donor cultivation must be embraced by the entire organization. It is not just a tool to be used by the development department. In order for an organization to cultivate its donors successfully, and grow more and larger gifts, it must become donor centric. It takes the commitment and involvement of an entire organization to cultivate successfully donors.

Donor Interests

The things people are interested in are important indicators of how and to what they will give.  How well do you know your larger donors? Do you know enough about each to conduct an engaging conversation about something other than your organization?  There are many bits and pieces of information you should be capturing about them.

  • How they earn their living
  • What they do for pleasure
  • What clubs they belong to
  • Who their friends are
  • What authors or subjects they read
  • Where they were born
  • Where their children go to school
  • Where they went to school

These are just a few possibilities. But I guarantee if you had this information at your fingertips each time you spoke to or contacted a donor, your connection with that donor would be stronger, your relationship greater, and the amount that donor would give to your organization would be larger.

Desired Professional and Social Contacts

Nearly everyone has professional and social pursuits they wish to further. When it comes to donors capable of making large gifts, do you know what business introductions they would like to have and whom they would like to meet socially?

Lifestyle

How people live can tell you a great deal about how to approach them for gifts. What do you know about the lifestyle of each of your donors?  Does he or she:

  • Inhabit a house, condo, or apartment?
  • Have more than one home?
  • Prefer to dine in or eat out?
  • Give parties and receptions?
  • Own a boat?

Once again, these are only some of the data you may want to consider collecting about donors. But imagine what you could do if you had it at your fingertips.

Philanthropic Desires

How about some donor knowledge that would seem obvious – their philanthropic involvement? Different people give to different organizations for different reasons. Keeping in mind the old 80/20 rule, that 80% of your money will come from 20% of your donors, do you have answers to each of the following for the top 20% of your donors?

  • Why each gives to your organization
  • How each prefers to make a gift
  • What other organizations each gives to
  • How each wants to be recognized and thanked
  • What causes matter most to each

Initiate and Respond to Contact

Our sixth key component is initiating and responding to donor contact.  You need to have contact with donors at times other than during a campaign. Organizations that focus their donor contact on periods of donor solicitation are transaction oriented. They’re like the son or daughter away at college who only calls home to ask for money. Donor dialog that begins and ends with a request for a gift is a guarantee of fewer and smaller gifts. Your organization must:

  • Be willing and able to initiate conversations with donors and have a plan to do so
  • Treat any contact with a donor as the most important thing happening to the organization at that moment
  • Have a plan for responding to donor requests quickly and effectively

Relationship

The last key component is relationship. Relationship is connection. We cultivate donors in order to strengthen the connection they have with our organization. The stronger that connection is, the deeper the relationship. The deeper the relationship a donor has with an organization, the more likely that donor is to make larger and more frequent gifts.

In a nutshell, Donor Cultivation is about everybody in an organization working to build the organization’s relationship with each donor in the knowledge that a better relationship will result in more frequent and larger gifts.

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