What’s in a name?
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” said Shakespeare.
But, would it?
Seth Godin thinks words matter. As do I.
The meaning of the word is the reason we used the word.
If we don’t agree about the meaning of the word, we haven’t communicated.
Instead of, “that’s just semantics,” it seems more productive to say, “I’m confident we have a semantics problem.”
Because that’s all of it.
The way we process words changes the way we act. The story we tell ourselves has an emotional foundation, but those emotions are triggered by the words we use.
— Seth Godin
What do you call the folks who respond to your fundraising appeals?
Are they donors?
Maybe that’s okay. Or perhaps it causes you to process these folks in your mind simply as people who contribute to your cause, rather than three dimensional people with deeply-held values that align powerfully with those your organization enacts. If you’ve ever thought to yourself “Oh, she’s just a donor,” you might see the potential problem with this transactional categorization.
Are they investors?
I prefer this. The word intimates these are people who have a vested interest in the outcome. They want to stay engaged to learn about what happens with the money they’ve given to you. When you use this word you understand, ipso facto, the need to keep these folks informed. At the very least, these people are not just defined by a one-time transaction. Investment has the quality of putting something away to provide for a better future. By its nature, it’s a transformative act.
Are they philanthropists?
This is how I most prefer to characterize folks who take a “voluntary action for the public good.” This phrase is how Robert Payton, the first full-time Director of the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University, defined philanthropy. He saw philanthropists as people with a spiritual (not necessarily religious) calling. Philanthropy seen as a special kind of occupation — a vocation. Philanthropy isn’t incidental; it’s part of these folks’ essence. And it’s done absent coercion. For the benefit of the good. To me, this aligns with the literal translation of the word from the Greek – love of humankind. Philanthropists are passionate lovers.
What do you call what you do with folks to build their loyalty and connection to your cause?
Is it cultivation?
This is a popular term in fundraising circles, and it’s easy to build the analogy that if you water and fertilize your donors they’ll bloom. The first definition of cultivation, after all, is oriented towards the raising and tilling of crops. This may cause you to think of your supporters as potted plants. As such, they’ve little agency of their own and are totally reliant on you to tend to them.
Rather than empowering these philanthropists to enact their passions independently, you assume the full burden of ‘growing’ their ardor. To use another metaphor, if you give them a fish, they’ll eat. If you don’t, they’ll starve. Fail at cultivation and your folks will wither and die.
Is it stewardship?
This term is often used interchangeably with cultivation. In fact, I used to use ‘cultivation’ to describe touches and moves prior to a gift being made, and ‘stewardship’ to describe the very same actions subsequent to a gift being made. It worked as an internal framework but, in retrospect, I see that makes it all about process and not about the philanthropists themselves. In fact, the definition of stewardship refers to the investment, not the person. You want to steward the resource given to you so it is preserved for its intended purpose.
There’s also a theological definition of stewardship holding that humans are responsible for the world, and should take care of it. In this context the philanthropists themselves would be considered the stewards. The orientation is towards that which they are endeavoring to care for, with you, not what you are doing to them. If you’re going to use this word, you might want to think about it more this way. You want to empower folks to act as good stewards.
Is it moves management?
I’m certainly guilty of using this as an internal management tool. It’s a major gift prospect approach to plan, make and keep track of a targeted number of “moves” or “touches” per year to folks in your portfolio. Each “move” is targeted to move your prospect along a relationship continuum – from awareness… to interest… to involvement… to investment — depending upon where they currently are in relationship to your nonprofit.
Again, it works as an internal framework. However, it also causes you to think about your supporters a bit like pieces that can be moved around on a chessboard. That’s why, recently, I’ve taken to thinking about this terminology more broadly. If you use this phrase, you might want to think about it as emotionally moving folks to enact their values and passions.
Is it relationship building?
This, in my opinion, is where all the other terms lead. The only way to sustain any kind of loyalty with folks you want to make a voluntary investment in your cause is to build a positive relationship with them. Once they make their first gift you must reassure them you are worthy of their love. Thank them promptly and personally to show you can be trusted. When you think about it, trust is the foundation of all lasting relationships. Communicate with them regularly. Listen to assure them you care about them not just for their wallet, but for the values you share. In other words, relate to folks.
Relationships require give and take. Don’t just tell (“we are so great”) and ask (“will you give us money?”). Ask (“what’s important to you?”) and let them tell (“would like to learn more about XYZ”)! To relate you must get inside your constituents’ heads. Ask some critical questions about what they think you’re doing and why they care. Consider their answers and seriously think about what they may mean for you moving forward. When you’re relating to folks you’ll ipso facto build your communications plan differently. And you’ll end up being a lot more meaningful to the folks who are your best customers. And that’s the way you’ll keep them.
Nonprofit Fundraising: Semantics Matter
Do unto your philanthropists – these ‘lovers of humankind’ — as you would have them do unto you.
Get to know these people.
Think of them as three-dimensional, not two-dimensional.
Begin to build a relationship, taking into account what your folks value.
Individually, not as a category.
Give them something of value. Not just once a year, but regularly.
Metaphorically, teach them to fish in your pond. Enable them to be actors, not just passive bystanders.
Stay in touch.
Remain relevant. Demonstrate to your friends and partners their significance to you.
Become a part of the family.
Then, and only then, will they decide to become part of yours.
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Questions? Just ask me.