Building strength through strong donor relationships
It is far better for members of a nonprofit organization’s leadership team to spend time planning ways to build a strong relationship with a donor than it is for them to plan how to get a donor or prospective donor to give money to their organization.
Far too many donors make a modest contribution to a nonprofit, receive a thank you note from the executive director, and then never hear from the organization again — until the annual direct mail appeal at the end of the year.
Or a donor may purchase a silent auction item for less than $100 or a live auction lot for over $5,000 at a nonprofit’s annual gala, receive a standard thank you note, and still never get a personal follow-up communication from anyone involved with the organization.
These types of donors obviously have some level of interest in the organization’s mission. They are all prime candidates to forge a deeper relationship and make a stronger commitment to the organization, but they must be invited to do so.
According to Kate Eilertsen, Executive Director of the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, “In spite of all the technology we have at our fingertips, I have found an in-depth, personal conversation with a donor is the most effective use of time and leads to the most successful fundraising.” She added, “There is absolutely nothing more effective than sitting down with someone face-to-face, to not only talk about the mission, vision, and programs at the museum, but also to hear what they have to say about what we are doing.”
In developing strong relationships with donors, it is important for nonprofit leaders to take the time to get to know their donors and prospective donors. They need to view donors as potential partners in improving the community’s quality of life. They need to get to know the donor as a person, by uncovering his or her goals, interests, feelings and beliefs. They need to be curious, ask questions, and truly listen. Having a genuine conversation is the best way to determine if an organization is the right philanthropic match for a donor.
Kathryn Perry, deputy director of development at Hanna Boys Center, said, “When considering how to approach a prospective donor, it is important to first ascertain if the charity and donor are a good fit. Do you know what he or she values in an organization and in a program? Do you know his or her philanthropic interests? Knowing if the charity and donor are a good fit is the initial step in fostering healthy stewardship.”
When a donor finally makes that commitment to provide financial support to an organization, it is essential for that donor to be thanked immediately and over and over again. A fundraising best practice is to acknowledge a charitable donation no later than 48 hours after receiving it. When donors receive a nonprofit’s annual report, the first place they look is in the donor recognition section. So, it is critical that the donor’s gift is attributed correctly, with no spelling errors in the name. Perry added, “Fostering relationships doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming. A short impromptu note to a donor is always welcome, especially if it highlights a recent activity that their gift helped make possible. A photo is worth a thousand words, too.”
It is important to thank donors in personalized ways. Consider inviting them to lunch, go wine tasting, attend a community event together, or participate in special phone briefings or site visits. Leslie Carlson, development director for the Sonoma International Film Festival stated, “We have at least one special event during the year only for sponsors and key donors and offer VIP access and treatment at the festival…we are engaged with sponsors and donors through weekly e-blasts, updating them on year-round events, screenings and news about the festival. We try to have face to face meetings, consistent phone conversations, and maintain a personal relationship.”
On-going communication with donors that develops into a true friendship and trusting relationship can ultimately lead to a legacy gift. Harriet Derwingson, president of the Sonoma Valley Fund, believes, “Regular donor communication and interaction not only ensures that gifts will continue this year and next, but also encourages donors at all levels to leave a bequest to your organization as part of their will or trust. Donors need to know that they don’t have to be wealthy to make a difference, and that they can structure their gift to match their philanthropic goals. It’s important to celebrate not only large bequests, but smaller bequests from people who have a passion for the organization.”
So, with careful cultivation and a true desire to form lasting friendships with individual donors, a thoughtful nonprofit leader can turn that $50 silent auction purchase into the start of a relationship that can transform the organization and the community it serves.
Dr. B.J. Bischoff is the owner of Bischoff Performance Improvement Consulting, a Sonoma firm specializing in building the capacity of nonprofit organizations and government agencies to better serve their stakeholders. She is President of Impact100 Sonoma and can be contacted at email@example.com.