Stages of Giving

The goal of donor cultivation is to help donors transition from mildly curious to passionately engaged and to sustain the engagement.  Like all enjoyable journeys, every step should be savored.  As a guide, your responsibility is to move the donor comfortably from one stage to the next.

The stages are:

Awareness – This is where an individual first learns about your nonprofit.  It might be the sign in front of your building, your website, a conversation with their friend, a comment on social media, an article in the news, etc.  The first impression needs to be more than positive.  Ideally, it will create a desire to learn more.  Without the desire to learn more, the first direct contact will need to focus on creating a desire to learn more.  Only after the individual has developed sufficient interest will they move to the next stage.  It is unlikely you will know about the individual until they take the next step.

Introduction – Introduction is when the individual makes first contact with your nonprofit.  Typically this occurs when they attend an event, are introduced to someone at your nonprofit by a donor or other referral source, you have a casual conversation with them (meet a stranger), or they make a memorial gift.  Even if they make a gift as part of the introduction, the depth and sincerity of their interest in your mission is unknown.  This is your opportunity to build on their first impression.  If they are willing to have a follow-up conversation, they have become a prospective donor.

Follow-up – Things are going well.  Now learn about the prospect’s preferences, goals, interests, motivations, and expectations.  It is the time for them to learn about how your nonprofit, mission, and clients align with what is important to them.  This stage usually involves several substantive conversations.  This stage ends when you and the prospect have determined how and when they will contribute (volunteer, gift, refer, or advocate).

Tentatively Engaged – Now that the prospect has made their first informed contribution, it is time to determine their level of satisfaction with the experience.  Your goal is to determine how to make their next experience more fulfilling.  The final step in this stage is for them to make their next contribution.  This stage starts with an expression of your gratitude and appreciation.

Engaged – Congratulations!  You have a new donor.  After the second contribution, your prospect has become a donor.  Now the cultivation focuses on igniting the donor’s passion.  As the donor learns more about the depth and breadth of your mission and how well it meets the client’s needs, their passion will grow.  The increase in their giving frequency and the increase in their generosity will tell you that their passion is building.

Committed – When the donor has constantly made an increasing contribution each year for a few years, it is reasonable to assume they are committed.  They are now contributing to the sustainability of your nonprofit and mission.  At this point, they should be excited, engaged, and loyal.  It is important to remember that increasing generosity is necessary.  If they make the same size contribution every year, inflation and your growth in the number of clients served are eroding the value of their contribution.  The reduction in their contribution’s value means that, while their contribution is important, it is insufficient to sustain your nonprofit.  In addition, to be considered committed, the donor must be willing to commit to a multi-year gift.  Their commitment to a multi-year gift demonstrates their loyalty and commitment to increasing generosity.  It also helps to underwrite the sustainability of your funding stream.  This step confirms the depth and breadth of your relationship with donors.

Even with a committed donor, cultivation must continue.  While the cultivation is easier and less time consuming, strong relationships require constant attention.

Whether you can move someone through all of the stages depends on three things.  First, they must share your interest in your mission.  Without that, at best you will have someone who will make an occasional token gift (based upon their capacity to give).  Without their interest, you will spend time and resources with very little return.  It is better to redirect the time and resources to individuals with a higher potential for commitment.

Second, you must be patient; let the donor set the pace.  Focus on the small steps the donor takes rather than the large steps you want them to take.

Third, your goals will determine your success.  If success is defined as the number of new donors, taking the time to cultivate donors will limit your potential for success.  You will be tempted to define a donor as someone who makes one gift rather than someone who is engaged in your mission.  Many of the other goals the finance committee or some other group are likely to impose on fundraising can have the same effect.  When your goals are donor driven, it takes longer to achieve success but your success is more significant and more durable.  The increase in significance can be measured by greater generosity per donor, a growing donor base of loyal donors, and more engaged donors.

The sustainability of your nonprofit depends on your donors’ generosity, loyalty, and engagement.  That should be a sufficient case for making ‘donor driven’ the standard for any nonprofit’s fundraising effort.

Next Step:

Move each potential contributor gently through the preceding six stages

Let the donor set the pace

Encourage your board and others to use donor loyalty and generosity as fundraising success measures

With practice, it is possible to move most prospects through every stage and sustain their commitment and engagement.  The key to success is listening to the donors, responding to what the donors think is important, and being patient.  Initially, it is hours of work for relatively little reward.  In the later stages, the rewards are significant with less effort.  In addition, in the later stages you will be spending time with a friend, which will make the time spent seem more like a reward than work.

Take It Further:

Use the same process as above to develop all of your supporters (volunteers, referral sources, advocates, etc.)

Use the preceding process to widen a donor’s engagement to include all areas of support (volunteer, refer, advocate)

Read more about donor cultivation


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