Inside the Donor’s Head

When you take the time to talk to an engaged donor you realize their head and heart are very busy. Their passion for your mission and concern about your clients keeps them engaged. Their engagement makes them think about your nonprofit, mission, and clients.

Every donor thinks about your nonprofit, clients, and mission when prompted by news, communications, attending an event, or being cultivated. The engaged donors’ passion, interest, and excitement about your mission’s potential causes them to think about your nonprofit without prompting.

Most donors who attend your events are interested in what is happening at the event. Engaged donors are energized by the opportunity before they reach the event. They may be energized days or weeks in advance. That is the reason they often invite or attend with a friend. Their energy level increases just seeing a note from you in their inbox or having your voice message. In addition, engaged donors are enthusiastic volunteers and look forward to being invited to help your clients in more ways than just donating. Use your cultivation to determine what energizes your donors. Ensure they are re-energized every time they are in contact with your nonprofit.

Most donors care about the impact their gifts have. Engaged donors have envisioned the impact. They care deeply about the impact. They want the impact to be of the highest quality and greatest durability. Numbers are boring. However, the implication behind the numbers is exciting. Donor are excited by the statistics that prove more people achieved success, the mission is having a deeper impact on your clients’ lives, and is shaping your clients’ future. Make sure the numbers you have are presented in ways that excite your donors.  

Donors are sometimes discouraged by obstacles, setbacks, and missteps. Engaged donors stay focused on the goals and remain committed to achieving what is important. The continued engagement of the donor helps to provide the resources to turn a setback into a step forward. The engaged donor is a key to the nonprofit’s long-term sustainability and the sustainability of the nonprofit’s funding stream.

Most donors take what you have to offer. Engaged donors try to shape what you are offering because they can see the potential your mission has to offer your clients. They want your nonprofit to be all it can be.

Because of what is going on between an engaged donor’s head and heart, they are loyal, generous, and involved. They know how important your nonprofit can be to your community and clients. They want your nonprofit to thrive and live up to its potential.

Sadly, many nonprofits fail to embrace their engaged donors. The donors’ attempts to shape the direction, services, and results of the mission are seen as meddling in areas where donors are unwanted and unqualified. Instead, include the donors and provide them with the education they need to be qualified. Use the donors’ desire to shape your nonprofit as confirmation of their interest and engagement. When a donor’s passion is left unnurtured, it is easy to lose what could have been a loyal, generous, and passionate donor.  

A donor’s desire to have evidence of their gift’s effectiveness can be seen as a lack of trust and the data collection and analysis can be seen as an unnecessary use of funds. However, providing proof of the donor’s effectiveness will increase the donor’s generosity and loyalty. When obstacles, setbacks, or missteps occur, you want your donors to be especially loyal and generous. Nurturing their engagement all of the time increases the potential you will have the support you need when you need it most.

Next Step:

Look for the indicators (donors wanting to have input, wanting statistics that show effectiveness, etc.) that tell you new donors have the potential to be engaged donors

Nurture the engagement of any donor who shows signs of budding engagement

Change your nonprofit’s culture to embrace engaged donors

The behavior that causes donors to disengage is under the control of your board and your fundraising team. The policies (actions), plans (thoughts) and conversations and communications (words) of your board lay the foundation for your nonprofit’s culture. Your nonprofit’s leadership’s (professional and volunteer) actions either underscore or undermine the culture of your board’s thoughts, words, and deeds. Your stakeholders will model their behavior after the leadership. Their level of engagement and willingness to engage will also be influenced by the culture they perceive and experience.

Take It Further:

Ask your board development committee to only recruit board members who are engaged donors

Ask your board development committee to nurture the engagement of all of your board members

Use donor engagement as the success measure for your fundraising rather than dollars raised and fundraising goals met



Always Be Engaging

Your donors want to be engaged with your mission and clients. That is why they sought out your nonprofit. Deepen your understanding of what engages your nonprofit’s donors through cultivation.

Talk with some of your engaged donors. They will tell you what engages them, why they remain engaged, and what first attracted them to your nonprofit. Also talk with some of your unengaged donors. They can perhaps tell you what they would like to hear that will increase their engagement.

Donor engagement increases when donors are more involved. Most of the time that means something other than writing another check or attending another event. Identify your most engaged donors. Search through your records to see how they are involved beyond giving. From there you can create more engagement opportunities. When you talk with them you can ask for their engagement ideas.

Talk with your engaged donors about the benefits they experience from their engagement with your mission and clients. From there you can develop ways to deliver more benefits to all of your donors more often. You can also ask your donors what motivates them to stay involved and find ways to provide more of what motivates them. You can test your new ideas (benefits and motivation) with prospective donors and those donors who are unengaged or minimally engaged.

Just asking your donors for input will be engaging for them. It sends a clear message that they are valued for more than their money. It provides them with another way to contribute.

All of the above can be part of your normal cultivation. You could also meet with small groups of donors. Bringing them together to talk about their engagement is another way for them to contribute. Devote half or three-quarters of the meeting to your questions. Reserve the rest of the time for the donors to socialize. They will enjoy the time with other like-minded people. In addition, when like-minded people are gathered together, it is a tangible reminder that they are part of something larger and important. Being part of something that is important is engaging by itself. Find other reasons to gather donors together for a productive activity that can be combined with intentional socializing.

Next Step:

Be intentional about engaging your donors (communications, recruiting, activities, etc.)

Learn from your current donors (engaged and disengaged)

Help your donors socialize with other donors

Ensure a board member is present when gathering donors. Board members are donors also. While they are very active in the life of your nonprofit, most executives wish their board members where more engaged. This will help. In addition, this will provide the board members present with new insights. Their presence will also underscore how much value your nonprofit places on donors and their insights.

You will have the engaged donors you want if you are intentional about engaging your donors.

Take It Further:

Treat all of your volunteers, staff members, and other stakeholder like donors (it creates a culture of engagement, makes your engagement seem more authentic, and raises the productivity of your staff)

Ask your board to create policies and allocate funds that will support developing a more engaging culture



Do Your Donors Feel Like They Belong?

Engaged donors are easier to cultivate and they are anxious to help your nonprofit. Many nonprofits think that engaged donors are as rare as 10-carat diamonds. We agree that engaged donors are like valuable diamonds but we think you shape them rather than find them.

The starting point is someone who cares about your mission and your clients’ needs. The more deeply they care the easier your job is but all that you need is someone who cares. We listen when someone talks about something we care about. Unless a donor is listening, it is impossible to engage them.

You must have something to say that they want to hear or you must ask questions to encourage them to talk about something that is important to your mission (not your nonprofit) or your clients. Asking questions is the better tactic. When they are able to talk about things that interest them, they will want to be associated with your mission. Feeling like they belong is engaging by itself. It also helps them feel like your mission is or could be an extension of their identity. People are happy to promote and support organizations that they identify with. Use your communications with donors (mailings, cultivation, texts, etc.) to intensify their feelings of belonging. Ensure that everything your nonprofit does, starting with your board, adds authenticity to your communications.

Donors want to feel included and important. They know their money is important. They also want to know they are more important than their money. Here are four things you can do to help your donors realize their importance and feel included:

Listen – Solicited and unsolicited ideas are listened to and respected. Ensure your donors’ ideas are given a fair hearing by your leadership to intensify your donors’ sense of belonging. Ensuring that they receive feedback about their ideas helps to demonstrated that the ideas were considered.

Invite - Asking donors for help also makes them feel like they belong. This is especially true if they are invited to help in ways other than financial. They want to know that they belong because of who they are rather than how much they give.

Accept Push Back – It is impossible for a donor to be responsive to every request. They want to be comfortable declining. Be careful to never ask a donor for help in a way that might make them feel guilty. Trust that their passion will keep them from declining without justification.

Support – Rarely do donors need something from the nonprofits they support. When they do they want to feel they will receive support. Ensure they know that they can count on you as much as you can count on them.

Belonging is a two-way street. Your response to your donors models the response you can expect from them.

Next Step:

Recruit prospective donors who care; thank and release the other prospects

Cultivate every donor’s sense of belonging to your nonprofit

Ensure your nonprofit’s thoughts, words, and deeds (at all levels and across every activity) are consistent with what you want your donors and other stakeholders to feel, hear, see, and do

Ensure that every interaction with a donor models the behavior you want your donors to adopt

Boards have many issues facing them every meeting. It is easy for them to think that the current issue is the most important. However, when a board member asks, “How do we get the donors to give more?”, they are treating donors like a resource rather than people who are part of the team. Even if the donors never hear what was said, it is still an indication that the nonprofit’s culture needs to be more donor centric. Hopefully when that happens at your nonprofit someone on the fundraising committee speaks up.

Take It Further:

Ask your board development committee to teach board members how to be donor sensitive in all that they think, say, and do

Ensure everything you want your donors to experience is authentically part of your culture

Tell stories about your nonprofit that demonstrate the authenticity of your belonging environment

Change the fundraising committee’s name to donor services committee to emphasize your commitment to being donor centric


Questions for Donors

Donor cultivation must be customized for each donor. That is one of the reasons that one-on-one cultivation is important. It is time consuming, which is why it is difficult to justify it for every donor. However, it is hard to know which of your small-but-loyal donors have the capacity to be a significant donor. WIthout a little targeted cultivation you may never know.

What engages donors is the same thing that engages anyone. They are engaged by information that is important to them or relevant to their lives. Donors make initial contact with your nonprofit for a reason. Sometimes the reason is social pressure, family history, or some other non-mission or non-client related reason. Your small-but-loyal donors who remain engaged for mission or client related reasons are asking to be cultivated. Their initial interest tells you that they care and they want to know more. Some of your small-but-loyal donors may be hanging around waiting for their turn to be cultivated. Some who have been cultivated in the past and are still loyal may be hoping that they will receive more effective or personalized cultivation.

Below are a few questions for donors that you can use to learn more about any donor’s interests. With that information you can customize your cultivation, adjust your events and other activities to be more appealing to more people, and spot trends important to your clients, donors, and community.

What information are you most interested in receiving about our mission and clients?

Donors receive more information than they need or want. Knowing what information delights them makes your communications with them more engaging. It also provides insights that will help make all of your communications more engaging.

What are you doing when you are aware of the value of our mission?

Part of what makes your mission and clients important to donors is the relevance to their lives. The answer to that question tells you more about why your mission and clients are relevant to your donors.

What do you say to others about our mission?

This will help you know how well they understand your mission. It also tells you how effectively they are advocating for your mission and clients. You can use your donor cultivation to help them increase their effectiveness. Their willingness to tell others about your mission is another indication of their engagement.

What about our mission do you think others should better understand?

Besides giving you additional insights about how well they understand your mission, it tells you more about what they think is important and what they think should be important to others.

What additional changes do you want your gifts to make in the lives of our clients?

This is their opportunity to tell you how to make your mission more effective and your clients more successful. It also give you additional information about what you can do to increase their generosity.

It may be tempting to ask a donor every question. It is better to limit your conversation to one or two question each time you see the donor. Just asking one question will increase the donor’s engagement even if they are unprepared to answer the question. Asking the question demonstrates that you value their feedback and their relationship to your mission. In addition, asking the questions will set your donor relationships apart from most other nonprofits’ donor relationships. Your donor-centric approach will be refreshing for your donors.

Next Step:

Customize the questions to fit your style and each individual donor’s tastes

Ask the questions in person and no more than two at a time

Develop a plan to enhance each donor’s engagement

Share the responses with your board, everyone involved in fundraising, and those who serve your clients

Your board especially needs to know what you learn. They also need to be reminded how frequently you hear each response. It is your board’s responsibility to set policy and create a culture that encourages donor engagement. With your insights they will be more effective and your mission will be more relevant and valuable for your community.

Take It Further:

Treat volunteers (including board members) like donors to increase their engagement


Think and Act Collaboratively

Successful fundraising depends on a partnership between your nonprofit and your donors. The partnership is created by your fundraisers. Your board also has a significant but indirect role to play in creating the partnership.

The success of any partnership depends on all sides cooperating. In the case of a nonprofit there are three key components in the partnership. One is the donor. The second is the fundraiser. The third is the nonprofit.

The fundraiser must be a collaborator. Additionally, the fundraiser must screen prospective donors to ensure they are collaborators also. Some donors prefer to exercise more control over their gifts than is practical in a collaboration. The line must be drawn by the board.

The ability of the fundraiser to collaborate with a donor to set reasonable expectations and restrictions on the use of the donor’s funds is important to the success of the partnership. It is hard to be restrictive when a donor is willing to write a large check, especially if the nonprofit has an immediate need for cash. However, the conditions established by the donor must be carefully considered. The demands might do more long-term harm than the immediate good justifies. For instance, if the demands displease other donors or impact the success of a significant number of clients, the loss of sustainability may be significant. Keep in mind that the impact of the donor’s demands might only be noticable several months later.

The board finance committee must be willing to give the fundraiser the latitude to create a mutually beneficial partnership what will be durable. Many times a board’s finance committee will give the immediate cash needs of the nonprofit greater importance than protecting the sustainability of the funding stream. This limits the fundraising team’s ability to be selective when recruiting donors. There must be a balance between near term and long term. The long term must always take priority.

The fundraiser must be able to help donors focus on their long-term goals and temper their interests in short-term issues that sound good but, may over the long term, be suboptimal for the donor, clients, or the mission. Catering to the near-term interest of a donor with a large check is the easy solution. Protecting the sustainability of the funding stream takes more effort. It makes the future better, which is hard to remember when there is payroll to meet and vendors standing in line to be paid. It takes courage to trust the future when the present seems to be under siege. The board must be objective at times like this and encourage the fundraiser to remain future focused.

The board must also proactively create and maintain an organizational culture that promotes collaboration. Most boards aspire to create a collaborative culture but they set policies that are rigid and they insist that the policies be enforced. Collaboration requires flexibility and the willingness to deal with ambiguity and sometimes make exceptions to policy. A formal structure makes it difficult to be responsive to the diverse needs of diverse clients and donors.

The best approach is to have guidelines that define the desired results rather than policies focused on how the results are achieved. Many board members want to trust the staff to abide by the guidelines but they worry that a misstep will reflect poorly on them and their ability to carry out their responsibilities as board members.  Stricter procedures can seem like a less risky approach but they ultimately hinder the staff’s ability to innovate.

Next Step:

Empower your fundraising team to be selective when recruiting donors

Require your fundraising team to give the long-term impact on fundraising, clients, donors, and the mission a higher priority than meeting this year’s goal

Use your board development committee to train the finance team to trust the rest of your nonprofit do do their jobs

Ask your board development committee to monitor your board’s decision making and policy setting to ensure they foster a culture of collaboration and flexibility

Establishing a collaborative environment and recruiting collaborative fundraisers and donors is the first step. The fundraising process must continue to cultivate the partnership between the donors and the board. In part, this requires the board to be responsive to the donors’ requests while ensuring that the requests will be embraced by all of the donors and will result in increased client success through increasing mission effectiveness.

Take It Further:

Use the increase in donor engagement to determine how your collaboration with your donors is working

Ask your board development committee to recruit members who have a history of collaboration

Ask your fundraisers to preview board decisions and policies with select donors (give donors the opportunity to collaborate at all levels)


Say, Think, Do

Actions speak louder than words. In other words, intentions establish expectations but actions create results. In many cases, results are the only way a donor can ensure their gift is being used in the way they want and producing the outcome and value they expect.

Donors will give based upon what you tell them will happen or needs to happen (intentions). Their ongoing support and the growth in generosity depend on the results your nonprofit produces. If a nonprofit that serves women and children tells a donor about the needs of the children, it must talk about how it has meaningfully, measurably, and durably changed the children’s lives.

Failure to talk about the children’s results seems like empty intentions. In some cases, it may be a few months or years before the outcomes deliver on its promises. In that case, the nonprofit has two choices. One is to tell the donor that their gifts will be use to lay the foundation for helping the children. The alternative is to say nothing about the children until the nonprofit has evidence it is delivering on its intentions.

Donors want integrity in their relationship with a nonprofit. When donors see a difference between intentions and results, they may feel that expediency (doing what is necessary to encourage a donor to give) has trumped integrity (delivering the promised results). Dissatisfied donors are likely to tell other donors and prospective donors. The ripple effect on your fundraising will be much greater than the consequences of missing this year’s fundraising goal.

You must also speak with absolute clarity. Donors must hear what you intend to say. Months after saying it, the donors are going to judge the results. If the results differ from the donors’ recollection or expectations, it is the donors’ recollection that determine their satisfaction and willingness to continue the relationship. This also explains why sometimes nonprofits receive one-time gifts. The one-time gift is a polite way of saying, “I don’t trust what you said but it is easier to give you $25 than argue the point.”

Be humble and conservative when setting expectations about the results that will be produced. It is easy to be enthusiastic about the results a program will produce, especially when your client has a pressing need for the results. If you are proud of your nonprofit, the services it provides, and the impact your mission is having on your community, it is also easy to be enthusiastic about what your nonprofit intends to do. If your nonprofit’s results are significantly better than your competitors, it is easy to be enthusiastic about what your nonprofit has to offer. All of that may lead an organization to create expectations that are hard to fulfill. It is very difficult for donors to determine when it is honest enthusiasm or misleading information.

Cultivation is the best way to learn how to accurately communicate with your donors. Clear communications leads to better donor retention, higher donor engagement, and increasing donor generosity. All of which creates increased sustainability for your nonprofit and funding stream.

Being donor driven means more than doing what you must to satisfy a donor. It means living inside of your donors’ heads and hearts. When you see and feel the world through their eyes, ears, and hearts, it makes a significant difference in your fundraising.

Next Step:

Say what you mean and deliver on what you say

Ensure your donors hear what you mean (your results fulfill the expectations the donors develop by listening to what you said)

Ensure your cultivation provides you with the information you need to clearly communicate with your donors

Be donor centric in everything you and your nonprofit do

It is impossible to have flawless execution. When it is impossible to meet a donor’s expectations, be the first to tell them. If they hear it from some other source or discover it for themselves, it feels like the missed expectations were being hidden from them. If they hear it from you first, it is easy for them to believe that it is truly an unusual event and that you sincerely regret what happened. In that case, the donor might even be willing to make a special gift to help you recover or fix the flaw.

Fundraisers are the spokespersons for a nonprofit. What the fundraiser promises must be the results someone else produces. That means that the donors’ perceptions of the fundraiser’s integrity depends on the nonprofit’s ability to deliver. If the fundraisers claim to be donor centric, everyone must be donor centric.

Results are the ultimate measure of the promises made. The precursors to the results are the thoughts, words, and actions of the nonprofit. It all starts with your board. Your board must be donor driven when thinking about any policy, goal, program, or plan.

Take It Further:

Use what you learn from your donor cultivation to inform the donor-centric thinking of your board

Act as the donors’ representative to your board and advocate for what matters to your donors

Encourage your board to create and execute long-term plans that will delight your donors


Generous Donor = Engagement + Culture

Every nonprofit can have generous donors. The precursors are having engaged donors and a culture that supports the mission, encourages engagement, and recognizes the value of donors.

A low percentage of donors are engaged (typically less than half). Since engagement is an important precursor to generosity, increasing donor engagement has the potential to be beneficial to every nonprofit. Luckily, engagement can be built but only if you are willing to meet with the disengaged. When you show how much donors mean to you by taking the time to meet with them, it will give them a reason to engage with your nonprofit.

With appropriate attention and feedback, engagement will grow. Since the donors are passionate about your mission and clients, the feedback must be centered on the donors’ passion. When you thank a donor, ensure the thanks is related to the donor’s impact on the mission or clients (“The weekend retreat you helped fund made the following changes in the women who attended…”). The impact must be mission, client, and donor centric. Telling them about women when they care about youth is unlikely to raise their engagement. It may even lower their engagement if they think you are ignoring their desire to help youth.

Appropriate rewards build engagement. Rather than a new tote bag, make the reward mission or client centric (“Here are two tickets to the June graduation ceremony.”). While the donor may never know which graduate they helped, knowing one of the graduates is there because of the donor’s help is emotionally rewarding.

Involvement builds engagement. Personally invite supporters (rather than sending invitations) to participate in activities, that are directly related to the mission and clients. For example, “Your donation helped three clients find jobs. Please come to The Newly Employed Clients Party.”. The best-run fundraiser is all about the mission and clients.

Making people feel important engages them. One-on-one cultivation is a great way to tell people how important they are as long as the cultivation is about the mission and clients rather than the donor’s next or last gift. Part of every cultivation session should be information sharing. Tell the donor about significant current or pending mission and client activities as well as soliciting the donor’s feedback. The communications can be done by email but in most cases it lacks the personal touch that makes it engaging. Shortcuts are rarely engaging. A short cut says that saving money is more important than investing in an important person.

Culture is also important. It is easy to have a disengaging culture. Some of the attributes of an engaging culture are:

Board – The way the board talks, thinks, and acts sets the tone for the culture. If the mission and clients are obviously at the heart of everything the board does, it focuses the culture on what the donors value. That is engaging for donors.

Values – Your leadership needs to celebrate the values that it thinks are important. There are many values that are important to your donors and board. Your board needs to make it a point to celebrate those shared values. It helps to reinforce the strong connection between your board and donors. It tells your donors they are associated with the right nonprofit.

Intentional – Donors are attracted to a nonprofit because of the potential for shared values, the promises of the mission statement, and the needs of the clients. If the board talks about what needs to be done but is inconsistent when taking action or distracted by money or something else, it is easy for the donors to feel the board is insincere.

Priorities – Most boards say they are committed to being donor, client, and mission centric. However, many nonprofits are structured to optimized efficiency, set budgets with costs being more important than effectiveness, and write policies that emphasize activity rather than results. This approach suggests to outsiders that the sustainability of the nonprofit is more important than the nonprofit’s purpose. Since serving the purpose engages donors and other stakeholders, it is the effectiveness with which the purpose is served that determines a nonprofit’s sustainability and donor engagement.

Accountability – When the board holds everyone, including themselves, accountable for their impact on the mission and clients, donors engage. They know their gifts will be used to advance the mission and help the clients succeed. This also implies that all of the success measures and goals are mission and client centric.

Next Step:

Focus on donor engagement

Create a culture that fosters donor engagement

Use donor engagement, the growth in new donors, and the growth in donor generosity as indicators of your board’s cultural development success

Nonprofit boards are seldom aware of the impact their conduct, policy setting, thoughts, and assumptions have on fundraising. Fundraising is often seen as something others do. It is often seen by the board as a necessary activity but a distraction from the real business of a nonprofit.

Fundraising is central to a nonprofit’s existence. The strength of the connection that is developed between the donors and the clients is central to having an effective mission and successful clients. Without engaged donors, many resources are lost trying to replace donors who drifted away, looking for donors who will be engaged, and trying to find new donors to make up for the limited generosity of the current donors. In other words, if your board spent more time doing what is necessary to have engaged donors, it would be unnecessary for your board to spend time trying to balance the budget.

Take It Further:

Remind your board that the engagement of your donors is the key to having the generosity your mission needs


Fundraising Is NOT Selling

Fundraising is most successful when nonprofits see their donors as partners rather than consumers.

Fundraising establishes a link between donors and clients. The nonprofit’s purpose is to serve the clients on behalf of the donors since the donors lack the time, skills, and facilities. How well the nonprofit meets the needs of the clients determines how generous and loyal the donors will be. It is up to the donors to determine if the nonprofit’s data proves the clients are being well served. Since each donor has a unique perspective, it is necessary to meet the exacting standards of each valuable donor.

Sometimes a nonprofit will feel that they provide excellent service to the clients. However, donors may disagree. Many times the gap in understanding is because the donors expect to see a result reported one way and the nonprofit is reporting it in different way. Better donor cultivation can do two things to prevent this. The first is to ensure that the nonprofit measures results the way donors expect. The second is to help the donors understand why the measurements used by the nonprofit better represent the clients’ success than what the donor expects to see. For example, donors might expect to see the rate of high school graduation increase. The nonprofit might feel that increasing the rate of college admission better represents the change in the clients’ lives and the durability of the change. If the donors are unconvinced, the nonprofit should separate its internal success measures (college admission) from what the donors want to see (high school graduation). Tracking and reporting college admissions should continue internally. The community probably places more value on college admissions than high school graduation.

In sales, it is necessary to convince a prospective buyer that the seller’s proposition is valid and important. Fundraisers must determine what donors think is important and valuable. Helping the donors develop realistic expectations or understanding is also important for healthy and engaging relationship with donors. In other words, fundraising is finding the best way to give donors what they want.

Fundraising is most successful when the donors’ interests and concerns form the basis for the relationship. Every nonprofit exists to serve the interests and expectations of its donors. When there is a clash, it is important to remember that the nonprofit invited the donor to join the team. The purpose of cultivation is to prevent clashes by only recruiting donors who share the mission’s goals, priorities, and care deeply about the needs of the clients. When there is a shared value system, donors will be happy to connect with your nonprofit.

Next Step:

Recruit donors who share your nonprofit’s values

Treat donors like partners rather than customers

Use your cultivation process to determine how to best meet each of your donors’ expectations

The typical sales process is designed around transactions. The customer needs a widget, the sales person convinces the customer that the company has the best widgets, the customer buys the widget, and other than advertising (an information push) there is very little contact between the two until the customer needs another widget.

Fundraising should be frequent communication between the nonprofit and its donors. The communication should be substantive and flow in both directions. Cultivation should include sharing information with the donor and collecting information from the donor. Some of the information collected should include the donor’s reaction to the information that was shared. Some of the information should be about changes in the donor’s life, desires, goals, and values. The donor should also be consulted on potential changes in your nonprofit’s operations and asked to recommend changes. When appropriate, help the donor see how their life, desires, goals, and values intersect with your mission and clients.

Take It Further:

Encourage your board to delay finalizing plans until the donors have had an opportunity to comment (in a healthy relationship neither side makes plans without consulting the other)


Engaging Donors

Passionate donors want to be engaged in your mission. When they are engaged, their generosity and loyalty increase.

Just starting the cultivation process with a donor will make them more engaged. Starting the process tells the donor they are important. Donors want to know they are important to your mission and clients because your mission and clients are important to your donors.

When you offer an opportunity to a donor that fits their interests, they will engage. Timing is a factor. If they just paid a large tax bill, they may be unable to make a significant donation. Therefore, you may needed to look for indicators of their engagement. For example, if they are unable to give, are they willing to help recruit others?

Involvement as a volunteer in the life of your nonprofit or the lives of your clients is another way to increase engagement. Board membership is one option but some donors will be more effective serving in other capacities. In any case, asking a donor to volunteer, tells the donor their value extends well beyond their capacity to give.

Inviting donors to be part of focus groups also tells donors they are more valuable than their donations. They want to be engaged more than just being asked to choose between two or three options. For instance, asking donors for their input on strategic issues will provide your nonprofit with a fresh perspective on an important issue. It also allows the donor to help shape your nonprofit’s future and it helps the donor to feel that they are important to a future that is attractive to them. Increasing a donor’s loyalty will help to increase the sustainability of your funding stream.

Ensuring your nonprofit is donor centric also engages donors. Successful fundraising teams are donor centric. It is easy for them since they constantly deal with donors. However, boards need to focus on many things. As result, the donors can sometimes be overlooked by the board or taken for granted. The board needs to create policy that supports and encourage everyone to be donor centric.

There is a huge difference between “We have a new initiative/budget and we need your support” and “Is this initiative important to you?” In the first, the nonprofit is assuming the donors will support the initiative or budget. The second asks the donors to help shape the future. When the donor responds positively, they are saying they will provide support. If they suggest changes, it is an even stronger statement of support.

Next Step:

Make donor engagement, rather than fundraising, the focus of your donor cultivation

Invite your donors to provide guidance and direction

Train your board to be donor centric in thoughts, words (what they say, policies they write, etc.), and actions

Boards are reluctant to give control to donors. They are concerned the donors will take the nonprofit or mission in the wrong direction. It is unlikely the donors will. Your board and staff are the experts. Your donors will listen to your advice. In addition, the problem your mission promises to solve is important to your donors. They want your nonprofit to have a high level of sustainability so that they can be confident that your nonprofit can solve the problem for future generations.

If you give your donors the engagement they want, they will give you the support your nonprofit needs to thrive.

Take It Further:

Cultivate the engagement of your volunteers

Ask your board to measure the success of your fundraising efforts by the level of engagement of your donors (make your success measures donor centric) rather than reaching the annual fundraising goal (dollar centric)


Questions to Cultivate Donors with

Donor cultivation starts after you meet a prospective donor and are confident they want to know more about your nonprofit. This is the same model you use when cultivating a long-time donor.

Start with an open-ended question about your clients, mission, the last story in your newsletter, or something else related to your nonprofit, mission, clients, results, outcomes, or a peripheral current events. Listen closely to the words the prospective donor uses, what is important to them, and their engagement with the subject. Follow with three to five more questions based upon what you heard.

Now you know what is important to them. Pause and adjust what you were going to say. Use their words as you talk about your mission and clients. Emphasize what is important to them. Nurture their engagement. Above all, talk only about what interests them. Talking about something of little interest to them will lower their enthusiasm and engagement.

Break up your presentation with questions. Listen again for the words they use, what they find important, and what engages them as they answer each question. Use the new information to further refine what you are saying and emphasizing. If you are listening carefully, you might realize that a different anecdote and set of statistics will work better than what you planned.

Successful cultivation depends on telling the donor what they want to know rather than what you want them to know.

Part of ensuring that the donor knows what they want to know is ensuring the donor hears the information in an order that makes sense to them. The right information in the wrong order will either be misunderstood or will force the donor to work hard to make sense of what they hear. Being donor centric means doing the work for the donors. The best way to do that is to start by understanding how they think. Their answers to your opening questions will provide the guidance you need.

If you start every cultivation conversation with several open-ended questions, your understanding of each donor will improve and evolve as the donor’s thinking evolves. As your understanding improves, the donor’s loyalty, generosity, and engagement will grow. There will also be an increase in the sustainability of your funding stream and nonprofit.

Next Step:

Prepare carefully for each cultivation session with each donor

Begin every cultivation conversation with several open-ended questions

Use what you hear to refine your presentation

Use the change in donor loyalty, generosity, and engagement as the success measures for your cultivation process

When you use what you learn about each donor, you significantly increase the effectiveness of your communication and the donor’s understanding. As your donors become more knowledgeable and engaged they will become better advocates for your mission, the sustainability of your nonprofit, and your clients. You will be able to measure the increase in advocacy in part by the number of new donors.

Take It Further:

Remind your board that how much a donor gives this year is less important than the number of years the donor gives (it is easier and more cost effective to retain donors than recruit new donors) and the increasing generosity of the donor each year

Treat your volunteers like donors