Are You Missing Opportunities for Genuine Donor Understanding?
Last week, I was taking advantage of a few extra hours in Washington by getting some client work accomplished at the Ronald Reagan National Airport.
I found a spot at a long work table right next to a most valuable panel of electrical outlets. It’s amazing what you can get done without distractions, and I was focused.
Then I heard a neighboring flyer say, “Yes, I’m here in the Sky Club enjoying a beautiful view of the Capitol and the Washington Monument.” I looked up and there, through the glass right in front of me, was that beautiful view that I had not noticed.
As nonprofit professionals—especially those of us in the fundraising arena—we must be alert to the situations and circumstances around us. We need to be alert when donors are telling us they want to make a life-changing or life-saving impact. We need to be aware when they are telling us that now is the right time or that ours is not the right project or organization for them.
We must be prepared to listen intently and do a lot more listening than talking. We need to ask questions, learn and observe. And we need to look at the facts—data—and not mere opinions without substantiation. Here are four areas to focus on:
- Look at the data
- Ask questions
- Know and evaluate the source
- Look at the surroundings
Look at the Data
Steve MacLaughlin is VP of data and analytics at Blackbaud and author of “Data Driven Nonprofits.” He shares that an organization that is not data-driven tends to make decisions and base their strategy on tribal knowledge—the way they have always done things. He then shares a rule that we have found consistently in fundraising: the facts are the facts, and they may go against what you have always done, but they cannot be ignored.
Look at data to determine:
- What do your donors feel is important?
- What is the understanding of and support for your plans?
- What is the interest in making major gifts to your project?
- What do historical trends tell you for giving overall?
- Retention, upgrades, acquisition
- What is the true net of an event, and do you have data to show its impact on understanding of your mission?
- What is your success in translating a first-time donor through specific avenues—event, direct appeal or other sources—into an ongoing donor relationship?
Learn about your prospective donors—their family, their circumstances, their values, their priorities, their motivations and more. Ask questions and ask follow-up questions. A first answer or statement may not mean what it seems.
It is vital to make a specific ask in major giving and campaigns. However, as you introduce a concept or a project to someone, you should ask questions regularly. Don’t wait for their insight—ask for it. Some people volunteer more than others, so prompt them. Then, be prepared to respond to their insight, suggestions and questions.
The time to ask for a major gift should be the simplest part of the process since it has evolved based on the prospective donor’s interest. There are too many programs and seminars on the ask. And not enough on deepening genuine donor relationships. Too many are focused on the wrong things.
Know and Evaluate the Source
“We have heard.”
“People tell us.”
These can be dangerous statements. When you hear them, ask questions. Questions such as:
- How many?
- Specifically, what did they say?
- How did you respond?
Recently, we were working with a client and the development director told us that the CEO shared that a donor had indicated they would not make a gift in an upcoming campaign. This went against what we had found through research and a campaign planning study interview (another reason why these are essential). We asked about the knowledge of the conversation, and she had limited details.
So at a meeting, we brought this up for discussion. It turns out that the CEO had never had this conversation. Somehow the development director was confused. Had we taken this at face value, a significant major donor prospect would have been dropped. With the incredible benefits of a study, too often we find circumstances where an organization does not really know what their best donors are thinking.
As a cultivation point, we are big fans for getting a communications piece to major donor prospects that speaks of vision before a campaign feasibility study. This helps to set the stage for the study and the campaign. A client, new to fundraising, recently pushed back on this effective tool because she felt constituents didn’t understand the purpose of the communication. We questioned, and it turned out to be a comment from, at most, three people—or less than 1 percent of the audience. We then coached the client on how to respond to this question of, “Why are you communicating with me now,” and to make this conversation a cultivation step.
Look at the Surroundings
At the airport, I was oblivious to my surroundings. I can tell you, however, that when I visit with a board member, staff leader or prospective donor, I am very aware of what I see at their home, office.
If they select another location for a meeting, that, too, can provide valuable information. It is most helpful to see how they engage with those around them—from their family and staff, to service professionals at a club or restaurant.
When you visit, look to see signs of what is important to prospective donors, such as:
- Recognition—walls full of plaques would reflect that they enjoy recognition.
- Family—the scope and types of family photos can send a message.
- Affiliations—what education, professional, religious and civic affiliations are important to them?
- Hobbies— what do they enjoy doing for recreation?
- Business— what signs are there of business success and favorite projects?
Then, use some of these observations to get them to open up and share more about themselves.
Be fully present in your work and be alert to opportunities and roadblocks. Listen and observe. Know the data. Ask questions. Pay attention to the surroundings. Use your skills and genuine understanding to deepen relationships at all levels for your organization. A key is to always be aware of your circumstances.
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.