Develop Deep Donor Relationships With These Cultivation Tactics
Cultivation — deepening donor relationships — is absolutely essential to nonprofit fundraising to fulfill its potential. Meaningful relationships with donors, at all levels, is the remedy for poor donor retention rates and the stagnation of giving when measured as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product in the United States.
“Cultivation is your lifeblood,” Pamela Barden, founder and president of PJ Barden Inc., said. “You can spend your entire fundraising career finding new donors and churning through them, or you can invest in the lives of your existing donors. Those are the people you can count on in good and bad times.”
To reduce churn among your donors, here are a few tips to help improve your cultivation tactics.
Discover Your Donor’s Motivation
Pat Feeley, chief development officer for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, believes cultivation is the cornerstone of any great fundraising program.
“We use the word ‘engagement’ a lot at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation,” he said.
Too many people — even those in the nonprofit arena — compare fundraising to sales and talk about a pitch. Organizations often mistakenly seek fundraisers who are good talkers when, in reality, they should focus more on finding those incredible listeners and observers.
“You must approach any potential gift with the right mindset,” Larry Johnson, founder of The Eight Principles, said. “You have to decide that you will be trustworthy and authentic, and you must accept that some potential investors may not be the right fit for you.”
“I want to know the who, what, where, when, why and how, and be able to understand a donor’s real motivation and interests,” Lisa Chmiola, chief fablanthropist at Fablanthropy, added. “I also want to be sure to share meaningful information about my organization to see what aligns for them.
Let Your Donor Drive the Conversation
Genuine relationships are built on trust, so it’s important to honor the donors as well as their wants and needs.
“We are giving people the opportunity to do good. But the good needs to be defined by them, not by us,” David Schlakman, vice president and executive director of New Orleans’ Early Learning Focus, said.
Missy Ryan Penland, associate vice president for development at Clemson University, agreed.
“It is really about understanding the donor,” she said. “We often make the mistake of making assumptions about what the donor wants.”
The donor should drive the conversation. As a fundraiser, you are simply guiding potential donors, not trying to persuade them, Johnson added.
“The ultimate goal of cultivation is for individuals to realize that they want to invest because it meets their fundamental needs,” he said.
Deepening relationships takes a commitment of time and resources. It means respecting the relationship by being as personal, relevant and fresh as possible.
“Too often, we bore our donors. We don’t take the time to share the right results and stories for them to get excited about what we do,” Barden said. “We recycle the same old stories and copy — so why would a donor want to read or respond? Our job is to keep our donors interested. One of the biggest reasons for donor attrition is that we fail to keep them motivated and interested.”
Schlakman’s advice? Put simply, shut up and listen. In fact, he suggested that many fundraising pitfalls can be avoided by truly listening to donor responses.
“We tend to talk too much and attempt to sell why someone should support us,” he said.
“One of the most critical skills that a fundraising professional can hone is emotional intelligence,” Johnson added. “If you have it, you will be able to better fully understand the donor’s perspective and what they’re really communicating.”
Develop a Strategy Backed by Metrics
Listening is essential in cultivation — and so is having a plan with the correct strategy that is continually monitored and updated as needed.
“Cultivation without listening, without strategy, is not effective,” Penland said.
A cultivation plan should involve metrics to provide focus and accountability.
“For example, what are the best 15 major gift solicitations I need to make next year and what is the best way to go about that?”
Even the best cultivation plan hits bumps in the road and mistakes happen.
“Create an environment where people and departments can make mistakes and you are supporting them in getting it right,” Feeley said. “Then, they will share mistakes and problems so that they can be fixed, and they know you will help them continually.”
As you deepen relationships and learn more about your donors, your engagement strategy should become increasingly more personal.
“Donors recognize — and appreciate — when communications are warm, personal and more tailored to them,” Feeley said. “And they certainly notice when they aren’t.”
Sara Kolodziejczak, senior director of fundraising at Musicians on Call, offered three reminders for enhancing your cultivation strategy:
- Regular Contact. Have regular contact with the donor to keep you top of mind, which opens up additional opportunities.
- Video. Supplement a phone call with a video message to create more depth.
- Personalized Messaging. People have different “love languages” and, in relationships, the deepest connections are formed when you speak that language. The more personalized and tailored your messaging is, the more you’re in their world — and the easier and more natural it becomes for them to meaningfully engage in your mission.
Fine-Tune the Ask
One of the best benchmarks of cultivation and a relationship is the ask. Too often, fundraising professionals seem to be in an endless cycle of cultivation and are afraid to ask, ask prematurely, or ask at a time or in a manner that isn’t effective.
“It’s time to ask when you’ve found the right match between what the donor wishes to accomplish with their philanthropy and what will make a meaningful impact for your organization and your beneficiaries,” Chmiola said.
How to determine when the time is right? Having the proper strategy in place will help, along with listening and engaging sincerely with the donor. With proper cultivation, the ask is a natural progression.
“Sometimes you don’t even have to ask,” Feeley said.
He explained that there are fewer solicitations in fundraising — when done artfully — than most people realize.
“In many ways, you’re just a matchmaker between someone’s generosity and good heart, and the great mission of your organization,” he said.
Being donor-focused and deepening relationships with donors and prospective donors will enrich both the donor and your organization. By learning more about donors and their goals, values and interests, you can create a roadmap to a wonderful philanthropic experience for the donor.
Through this journey, donors will help you understand when the time is right to invite them to change and save lives.
Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.
Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.
Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.