Let’s pretend you and your donor are not connecting meaningfully right now. You’re not sure why. Could it be they feel financially insecure… they’re worried for their kids… they’ve been let down by politicians… they’re just feeling cynical and/or hopeless? For whatever reason, things aren’t singing between you and them. They haven’t renewed. They haven’t upgraded. They haven’t responded to any of your outreach. They seem to have other priorities.
So, you decide to go to counseling to reinvigorate the relationship. The therapist makes a wise observation: Sometimes in life, one partner feels strong; the other less strong. In such times, the stronger partner has resources to support the weaker partner. Other times, neither partner feels they have coping resources. During these times, we have to depend more on ourselves, be patient, and accept that our partner is not currently in a strong position – even though we really need their support.
Are you being a support for your donor? Are you helping, not selling all the time? Are you being patient, yet persistently showing you care?
We’re in turbulent times. Studies show giving to be sluggish. Donors are less loyal. Maybe they’re distracted by emergencies. Or so-called rage giving. Or simply uncertainty about what lies ahead. So they’re giving less consistently. As a result, donor centered fundraising has never been as important as it is now.
People are feeling a need to be nurtured. In other words: Ask not what your donors can do for you, but what you can do for your donors. Recognize they don’t serve you; you serve them. They don’t owe you; you owe them. Your job is to help them experience the joy of giving. It is through you they will achieve their most meaningful work.
Embrace the true meaning of philanthropy as love of humankind. Remember your donors are humankind; you must love them if you want to be a part of philanthropy. Otherwise, you’re just transacting business.
So… what can you do to embrace the love and thereby keep your donors close?
Remember: Donors are People First; Philanthropic Partners Second
Connect more deeply with donor partners as unique individuals and find out what they’re thinking and feeling. Donor relationships do not remain constant over time without significant work and ongoing communication. Just like a relationship with a significant other, things evolve. They change. They grow (or they die). Do you know what your donors care most about right now? Do you know if they perceive you to be delivering it to them?
Do everything in your power to show donor partners you: (1) seek to know and understand them on a deeply personal level; (2) can be relied upon to be completely trustworthy as stewards of their investment, and (3) will always seek to partner honestly and effectively with them to assure a win/win for all involved parties.
Demonstrate to your partners their significance to you, especially during times of stress and uncertainty. This is done by assuring relevance in your messaging. If your communications fail to connect with your target audiences, then you’re adding no value to their lives. So why would they choose to add value to yours? The best way to discern relevance is by asking and listening. You’d do this in the therapist’s office with a spouse. You’d do it over coffee with a friend. You must do this socially – in person, on the phone, at events, on your website, through your emails and via social media – with your donors.
Engage in proactive strategies to understand your constituents’ values, interests, desires, worries, etc. so your messages and calls to action resonate with them. Can you say with confidence that a donor will read your message and think to themselves: Yes, that’s exactly how I’m feeling?
5 Strategies to Connect and Resonate with Donors
1. Ask for feedback to get to know your constituents better.
Start with those closest to you – your board, donors, volunteers and clients.
(2) Or call up 20 donors (or alumni or parents or grateful patients) randomly to find out what is connecting them to you right now – and what may be pulling them away.
2. Capture what you learn about your constituents in your database.
There’s nothing worse than someone telling you (or your boss or your board chair or…) about a specific interest they have, and then having you ignore what they’ve shared. It makes your donor feel you’re not listening to them. This often manifests itself when a new development director comes on board and communicates with a donor in a manner that shows they’re clearly clueless. But it also happens when the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. I can’t tell you how many times I had to pretend I knew something because a donor assumed my E.D. would have shared with me what they shared with them. If I hadn’t pretended, the donor would have thought what they shared wasn’t important or interesting enough to pass on. Awkward.
This is why you need a good donor base to undergird all your fundraising strategies. If I meet with a donor, and can enter what transpired into the database, then someone else on my team can quickly look it up if the donor reaches out to them. They can then say with confidence: “I know you met with Claire last week, and see she was going to get you more information on this. Can I help you with that?” That’s donor-centered service!
If you don’t have any of the following, it may be time to consider getting a new database and/or allocating some dedicated resources to these important functions.
Do you have:
(1) Ability to easily record and retrieve information about interests, concerns, donor demographics, event attendance, volunteer and philanthropic participation?
(2) Assigned staff to record/retrieve this information (including debriefing other staff and volunteers)?
(3) Ability to query and segment so you can hone your outreach and appear relevant to each constituent?
Your database is the foundation of your ability to sustain lasting relationships with supporters.
3. Pay attention to what’s being said about your organization online.
(1) If people are posting about you on Facebook, see what they’re saying.
(2) If they’re tweeting about their volunteer or client experience, do you know about it?
(3) Are they leaving reviews on Yelp?
(4) Are they posting videos of their experiences with you to YouTube?
(5) Think carefully about what this online activity reveals to you. Who are your best influencers? What do your fans care most about? What cause people to click on links and/or share?
You must allocate some staff time to research what people are saying about you; then consider how this might inform your communications strategy moving forward.
4. Pay attention to your most visited web pages and most clicked on links.
This lets you know what parts of your mission resonate with people.
Why is this so critically important?
If all your newsletters are replete with stories about programs very few folks care about, you have a real disconnect. Don’t rely on what you knew was true five years ago, or even one year ago.
(1) Use free Google Analytics (see why here) to learn what really floats folks’ boats.
(2) Use features built in to most CRM solutions designed to help you build on your donor data and use it to develop smart strategies and cultivate meaningful relationships.
People’s interests evolve and change normally, and even more so in our fast-paced world.
5. Use the information you’ve gathered in communications with donors.
One of the best ways to show donors you know them is to personalize messaging to them. This doesn’t mean just using an automated program to plop their first name into the salutation field.
(1) Segment your mailing list and target different groups, and even sub-groups, with individualized messaging. This is especially important for appeals. Cat people are not dog people. Children’s services people are not senior services people. Prospects are not renewals. First-time donors are not ongoing donors.
(2) When you write something intended for broad distribution, like a newsletter, think about and go with averages. If you know 75% of your constituents are interested in Program A, 22% in Program B, and 3% in Program C, you’re probably going to want to write about them in roughly those same percentages. Still… for folks who care about Program C, you’ll be missing the mark most of the time. So… consider a targeted communication to those folks that shows them you know and appreciate them too (e.g., tweak the subject line to say something along the lines of “Because you supported veteran’s services, you’ll be especially interested in this month’s ‘Story Corner.'”)
Think about the reasons folks affiliate with you and what it is about your mission and programs that most interests them.
The days of donors simply acting altruistically are in the past.
It’s not enough to rest on your laurels in the belief that just because you ‘do good work’ people will find you and support you. There are lots of folks doing good work out there. Not just nonprofits, but also B corporations and socially conscious businesses. Competition for donors is fierce! Per Mike Geiger, president and CEO of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, “Donors who give $50 – $250 annually are the mainstay of many charities that don’t have major gift programs. The slow, long-term drop in the number of these donors is jeopardizing the work and impact of many charities.”
The present and future belongs to organizations who actively embrace strategic donor relationship-building management — and not just for major donors.
As we enter prime fundraising season, it’s more important than ever to consider:
(1) What will entice current donors to renew?
(2) What will you do to encourage both current and new donors to stick with you?
What are you doing to show your donors you know them, care about them, are grateful to them, and you want to know them even better?
*Years ago Penelope Burk’s groundbreaking donor-centered research revealed that donor’s most cared about being known and personally valued. The mantra she came up with was “Show me that you know me.”
This means two things:
(1) KNOW them, and (2) SHOW them.
One out of two isn’t enough. That’s a failing grade.
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Here’s what just one person had to say about this Guide:
I felt like you were personally cheering me on through the material. Hands on information that shows HOW to do the things that others only say is important.
I find it very helpful, especially in teaching board members about the concept of making thank you calls. When it comes from an authority like you, it just has a different flavor. You did a great job putting it all in one place!
— José Lusende, CFRE, St. Mary’s Child Center
Written by this author, a version of this article first appeared in the AFP Golden Gate Chapter newsletter, The Bridge, January 2012
Photo: Flickr, Ferran Pestana