3 Easy Ways to Build Donor Relationships
Do you wish you knew the secrets of building stronger relationships with people who might give large gifts to your organization?
Do you feel a bit intimidated by people who have lots of money?
Do you feel as though you can’t be the real you with donors, because your relationship with them is based on wanting their money?
Chances are good that if you weren’t in the fundraising business, you’d never meet or speak with people like your major donors. They are probably a good deal richer than you are and they may travel in circles that aren’t natural or comfortable for you. It’s no surprise that you sometimes feel awkward and intimidated!
It’s one thing to know you should build relationships with your major donors. It’s quite another thing to actually do that without feeling awkward and manipulative..
3 Ways to Connect to Your Donors
Here are three ideas that will make the process a bit easier.
1. Get Out of the Corner
I’m sure you know that standing in the corner at social gatherings where donors might be isn’t a good idea. But it’s really tempting, isn’t it?
Recently, I went to a donor event for an organization. The development staff had all put on name tags identifying them as being on staff, as they should. I got to the event when it was in high gear—perhaps 30 people socializing.
I knew the development director and went over to say "hello" to her. As I looked around, I realized that she was standing near the corner of the room in a group with three of her colleagues. They were talking amongst themselves.
Not more than eight feet away were her donors, also talking amongst themselves.
I confess, it’s not easy to break away from a comfortable corner with people who are your ilk. But that’s your job. You’ve got to strengthen your resolve and sally-forth with a welcoming smile on your face and talk to donors.
Remember: Just because people have money—even lots of money—doesn’t mean that they are mean or snotty or uninteresting! They are just people who happen to have money.
What might you say to break the ice? Try some of these phrases when you walk up to a donor you don’t know at a social gathering:
“Hi, Sam. I’m [your name], the development director. I’m so pleased you are here this evening. I was hoping you’d come!”
Or, simply walk up to someone you don’t yet know and say, “Hi. I’m [your name], the [your title]. I’m happy to meeting you.” Chances are good that the person will introduce him or herself to you and tell you who they are and why they have come.
You don’t have to say much more than that. Just wait for a response. Then ask an easy follow-up question about them—why are they there, what’s their connection to the organization?
Believe me, once you separate yourself from your colleagues and walk up to someone who is looking a bit forlorn in the crowd, you’ll find that it’s not only easy, but fun. Most people—major donors included—are relieved and pleased when someone from the organization introduces herself.
2. Don’t Ask Leading Questions
The ability to ask good questions is a powerful skill. But many development people use questions to try to lead the donor in the direction they’d like them to go.
Consider these common questions:
- “How did you become connected to our organization?”
- “Have you been to campus recently?”
- “What was your experience with our organization like?”
Some questions like these are fine, but really, to the extent that you ask questions that nudge the conversation toward your organization, you will learn less about the donor.
Instead, try asking some more general, innocuous question—for example:
- “How have you been?”
- “What’s keeping you busy lately?”
- “How are you feeling about the _______?"
- “What do you think about the _______?"
Then, once the person starts to tell you about themselves, you can simply say, “Tell me more.” I’ve found that phrase to be quite magical. Most people, when the start talking about themselves, are happy to tell you more if you just ask and give them some time.
While a leading question is fine now and again, you’ll learn more if you open the door to more general conversations and then take the donor’s lead in talking about what’s interesting to them.
3. Entertain Their Interests When Following Up
The more you learn about donors, the more opportunity you will have to send them things that touch on their interests.
People in development are often quick to send donors information about their organization. While there’s nothing wrong with doing that, you’ll build stronger relationships if you also send things that specifically relate to your donor’s interests—whether or not they are directly connected to your cause.
Keep your eyes open for articles, videos or other materials that relate to conversations you had with donors when you got out of the corner and started talking to them.
Genuine Interest in Your Donors Is Critical
When you are genuinely interested who your donors are and what interests them, you can build appropriate and authentic relationships with them despite the fact that they have more money, power and influence than you do.
So stop standing in the corner, get curious about your donors and relate to them in a way that touches on their interests.
Andrea Kihlstedt is an innovative leader and expert in capital campaign fundraising. She wrote "Capital Campaigns: Strategies That Work (4th ed)," often referred to as the “bible” of capital campaign fundraising. She founded Capital Campaign Masters and co-founded Capital Campaign Toolkit, an online capital campaign resource and platform.