“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there” – Lewis Carroll
This is actually a paraphrase of an exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I use it often to encourage people to develop and stick to a plan. Lewis Carroll, on the other hand, was celebrating the benefits from random wanderings.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” [asked Alice]
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
Random wanderings have their place. Carroll was a mathematics professor with a lifelong inability to focus on mathematics. It all turned out fine in the end, as he gifted the world with his wonderful prose.
I’m going to guess, however, your nonprofit does not have the luxury of allowing its development staff to wander aimlessly.
- You care where you’re headed.
- Your destination matters.
- You need to get there in the most effective way possible.
So put your inner Alice or Lewis away and save them for your weekend perambulations. Instead, adopt a different persona. In my work with donors, I like to consider myself as an “Engagement Sherpa” standing by the side of the donor, gently guiding and supporting them as they walk down the pathway towards passionate philanthropy. This requires picking a road and planning the journey.
Major Gift Strategy Requires Rigorous Thinking
The hallmark of successful major gift fundraising programs is thoughtful, strategic, personal donor cultivation. Alas, too many nonprofits engage in what I call incidental detached cultivation — a meeting here, a party there, and perhaps a greeting card or two sent along for good measure. Too often these “touches” or “moves” are the same for every donor prospect on your list. They don’t take into account the fact some donors have different interests, communication preferences, core values and philanthropic motivations than others.
There is no “one size fits all” in strategic major donor cultivation. When that’s your mojo, the only place you get to is the meeting, party or mailbox. Is that your goal?
I’d suggest random acts of cultivation is a pretty thoughtless way of approaching your work. You get to check things off your list, and it feels like you’re “working,” but who is it working for? Will you be happy if at the end of the year you’ve hosted six house parties and sent out holiday cards to your donors – yet have seen no increase in numbers of gifts or average gift size? Will your donor be happy they’ve been supported by you to make a joyful, purposeful gift? Hardly.
Major Donor Cultivation Must Be Purposeful
Absent rigorous thinking and planning, much so-called cultivation is wasted energy. It’s like watering your garden once every six months and expecting it to bloom and grow. You could have done nothing and reached the same, failed result. So, how do you move from a random series of unconnected activities to a purposeful, systematic, coordinated approach that is part of an overall solicitation plan?
Cultivation and stewardship can be defined as the strategic “road map” to effective solicitation. If the journey is a pleasant, enriching, rewarding, enlightening and enjoyable one — as opposed to one where you merely wander around, never sure where you are or where you’re going — then reaching the destination is a natural culmination.
7 Top Tips to Ensure Purposeful Cultivation
1. To work “smart,” focus and channel your energies towards a stated outcome goal.
A cultivation outcome goal answers the “why” question. It may be that you hosted a house party in order to introduce new potential donors to your organization. Or in order to generate new major gifts. Perhaps you invited mid-level donors to an onsite getting-to-know-you coffee, or an online town hall, in order to engage them in advocacy efforts. Or in order to develop larger numbers of increased gifts.
Whatever the cultivation event, don’t lose sight of why you’re doing this. Simply deciding to host a party because… (e.g., you saw another organization do it; you learned about it on a webinar; your board chair suggested it; it’s your anniversary, etc.) smacks of randomness. Random cultivation risks “burn out” of staff and volunteers, not to mention a too-high cost of fundraising.
2. Cultivation can be general (for a group) or specific (for one prospect).
Indicate to the prospect/donor that they are valued partners with you in providing community services. The focus should be donor-centered, offering opportunity to learn about the organization, and concentrating on the impact of investment on fulfilling your mission.
Remember, not everyone wants the same type of cultivation/recognition. Some want to “belong.” Others want to see the impact of their gift. Some want recognition. Some want to pay it backwards or forwards. Some want to fulfill a moral or religious obligation. Some want to transform the world. It behooves you to learn as much about your prospect(s) as possible, so you can tailor their cultivation journey. Think like a matchmaker.
3. Cultivation is a partnership with board, volunteers, donors and staff.
Staff plans and participates in opportunities for volunteers to meet and talk with prospective donors. Assure your board understands its role in making themselves available for planned events. Strive for a balance of shoulder-rubbing and story swapping with experts in the field as well as VIP leaders who can offer social proof your mission, vision and values are support-worthy.
Always make it a practice to debrief with cultivation event hosts, be they staff or volunteer. When you don’t input useful information into your database, you risk not only using it but also losing it. And donors hate it when you seem to not know something they’ve told you.
4. Cultivation must have a point; it is a means to an end, not an end in itself
Sadly, too often organizations engage in “checklist cultivation.” “We held a parlor meeting and 12 people attended.” Check! As if the fact the event merely happened is enough to justify the work that went into it. Alas, you could host a parlor meeting every week and it wouldn’t help you one whit if you simply ended there.
The devil is in the follow up. And you can’t follow up effectively if you don’t know your goal.
5. Cultivation requires a budget and assigned personnel.
It costs money to raise money. Take care your efforts are not so lavish it appears you don’t need the contributions you seek. But remember: As King Lear told his daughter Cordelia, “Nothing comes from nothing.” Consider what you’ll need to make the event fun, comfortable, inspiring and pleasing to all. On the cost side, consider: Invitations and postage; Space, rental, utilities, insurance, and security; Refreshments; Entertainment; Décor and signage; Personnel; Take-away materials.
Plan ahead to incorporate mission-focused inspiration and necessary follow-up. Effective cultivation is not a one-shot deal, but an ongoing effort. What can you weave in to the cultivation event to make sure people leave with increased knowledge of your organization? What emotional and resonant stories can you tell to capture people’s imagination and draw them in? What methodology and timeline will you use for good follow-through (i.e., (1) getting names/addresses of attendees and adding to mailing list; (2) passing around a sign-up sheet for folks who’d like to get further involve; (3) making notes about what you learned about attendees so you can input into your database; (4) debriefing staff and volunteers who attended to find out what they learned; (5) sending thank you’s; (6) making personal phone calls to get feedback, answer questions and follow through on anything that came up at the event; and (7) planning for next steps with each attendee)?
6. Cultivation should incorporate elements that lead to building a stronger relationship.
Treating donors as ATMs all the time does not build a happy, productive friendship. If that’s the feeling donor prospects get from your cultivation activities, you’re going down the wrong path. Fundraising luminaries for years have been studying what drives donor commitment and retention. It turns out there are seven principle drivers of donor love and loyalty. You will want to incorporate as many of these as possible into your cultivation strategies:
- Personal link to you
- Performance in accomplishing your mission
- Tangible link to beneficiaries
- Multiple engagements
- Shared beliefs
- Choice and quality of communications
Bottom line: If you’re not in this for the long haul (i.e., if you’re not recording actions in your database, viewing and analyzing reports, planning your next “touches” and “moves” as part of a systematic plan, and focusing your efforts on an articulated goal), then forget about it entirely. It’s a waste.
7. Cultivation must ultimately resolve in a call to action.
Cultivation without an “ask” is not only pointless; it can annoy prospective donors who expect to be invited to become further invested in your mission. When people agree to attend a donor cultivation event they do so for a reason. They know what this is all about. If you fail to engage them following the event, they may feel any or all of the following:
- I guess I didn’t make a good impression.
- I guess they didn’t think I was interested.
- I guess they didn’t think I had the ability to contribute.
- I guess they’re inefficient.
- I guess they can’t be trusted to follow up.
- I guess they didn’t like me.
- I guess I don’t meet their needs.
Don’t nip the donor’s flower in the bud. When you invite donors to be cultivated, and then don’t follow through to reap the fruits of your labor, this feels worse to them than if you never singled them out to be nurtured in the first place. In effect, you got their hopes up. They thought your organization might be a way to bring more meaning to their life. And then, nothing. This makes them sad. They may go elsewhere.
You don’t need stuff to just keep you busy. While it can be challenging to find time to sit down and plan, assuring there’s a vision, big picture goals, objectives, strategies, tactics and accountability before you move into implementation mode is absolutely essential. Otherwise, you can be really busy, but just spinning your wheels. Hamsters run really hard – but the wheel stays in the same place.
Cultivation is a terrible thing to waste.
Think about your last cultivation event or strategy.
- Did you make the most of it?
- If so, what was most successful?
- If not, what didn’t work?
- What did you miss?
- What would you do differently next time?
Please share in the COMMENTS BELOW. We learn from each other!
Seize the day with your thoughtfully planned, not random, cultivation!
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