How Building Genuine Relationships Helps You Raise Money
Have you ever wondered why some nonprofits seem to raise money again and again while others struggle? There’s a lot of talk in the space about relationships and donor-centric philanthropy. However, it's a lot of, well, talk. The reality is that creating genuine and meaningful relationships takes a lot of effort. Unfortunately, it seems to be something considered from another era.
Everyone has a cellphone. Consider how many times a day you answer the phone versus opening a text. The chances are high you prefer to text (because it's quicker) or send a voice text and that you make a call the least. Many times, fundraisers wonder how other nonprofits manage to raise so much money. They marvel that some organizations tend to scale quickly or have successful campaigns. Perhaps it's because they have a knack for building relationships.
Or is it something else, like the fact that they know how to develop and maintain genuine relationships? Relationships are the foundation of any successful fundraising operation. Moreover, meaningful relationships don't just happen. They take work and effort, and you need to cultivate them diligently and deliberately. This is good stewardship. As far as fundraising is concerned, it's the difference between good fundraisers and great fundraisers.
Hold Quality Conversations
Conversations are the place to start building relationships. But here’s the thing about conversations; you have to tune into someone else's wavelength. In other words, the best fundraisers understand that it's not about them. Sure, people want to get to know you as a person (that's part of the deal). People give to people as well as the cause. However, for genuine relationship-building, it's vital to have quality conversations.
The key to successful relationships is authenticity. As much as you need to engage around the nonprofit, you have to be yourself. When you hold authentic conversations, you discover commonalities and what's essential to the other person. You also allow them to know something about you, too.
Further, the quality of your conversation is also critical. Make sure you're listening as well as talking. People like to feel that the conversation is two ways. In fundraising, these conversations are essential. Remember, the people you meet might not be your potential donors, but they could introduce you to someone who could become one.
Know Your Donors and Their Reasons for Giving
The more you know about your donors, the more effectively you can connect with them. You need to understand what they care about, why they're involved with your organization, and what prompted them to give. If you’ve been working with charities for some time, you know this. However, you’d be surprised how often that simple activity gets ignored.
You also need to understand what made them give in a particular instance. For example, they might have given in response to a specific event or newsworthy item. These occasions may have prompted them to give a one-off gift. Conversely, they may have given because of a personal experience in their lives. Knowing their reasons for giving helps you understand their motivations for sharing in the future. And this can help build predictive modeling of the best type of donor for your organization.
Establish Credibility and Trust
Trust is crucial in any relationship. If it's missing, you'll struggle to receive the support from others you may need. To establish trust with your donors, be transparent and honest about your organization's mission and plans. Not long ago, I worked with a nonprofit that seemed to be fudging details. You can't do that. Once you bend the realities of your work, you lose all credibility.
So, even if your organization or a pilot project didn't work out as you hoped, you have to be straight with people. Failure is OK. It’s part of the learning process. And when you share your successes — and failures — you establish trust and credibility. In fact, I've seen it happen where an edge initiative fails, and the organization still gets funding for it. Why? Because failure is the path to success and admitting it builds credibility and trust.
Be Empathetic and Responsive
Being empathetic and responsive is the best way to build genuine relationships. Empathy means that you actively listen to others and understand their perspective. It's not just about hearing what someone has to say — it's also about truly understanding them. So, being responsive means following up on the flow of conversations.
I had a client with a significant internal issue not too long ago. For one, the organization had a substantial loss of staff for reasons I won't share. It seemed as if everything they wanted to do would end then and there, but it didn't. They needed to process and have someone who listened empathetically and responsively. The same goes for donors. Empathy and responsiveness show donors they're essential to you.
Genuine Relationships Are Essential for Fundraising Success
Making genuine connections with donors is crucial. It's not just about getting a donation (what we call transactional fundraising); it's about them feeling like they're part of your team. Raising funds is hard work, but it's possible to do it exceptionally well if you make genuine relationships a top priority. Meaning, don’t just say you do it. Take a critical lens on all your interactions with donors and prospects and see if you truly have genuine and meaningful relationships.
Do you know many of the personal and business lives of the top 20% of your donors? Do you ask them for advice and counsel regarding your programs, or do you simply speak to them when you need to raise funds for a campaign? If you build meaningful relationships with donors, they'll be more likely to support your organization again and again.
Paul D’Alessandro, J.D., CFRE, is a vice president at Innovest Portfolio Solutions. He is also the founder of High Impact Nonprofit Advisors (HNA), and D’Alessandro Inc. (DAI), which is a fundraising and strategic management consulting company. With more than 30 years of experience in the philanthropic sector, he’s the author of “The Future of Fundraising: How Philanthropy’s Future is Here with Donors Dictating the Terms.”
He has worked with hundreds of nonprofits to raise more than $1 billion dollars for his clients in the U.S. and abroad. In addition, as a nonprofit and business expert — who is also a practicing attorney — Paul has worked with high-level global philanthropists, vetting and negotiating their strategic gifts to charitable causes. Paul understands that today’s environment requires innovation and fresh thinking, which is why he launched HNA to train and coach leaders who want to make a difference in the world.