Lifelong Donor Relationships Are Not About Money
Everyone wants to develop a major gifts program, or to strengthen their existing major gifts program. Why? Because they want to raise more money.
If you approach major gifts development solely from this perspective you’ll ultimately fail.
You might raise more money for a little while. But over the long-term you’ll lose more support than you gain. Because it’s not just about money.
Lifelong donor relationships are about two things:
Effective fundraising is about uncovering people who share the values your organization enacts, then making a match that enables these people to do something about which they’re passionate. Yes, they end up giving you money to accomplish this end. But it’s not about money.
It’s about the impact this money will make.
Once the gift is made, your job is to show your donor the impact their gift made. To demonstrate how they fed a hungry family. Saved a grove of trees. Helped an abused woman and child find refuge. Cured a disease. Righted a wrong.
It’s about your gratitude for that impact.
Once you have clarity on why you’re grateful, your job is to thank your donor so they feel truly appreciated. So they get rewarded. So they derive meaning and enjoyment from their philanthropy.
Then, when you think your donor is filled to the brim with the joy of giving, you show them a way they can do it all over again!
Let’s take a closer look at what it takes to build a rich, rewarding relationship with donors you hope to move toward increasing levels of commitment with your charity.
Four Ways to Build Lifelong Donor Relationships
1. Find an impact to bring donors joy. Passionate philanthropy is a joyful experience. Giving, according to research, lights up pleasure centers of the brain and releases endorphins that give people joy. When you show your donors what they can do to be the change they want to see, you’re also making a gift. To do so thoughtfully, you must first become adept at sussing out what your donors cherish. Then, figure out what your organization does that aligns with their values and passions. This can be accomplished through a planned donor-centered communications and relationship-building program designed to woo your donors. We all loved to be wooed!
2. Authentically demonstrate how your donor makes a difference. Donors give because they want to make a difference. And they want to be appreciated for caring enough to put their money where their mouth is. You have to mean it—no fake thank-you’s. You can’t be thinking raising money is a necessary evil. This is why it’s so important to channel an attitude of gratitude at all times. Think. Really think. What is it about your donor that you’re grateful for? Then you can tell your donor and come across as genuine. And your donor will feel happy and fulfilled. They’ll know they made a good decision to invest with you.
3. Always think from your donor’s perspective. Before you do anything, ask yourself: “What will the donor think? What will the donor feel?” This often means tailoring your approach to align with your donor’s preference. It means giving your donor options, not insisting they make unrestricted gifts or gifts to programs other than those where their passions lie. This means thinking about how you would feel if the cultivation or solicitation plan you’ve prepared for your prospective donor-investor were directed towards you.
4. Reach out proactively. If you just sit by the phone waiting for your donor to call, not much will happen. Donors need to be wooed and shown that the deepening of their relationship with you will bring them joy. In every interaction, remember to treat your donor with consideration and respect. Don’t make them feel you only care about their money rather than their opinions, feelings and advice.
It Takes a Village
Your donor needs to be rewarded continually. Every interaction with your organization should be a satisfying one. It’s not just about what the development department does. It’s how they’re treated by the receptionist. The gift processor. The volunteer coordinator. The program staff. Even the recipients of philanthropy (e.g., students, alumni, families of clients and more). Everyone has a role in creating positive, productive relationships with your donors.
Create a culture where everyone:
- Models the joy of giving. Encourage staff and volunteers to connect with the "why" of their affiliation with your organization, and then give according to their passions. Passion is contagious.
- Listens to each other. Spend time learning what program staff do and also teaching them about fundraising. Share success stories. You can’t learn about the work going on that may connect with prospective donors if you don’t do this. You can’t inspire each other if you don’t do this.
- Listens to your constituents. Regularly engage with folks. Ask them for feedback and advice. You can’t learn what floats people’s boats if you don’t listen.
- Keeps others in the loop. Connect the dots for each other. Development staff should make a regular practice of telling other staff and volunteers what a great job they did, reminding them it is their work that resulted in an act of philanthropy to continue your mission. Make it clear that philanthropy happens because of needs being successfully addressed by your entire organization; not because of development staff. Make all of your staff and volunteers—your entire village—the heroes.
- Treats everyone like a major donor. Instill a customer-centered culture where everyone is treated with consideration, honor and gratitude. You don’t always know who your current and potential major donors are.
- Makes stewardship a priority. A donor-centered culture flows naturally from a customer-centered culture. When you’re used to thinking your job is to learn what your constituents desire and to make your constituents happy, it’s easy to extend this to donors.
When you think major gifts fundraising is just about asking for money, you miss the whole point. It’s not about the money. It’s about the transformative power of that money. What it can accomplish. How it can create an outsized impact to make the world a better place.
Don’t concentrate all your energies on the solicitation. You may get the gift, but one-time gifts are here today, gone tomorrow.
Transactions won’t help you next year or the year after that. No. You’ve got to transform the transactions into something longer-lasting.
If you like craft fairs, baseball games, art openings, vocal and guitar, and political conversation, you’ll like to hang out with Claire Axelrad. Claire, J.D., CFRE, will inspire you through her philosophy of philanthropy, not fundraising. After a 30-year development career that earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award, Claire left the trenches to begin her coaching/teaching practice, Clairification. Claire is also a featured expert and chief fundraising coach for Bloomerang, She’ll be your guide, so you can be your donor’s guide on their philanthropic journey. A member of the California State Bar and graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco.