Many nonprofit organizations have staff who are dedicated to the resource development functions of the agency; others rely on outside consultants to meet their fundraising needs. However, even in nonprofits that have a fundraising staff, there is often the need to train administrative and program staff not only how to present their programs and projects most effectively to donors but also how to engage those donors in conversation about the needs of the agency. It is a worthwhile investment to train people who are responsible for the delivery of services to engage with donors and potential donors either virtually or when they visit the nonprofit.
Recently I led workshops on donor relations for doctors on staff at a hospital and for therapists at a clinic providing mental health services. One might not think that either of these groups would be fundraising friendly or that they would want to have much to do with meeting donors or representing their organizations’ needs in order to provide the foundation for successful solicitations. Yet in both workshops it was possible to find common ground with the professionals, working from within their mindsets, which enabled me to engage them in discussion and simulations of meetings with donors.
For both workshops, the department of financial resource development (FRD) hired me to assist them in developing a more organized and sophisticated approach to site visits made by donors or potential contributors. The directors of these organizations and their FRD professionals were concerned that their doctors and therapists, who were all excellent clinicians, were not clear about their purpose or role in meeting with donors.
Fortunately, although one might think that these health care professionals would have perceived meeting with donors as a distraction and a waste of their valuable time, they did not feel that way at all. The professionals whom I met with at the hospital and clinic understood conceptually the importance of their meeting with visitors who were interested in learning more about the health and mental health services provided by their organizations. They felt quite competent to provide those needed services and had no difficulty discussing the range of services they themselves offered. However, they were not always clear about how they should engage with individuals and groups when they were on a site visit or tour.
The problem was that they felt at a loss when representing the larger organization for which they worked. Each group of professionals viewed their agency only from the vantage point of their particular functions. In addition, they were unclear how to use their professional skills and knowledge to advance the aims of resource development and relationship building with visitors, which required a very different professional use of self than in their usual relationships with patients and their families. I knew, however, that these were educated and trained professionals who had an appropriate set of skills that could be refocused when meeting with people for purposes different from their day-to-day clinical functions.
Doctors are not always thought of as the most solicitation-friendly group of people, and anyone who works in resource development can share stories of how hard it is to involve physicians in solicitations. Yet I found engaging doctors in this new role to be one of the most interesting aspects of my work with the hospital and the clinic. I adapted the medical model to fundraising, focusing on how the doctors could use their diagnostic skills for the purpose of engaging visitors and trying to understanding donors’ interests in the services they were providing. Once they were able to establish a common ground and were able to grasp the donors’ interest, then they could begin to sell the organization and the services provided.
I focused on the importance of listening to the donor and to assessing his or her philanthropic interests and needs. The doctors were fascinated by this conceptualization of the connection between their medical frame of reference and the fundraising process. I would not go as far as to say they were excited about the prospect of meeting with donors, but they were certainly more curious about it and more open to making themselves available to meet with visitors and donors than they were before the training sessions.
The mental health professionals were particularly intrigued by the idea of using their assessment skills to understand donors’ interest in the hospital and clinic. They understood that engaging visitors in a discussion about their philanthropic interests would strengthen their connection to the mental health services the therapists were offering their patients and clients. In some ways this was an aha moment for the professional staff, who had never before been presented with this conceptualization of their role in strengthening the resource development function of the agency.
The most important lesson in this experience was that almost all professionals in all types of nonprofit organizations have a role to play in fundraising. By using language appropriate to the professionals and adapting their models of service and mindsets to fundraising, we can find a way to enable them to use their professional knowledge and skills in the donor cultivation and solicitation process.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.