Turbo-charge your donor relationships

A client (who runs and organization that does social science research for non profits) told me he had met with the head of a major foundation.  The Foundation Guy suggested setting up an advisory committee.  Eyes rolled.  The last thing I need, my client thought, is to have an advisory committee telling me what to do.  But when Foundation Guy explained what he meant, it became clear how brilliant this idea was.

Several of the organizations that commission research from my client also get funding from this foundation.  So why not set up an advisory committee that will include Foundation Guy, researcher, and the organizations that are (a) asking my client to do research and then (b) asking Foundation Guy for funding to implement the strategy that arises from the research? That way, Foundation Guy is in on the discussions from the beginning, and everyone wins.

When my client told me this, I told him that he was moving from being a fundraiser to being a power broker.  That’s a way to turbo-charge your donor relationships!

Beyond donating

Yesterday I was at a fundraising breakfast. One board member stood at the podium and announced that her company had made a $100,000 pledge.

I was seated at the table of another board member, and everyone else at the table worked for his company.  When the pitch was made, he suggested to his employees that, if they want to give, they do it through payroll deduction, because the company would match their gifts.

I thought “This is an organization with momentum.”  These board members are going so far beyond donating.

How recently has you sat down with each of your board members to find out how they would like to support your mission?  You may be amazed at what you learn.


Jargon ban

We all know that good writing and speaking is free of jargon.  But jargon is insidious.  It’s not just obscure acronyms and five-syllable words.  It’s language that is devoid of human warmth.  Very helpful for manipulating concepts in strategic plans and budgets.  NOT helpful for talking to donors.  Think about it.  The donor wants to know that his or her contribution is making the world a better place.  What happens to that enthusiasm if you talk about personnel issues, finances, or other administrative tedium?  If the donor asks questions about people or finances, of course that is a promising sign of engagement.  But the relationship does not start with anyone wanting to balance budgets or pay salaries.  So please don’t start with the mundane.

It is natural that the internal details occupy our heads.  Those are the problems we are solving every day.  So it takes a deliberate re-orientation to talk on the level that makes sense to people whose relationship is primarily inspirational.  Here are a couple of tips.

  • Remember what you first learned about the organization and why it attracted you.  Connect with why you first flushed with pride about working there.
  • Listen to donors talk about why they are inspired.
  • Follow program staff around for half a day.
  • Imagine you have been invited to do a Career Day presentation at your daughter’s fifth grade class, and you want her classmates to tell her how cool her mom or dad is afterwards.
  • Declare next Monday a Jargon Ban day — anyone who uses jargon in the office has to put a quarter in the jar.

Slow down and raise more money

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else – if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”


The Queen spoke with derision about “a slow sort of country.”  But isn’t that where we redqueenwould all rather live?  And wouldn’t we serve our donors better if we operated in a slow country that allowed us time to treasure each one of them?  Here are a few ways you can slow down and work more effectively.

  1. Keep events simple.  Events have a place in the fundraising toolkit, but the fatal temptation is to make each gala more elaborate and time-consuming than last year’s.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Find ways to make your mission come alive in your events, and work all other details around that goal.
  2. Don’t nag board members.  Instead, set up agreements with each of them about how they would like to help the organization in the coming year.  “How can I help you succeed?” is the beginning of a much more pleasant and fruitful conversation than  “We need every board member to sell ten tickets to the gala.”  I know a fundraiser who has board members lining up to talk to her after every board meeting.  That is because every meeting she brags about how different members have advanced the cause.
  3. Focus on big donors and big prospects first.  Block the time off on your calendar, put a “do not disturb” sign on your door and figure out how to advance your relationships with each of them.  Or take your donor list for a walk, and give a few minutes’ attention to each name.  You may think of ways to advance the conversation that don’t occur to your sedentary self.  I have found a handheld dictating device very useful for this purpose.
  4. Set aside time for meeting with donors.  Quality time.  Real listening time.  Exquisite attention time.  I once suggested to a fundraiser in a one-person office that she meet with the organization’s most generous donors.  “That’s the icing on the cake,” she said.  Meaning, when I finish the grant proposals, the appeal letters, the database nightmares, the walkathons, then I will have time for getting together with donors. The fact is that relationships are the icing, the cake, and the cakeplate. 

Lewis Carroll, who created the Red Queen in 1871, was a shy Oxford math professor.  Was he protesting the breakneck pace of academic life in Victorian England?  Perhaps.  Find ways to slow down and encourage your organization’s relationships with donors to thrive.   

Superman and Fundraising

Superman, that great icon of American male power, is a cartoon version of the LeadershipSuperman prototype.  The square jawed guy in the corner office works tirelessly, makes correct split-second decisions, and inspires the enthusiasm of his followers.  I know that when I compare myself to him, I am slow-tongued, wracked by anguish, and sometimes rumple-suited.  But maybe, for us who are not Superman, we can get more mileage out of honoring our limitations than trying to live up Mr. It’s-a-bird-it’s-a-plane.

The fund raising profession is crippled by that the Superman mystique.  Lots of people believe that succeeding in fund raising requires nerves of steel, telepathy, and a Kryptonite handshake.  The truth is, good manners and a little ambition will get you far.

If you find that Superman’s Textbook for Fund Raising doesn’t help you so much, here are some alternative ideas.

  • Superman is self-reliant.  As my mentor Andrea Kihlstedt is fond of saying, “every organization is perfectly configured to be itself.”  That means change is hard.  If you want to be an instrument of organizational transformation, find allies.
  • Superman is never insecurePay attention to your insecurity.  Once you recognize that your nerves are made of some material more like pliable than steel, you can tune them to signal that something is off kilter in your relationships with your donors.
  • Superman is unerringly persuasive.  Your donor has assigned your organization to a certain groove in her brain, and that determines her decision to give $X instead of ten times $X.  Your job, as a fund raiser, is to try to move the organization into a different brain-groove.  This is nervous-making.  You can face this nervousness by asking permission to propose something bold, by acknowledging that you are going out on a limb, or by any one of dozens of other ways of humanizing the encounter.  Once you admit you are not Superman, all kinds of possibilities open themselves.

Superman, go catch a flying train or something.  We have work to do.

Fundraising and the flexible ego of Winnie the Pooh

“Well,” said Owl, “the customary procedure in such cases is as follows.”

“What does Crustimoney Proseedcake mean?” said Pooh.  “For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me.”

— Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One

“Without Pooh, said Rabbit solemnly as he sharpened his pencil, “the adventure would be impossible.”

…Pooh went into a corner of the room, and said proudly to himself, “Impossible without me!  That sort of Bear.”

 — Kanga and Roo Come to the Forest

A fund raiser can learn a lot from Winnie the Pooh.  First lesson: keep your ego flexible. Pooh has a remarkable ability to slide between self assurance and modesty.

There are times when our profession requires us to submit ourselves to almost-secretarialpooh bear support of a CEO, board member, or donor.  (I realize that this creates more complexities for female than male fund raisers, but discussing that would exceed my self-imposed word limit.)   There are other times when we are the creative force of the organization, with mind-blowing expanses of responsibility.

We sometimes work fundraising for months behind the scenes.  Other days, if we are fortunate, we return triumphant from a donor visit and are greeted by astonished acclaim from our colleagues.  If you can continuously increase your territory at the Important end of the spectrum, and still be comfortable at the modest end, you will serve your organization well.

Thoreau and fund raising

Henry_David_ThoreauCast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.  – Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience.

If democracy requires the whole influence of citizens – and it has never needed it more than it does today — a non profit organization requires the whole engagement of its supporters.

What does whole engagement mean?  Of course there is the usual checklist of ways a donor could help an organization: giving money, introducing her friends, soliciting corporate gifts from her employer, adding the organization to her estate plans, volunteering, and so forth.

But in a donor-centric universe – have you noticed that is where we live? – whole engagement means that she is giving what she is able and willing to give at this time, when asked appropriately.

How do you know whether you are inviting the whole engagement of your donors?  Here is a simple test.  If, when you are talking to your donors, do you listen in order to respond, or do you listen to your donors in order to understand?    

Each of your supporters is, to quote Thoreau again, a majority of one, worthy of your inquisitive attention.

The eyeball: what a redcap taught me about fund raising

I was checking my bags at the service counter outside an airport terminal a week ago.  After he had given me the receipt for my suitcase, the red cap said “I can take care of that for you.”  I gave the man a blank nod, and he repeated, while looking me straight in the eye, “I can take care of that for you.”  I realized he was waiting for a tip, so I gave him a few bills before walking into the terminal.

eyeballI am sure biologists and anthropologists have written many pages about what eye contact means.  But here is what it meant to me at that moment:  I am giving you a chance to do the right thing.

Thirty five years ago, computers were changing everything.  Fifteen years ago, the internet was changing everything.  Now, social media is changing everything.  But many things do not change, and the eyeball is one of them.  Look someone in the eye and give them a chance to do the right thing.

Fund raising and witness

Carolyn Forché 2 NBCC 2011 Shankbone

Carolyn Forché 2 NBCC 2011 Shankbone (Photo credit: david_shankbone)

April is the month of Carolyn Forche’s birthday.  She is a poet who had a big impact on me in my youth.  She was teaching at UC San Diego in 1980 when she was visited by 3 men from El Salvador.  “We need you to come to El Salvador and write about the violence you see there,” they said.

“But I am not a reporter,” she countered.

“We have reporters.  We need a poet,” they answered.  She accepted the invitation.  The book that resulted from her visit, The Country Between Us, published in 1981, is a powerful testimony that played a role in America’s growing awareness of its covert support for the repressive regime.  She describes her writing as “the poetry of witness.”

When faced with the crises of the day, it is easy to get discouraged.  It is easy to say, “I am only a fund raiser,” just as Carolyn Forche said, “I am only a poet.”

But we are also witnesses.  Forche’s audience was the readers of poetry.  Our audience is the supporters of the organization where we work.  Whether you work in the arts, spirituality, education, social change, or service, you travel to a place where your donors cannot go, and bring back stories.  Don’t forget how important that is.

Manners and fund raising

Fundraising simultaneously occupies two worlds: the world of human relationships and the world of return on investment. It is very important to calculate ROI every way you can slice it, but when you carry your ROI-head into the world of human relationships, you act in a manner that Miss Manners would say is “downright rude.”

Miss Manners got a letter from a man who gave a couple thousand dollars annually to each of a hundred charities. When he lost his job, he was unable to continue give. He wrote to Miss Manners about being hounded by solicitors, and she replied: “It has always puzzled Miss Manners to find how often those who work on behalf of other people in general feel free to annoy the particular people with whom they come into contact.”

In these volatile times, your contribution income is likely to make some whiplash-inducing ups and downs. Use your ROI-head to make your budget, but not to talk to your donors.

And here are a couple other lessons from Miss Manners: Say please. Say thank you. And say thank you more often than you say please!