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

Table of Contents

Chapter 5

Tactics for Cultivating Relationships with Donors

You’ve recognized the importance of building donor loyalty through the strategy of donor cultivation. You’ve identified the data needed to build the donor profiles necessary to donor cultivation, and your organization is ready to commit to developing a donor centric culture. It’s time to get down to the brass tacks of implementing a donor cultivation strategy.

A strategy is a plan for what we want to accomplish. Tactics are how we go about doing it. Strategy is grand design. Tactics are life in the trenches. To implement our strategy of building donor relationships and loyalty, let’s take a look at seven basic techniques of donor cultivation. For each technique, I’ll be giving examples of specific tactics you can use. The seven are:

  1. Bring donors to the organization.
  2. Go out to meet donors.
  3. Keep in touch with donors.
  4. Look for ways to help donors, i.e., facilitating business & social contacts
  5. Bring donors closer. Find ways to connect them with program & other staff.
  6. Always thank donors quickly and accurately for their generosity.
  7. Recognize donors in ways that they approve of.

Site Visits

There is no better way to expose donors to the good works your organization does than by having them visit your facilities, or than by taking them to another location to see the results of a project or program of your organization. We call these events site visits and when donors are on site:

  1. You have their undivided attention.
  2. They can be shown exactly how contributions are being used.
  3. You can introduce them to key staff.
  4. They can meet individuals benefiting from the organization.
  5. They ask questions, the answers to which may allow for additional contact.
  6. They acquire information that they will share with others.
  7. They end up feeling good about being a donor.

Another way to bring donors to your organization is to comp them to events or performances you host. This is easy to do if you are an arts or education organization. However, other organizations also have events. There is always the annual meeting. Make sure donors receive an invitation and make it a “special” invite.

Look through the organization calendar and see if there aren’t events that you may think of as internal or professional, but to which donors could be invited. If your organization does have performances, lectures, seminars, etc., from which you derive earned income, always be ready to invite donors as your guests. Yes, the kind of donors we are talking about here can afford to buy tickets. But if they aren’t, make sure you invite them to a few events each year.

No matter what the event, give attending donors something extra—a reception to meet the speaker, performer, or artist for example.

Going Where the Donors Are

It’s not always possible to bring donors to your organization in order to get face time with them. So, does that mean you give up on your efforts to have in-person communication with donors too busy to commit to visiting? Not by a long shot. Take the initiative and make a site visit of your own—to a donor’s site. Schedule an appointment to pay a call on a donor you wish to cultivate, and have a reason for that call. Share information on new projects. Bring along a staff person you would like the donor to meet.

Maybe best of all, set up an appointment with the donor to ask the donor’s advice about something. Asking someone for help is the most flattering thing you can do. There are few things that will draw donors closer to an organization on a professional level than having the organization turn to them for their knowledge and expertise. Just think, there you are asking for something, and it isn’t money.

Another thing you can do is find out what philanthropic, professional, or other events your donor will be attending, and then attend them yourself. Does your donor ever speak locally? If so, and if it is at all possible, be in attendance. The donor will be flattered that you came and you’ll learn more about him or her.

A development officer who rarely leaves his or her organization’s headquarters is like a salesperson who sits by the phone waiting for orders to come in. When a campaign is on, you don’t wait for people to reach for their checkbooks and give you money. Well, you can’t cultivate donors that way either. You have to make contact with them, and no contact is better than face-to-face, one-on-one, and more times than not, the only way you can get it is to go looking for it.

Keeping in Touch with Donors

Even if you successfully get donors to make site visits and are able to reach out to them as described above, it is not enough. You need to do more to keep in touch. After all, how many times a year will a donor be willing to come to the organization, or how frequently can you call for an appointment without becoming a pest? Besides, there are other ways to communicate and express interest in donors. Let’s begin by looking at communication that is more about the donor than the organization.

Send birthday and other appropriate greeting cards. Send get-well cards and even flowers to a donor in the hospital. Keep your eye open for items about donors in newspapers. When you see one, clip it and send it along with a “congratulations” note to the donor.

Now let’s take a look at some more formal communication media. You should have a regular newsletter that goes out to donors. By regular, I mean at least every other month. Actually, I would recommend monthly. The newsletter can be sent as paper or email. The latter will cost far less and make a more frequent schedule easier to maintain, but be prepared to get paper into the hands of those who do not want to receive email. I would expect that number to be very small and shrinking almost daily. The newsletter should be aimed at the donor community, rather than something that goes to everybody from clients to employees.

Include donors on your press list and make sure they get copies of every press release you send out. Think email again.

Send photographs of things the organization is doing. Again email is easier, quicker, and far less expensive.

And finally, send something special that reflects well on the organization. If you’re a social service organization and your clients make crafts, how about sending something made by a client? Share with donors the thank-you notes you receive. Have clients of the organization write to a donor explaining the difference the organization has made in their lives.

Being of Service to Donors

As a development officer in a nonprofit organization you are well positioned to facilitate business and social contacts your donors may wish to make. Once, I had a family foundation that was making substantial gifts, and a donor who was head of a large financial house. I knew the broker-donor wanted to talk about handling the Foundation’s investments, so I put them together. The result was two happy donors and my employer, the Cleveland Orchestra, reaped the benefit of being the matchmaker.

Inviting a donor to a party or event hosted for you by those who are more socially or professionally prominent is a good way to help that donor up the success ladder. Conversely, inviting prominent members of your community to a party hosted for you by a donor who is trying to increase his or her social or professional standing can work just as well.

What is important here is to realize that you or your executive director or board chair may be in a position to provide a donor with an opportunity a donor is likely to remember the next time you ask for a gift and every time thereafter.

Bringing Donors Closer to the Organization

One of the best ways to cultivate a relationship with a donor and strengthen that donor’s loyalty to an organization is to foster the donor’s connection with key staff. Obviously, executive directors and other very senior staff are naturals for this. But there are other approaches.

For one thing, you can introduce donors to staff members with whom they share interests. Another possibility is to invite donors to lunch with senior program staff. The donors get to hear the inside scoop on what the organization is doing, and staff develops an appreciation for the donors. That’s a win/win situation in my book.

After you have said your thank-you for a gift, don’t drop the ball on continuing to show the organization’s appreciation. Wait a while and then have a program staff member write to a donor describing how a specific contribution made by the donor or how the total contributions received in a recent campaign have made it possible to create, improve, increase, etc. a program. Have it come from someone who is putting the gift to its actual intended use, rather than you or even the executive director or board chair. Coming from the “frontlines,” it will be more real.

Contact by staff other than the development office can make donors feel much more a part of an organization. It also associates more faces and names with a donor’s gift. And remember, one of our truisms of donor loyalty is that people give to people. However, make sure the development office acts as a clearinghouse for this, and knows when other staff contact whom and for what reason. Remember, requests for funding need to go through the development office.

Being Quick and Genuine with Your Thanks

Thanking donors seems like something so basic that we shouldn’t even have to talk about it. But more mistakes, with more devastating results for donor loyalty, are made in the thanking of donors than anyplace else. So, let’s go over six rules for saying “thank you” that are absolutely essential.

  1. Thank a donor immediately. Send out a thank-you note for a gift no later than the day after the gift is received. Nothing is more important than a prompt thank-you.
  2. Be humble. Don’t act as if or communicate the thought that you were expecting the gift as something that was the donor’s responsibility to do.
  3. Praise the donor’s generosity. Do not stint. Let the donor know how important the gift is.
  4. Praise your donor’s leadership. Anyone who gives is a leader and should be treated as such, and call attention to the fact that their gift will influence others to give.
  5. Thank donors for past support. When you receive today’s gift remind the donor how appreciative you are of past support, but do not talk about future support. Do not say thanks out of one side of your mouth and hint at future requests out of the other.
  6. And finally, never let a hint of disappointment show. Never, ever show a lack of gratitude for a gift, whatever its size.

There are two things that must be remembered about saying thanks. Donors expect it, and they deserve it.

Recognizing Donors Appropriately

Thanking donors is a private act. It is between the donor and the organization.  Recognizing donors is public, and because it is public you need to be absolutely sure you adhere to a donor’s wishes when you do it.

Obviously, you don’t publicly recognize a donor who has requested anonymity. But just how publicly does the donor want to be recognized? Does he wants his name ballyhooed from one end of town to the other, or would she prefer a discrete listing in the annual report?

Issue press releases when major gifts are received and be sure to cite both the importance of the gift and the generosity and leadership of the giver.

Another way to recognize a donor is to have naming opportunities. They can work well, but be careful that you don’t cheapen them. If every physical asset of an organization ends up with a name attached to it, the result is to lessen the value of truly significant naming opportunities.

Putting donors names on a wall in the lobby of a building is another way to recognize them. It seems obvious to me that a donor whose name is visible in the building is going to feel a greater sense of connection with that organization.

Recognize donors in your newsletter. Make absolutely sure that a donor is recognized in the annual report and that all gifts are accounted for. Remember to include the charitable portion of tickets to benefit events. Include a donor recognition component in your annual meeting.

Finally, establish a donor recognition program. Don’t let recognizing donors be an afterthought. If you are a one-person shop, give it a priority in your lists of tasks and develop a written program of what you will do. If you have a larger development operation, assign responsibility for donor recognition to someone. Donor recognition is a process. Manage it.

I’d like to close our discussion of the tactics for cultivating donor relationships with a couple of points about the nature of your individual relationship as a development officer with your institution’s donors.

It should be professional. Your relationship with donors is a business relationship. You are a representative of your organization. You facilitate the process of giving gifts to it.

It should be deferential. Most donors capable of making large gifts are likely to have achieved wealth, professional success of a high order, and social prominence. It is unlikely that we as development officers will be part of their peer group. Development officers exist to help donors. We provide them with service. We are not their buddies.

I have seen development professionals make the mistake of treating donors with whom they have a working relationship as if they also had a social relationship. And, I have seen otherwise savvy development officers discuss issues with donors in the same way they would with a co-worker. Donors need to be treated the way they want to be treated, not the way we want to treat them. It is far better to treat a donor with more deference than is expected, than with more intimacy than is wanted. Yes, it is possible for a personal friendship to develop with a donor. But it is up to the donor to acknowledge and encourage that friendship first.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking the relationship you are cultivating with a donor is with you personally. It is with the organization. Your job is to cement the connection between donors and the non-profit organization for which you work. That’s where your effort should be directed. And that’s why remembering the nature of your relationship with donors is a crucially important tactic when it comes to cultivating donor relationships.

Building Donor Loyalty
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