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!

Harnessing Charisma

I was recently speaking with my colleague Tina Yoon about a tour of a health clinic in a poor neighborhood. The tour inspired her to start supporting the clinic. I asked her what made the tour so special, and she said, “The doctor who spoke during the tour was a pillar of the community. I felt honored that he would spend time with us.” This was many years ago, but it made a big impression on Tina.

A major DC philanthropist did a tour of a major multi-faceted social service agency, and promised $20,000 — $10,000 unrestricted, and $10,000 for whatever the man who ran the tour (director of a teen drop in center) wanted.  The executive director had a conniption fit, as you might imagine, about a staff person several rungs down the chain of command being empowered to direct contributions.  Nonetheless, something that man did captured the heart of the philanthropist, who wanted to empower him to do more.  That’s a good thing.

Who are the people in your organization who have the power to make donors feel special?

Where to start

I met a development director in a one-person fundraising shop this morning.  He had been in his job for 11 years.  He said that he and his boss had spoken many times about starting a major gifts program, but it kept getting swept away by more urgent (though less important) things.  He asked me where to start.  Here was my advice to him:

  1.  Begin with a manageable prospect list.  If you can only handle 5 prospects, that’s a great beginning.
  2. Measure success before the money starts coming in.  Building relationships takes time.  It can’t be rushed.  So avoid discouragement by tracking your progress in non-financial terms.  Getting board members to do thank you calls.  Getting a board member to host a house party.  Getting program staff to describe their work to donors at a tour.  Getting 100% giving from your board.  All of these are important prerequisites to the first big ask.  So celebrate when they happen.
  3. Look at your calendar through a donor cultivation lens.  Do you do an annual gala?  Invite prospective major donors to come as your guests, and assign a board member to escort each of them through the event.  Do you have in-house celebrations, like graduations, that you could invite prospects to witness?  Could your prospects address your students/clients on an area of their expertise?  Using the opportunities presented by your existing calendar, you can draw your best prospects closer without a lot of extra effort.

I hope this is helpful.  Start where you are.  Do what you can.  Use what you have.



Fundraiser’s motto: give me an inch, I will take an inch and a quarter

It is never a good idea to startle a donor by asking for something outrageous without warning him or her first.  But if you are asking for something incremental, the fundraiser’s motto above applies.  For instance, maybe the donor has offered to send a letter to 20 of his or her friends, asking them to donate to the organization.  You know that a letter is not going to accomplish much, but you are grateful for the donor’s willingness to help.  You might want to say, “That’s great.  I appreciate it.  And are there two or three names on that list that you might be willing to invite to come to an open house?”

It’s rude to take a mile when someone offers you an inch.  But if you ask for an inch and a quarter, you gradually expand the circle of the donor’s engagement.

How to meet with donors who are too busy

A fundraiser once told me that the Executive Director he worked for was going to  LA, and she wanted to meet with donors.  She got a couple of appointments, but most of the people she wanted to see were too busy, or uncertain about their schedules, or just unwilling to commit.  (Please refrain from making jokes about  the flakiness of Southern Californians.)  So she did something unique.  She wrote to all those indecisive Angelinos, naming a coffee shop in a central location: “I will be there from 9:00 to 11:30.  Drop by if you have a minute.”

I never got a chance to follow up with my friend to see if she got any takers.  But I thought it was a great way to deal with the difficulty of getting appointments.  Have you found any ways of breaking through that barrier?  Please share.

New fundraising idea!

Can I be a curmudgeon for a minute?

There was a story in the 11/11 New York times about some Wall Street hotshots who have a new idea for supporting charities: a stock market for non profits.  I don’t know what that means.  I couldn’t get past the first paragraph in the article:

What if?  That’s the way Lindsay Beck, a two-time cancer survivor and the founder of a newsuccessful charity, started thinking about how the world of finance and Wall Street could revolutionize the staid nonprofit industry

The word “staid” stuck in my craw.  I wondered if the writer of the article has any idea how vital and varied the world is that the innovators propose to revolutionize.

I have seen a magnificent variety of organizations serving humankind.  Some non profits struggle to meet their budgets every year, and some make it look easy to grow existing programs and sprout new ones.  The successful organizations have found some way to become conduits for the generosity of people who are inspired to accomplish good things.  They know how to craft the organization’s story in a way that a donor can see his or her own story merged into the next chapter.  It is not a new idea.

A stock market for non profits – let’s wait and see.  In the meantime, non profiteers, keep doing what you do so well.  And if your problem is staidness, let’s shake things up before your organization gets bought out (hostile takeover!)  by a Wall Street tycoon.


Trust is the word of the day.  It is the fundraiser’s most important attribute. Trust is critical in every juncture in a relationship with a donor.

138 Winter QuartersTrust comes into play when a donor is considering:

  • whether to welcome you to her home when you call to ask for an appointment
  • how much to reveal about the complexity of her family tree and the money that grows on different branches
  • how much to show you her excitement about your organization’s work
  • how to respond to a solicitation
  • when she is deciding what names to give you when asked for other prospective donors

In other words, every time you turn around, the donor determines how much room you have to maneuver based on how much she trusts you.

If you attend first to being worthy of a donor’s trust, everything else will be a lot easier.

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.

Announcing the Jump Start Contest for SMALL organizations that receive BIG gifts

Conventional wisdom holds that only big organizations can secure significant gifts from individual donors.  But that conventional wisdom is wrong – I have seen it over and over: small, smart organizations securing gifts of five or six or seven figures.  Let’s collect those stories about organizations with a budget of less than $2.5 million who does things right.  Tell your story, get some publicity in fund raising publications, board training, and a cash prize of $2,500.  The deadline is May 15th.

Five judges, all development professionals in small organizations, will choose the winner based on:

  • The size of the top 10 gifts
  • The growth of the top 10 gifts over the past three years
  • Creative and effective engagement of board members in fund raising
  • Creative and effective cultivation strategies
The top 5 entries will receive a board training workshop and publicity in fund raising publications.  The top winner will also get $2,500.  Apply by May 15th at www.jumpstartgrowth.com/contest.

Please spread the word about the Jump Start Contest.  Thank you.

Philanthropy and indulgence


Pope Leo XWhen Pope Leo X (whose birthday was earlier this week) rebuilt the Basilica of St Peter, he had a trick up his embroidered sleeve.  He offered indulgences (essentially the forgiveness of sins) in exchange for contributions.  History does not look kindly on him.

21st century fund raisers don’t tend to offers escape from hellfire in exchange for a donation.  But we are in the spirituality business.

There is no shortage of marketeers trying to persuade each of us that we will be happier if we buy their product.  “You deserve it” is a refrain that we hear with mind numbing frequency about a vast array of THINGS.

Yet, over and over again, people stare at that dollar which they earned or inherited — that dollar which is safely in their own possession — and decide to put it to work making the world a better place for someone else.

And we fund raisers are the conduits of that decision.  We do not make the decision, but we invite, encourage, facilitate, honor, recognize, and celebrate it.

The literal meaning of philanthropy – the love of humankind – seems more and more aptly to describe the business we are in.  So take a moment away from reconciling bank deposits, entering gifts in your database, and mail-merging thank you letters.  And bask in the delight of knowing how important you are.