Cultivating Donors: What Is It All About?

We hear the expression “cultivating donors” all the time and everyone who is involved in financial resource development and fundraising says, “It is all about the donor”. In reaching out to potential donors and working with present donors what does it really mean to “cultivate the relationship”? Is it just another way of selling the charitable cause you want the donor to contribute to or is there something else behind the familiar language that captures a different meaning than just “marketing the product” to sell it to the contributor.

Whether you are a volunteer leader or a professional agency staff person or consultant in the non-profit sector, you are always in contact with people who are either presently contributing or have the potential to contribute to one or more organizations that are important to you. You have to make a decision about how you want to be perceived by the people you are engaging. Do you want them to see you as someone who is “selling a cause”? Or do you want to position yourself as someone who is concerned about their thinking and can be a resource as they make decisions about their philanthropic interests?

Of course each and every one of us wants the donor to support the organizations we think are important, however, when we work with donors we should be thinking about the nature of the relationship we have with them and the trust we want to build with them. Whether we are volunteer board members and solicitors or professionals, we should be thinking of the long term connection we want to develop with people and not only about the short term goal of closing a gift. Essentially this means we want the donors and potential donors to see us as people who are available to discuss philanthropic interests in addition to the needs of a particular organization.

Our conversations should focus on the concerns the donor has and what his or her area of interests are in the community. The contact we have should not be limited to a one time telephone conversation or face-to-face meeting. We are engaging with people because we want to know what their concerns are and we want to assist them in fulfilling their philanthropic interests. Sometimes the discussions are focused on a specific subject or concern in the community and at other times it may be aimed at clarifying the services offered by our organization or another one in the community.

When we have established an ongoing dialogue with the donor then we have entered a new phase of the relationship. The donor understands that our concern is not for a particular organization but for assisting the donor in developing their commitment to the community and finding a way to express it. In cultivating the relationship with the donor we must take the risk that they will not contribute the funds to our organization or our cause. However, at the same time, we have invested in developing a strong connection and solid trust between the donor and us. The risk is well worth it. What the donor does not contribute to our organization today may be contributed to the agency tomorrow.

The expression “cultivating the donor” refers to the ongoing contact we have with the contributor in a supportive way. Our relationship with the donors enables them to have a better understanding of their philanthropic interests. We can assist them in learning how their funds can best be used and that this is of concern to the volunteer leaders and the professional staff who work with them. As the trust is strengthened people will seek advice and will want to know about the commitments we have to organizations. It is not unusual for donors to solicit the advice from the people they feel closest to and from the people who have provided them with information about the options for giving.

Yes, there are times when the fundraiser, whether a volunteer or professional, questions their use of time and all the hours they have spent with a potential donor. There are times when the person who is working with the donor feels a great sense of frustration and wonders whether the time devoted to the cultivation of the donor is being used wisely. Of course there are no guarantees, and when it is compared to the alternative of a direct solicitation this is a more professional approach that provides a number of options.

Once a potential donor is solicited and the person requesting the gift is turned down, there is not much that can be said beside, “Think about it and I will call you again in the future.” When a relationship has been built with the donor then the solicitation comes after there is a fuller understanding of the donor’s interests and commitments. When the actual solicitation takes place, it can be framed with both an understanding of the contributor’s philanthropic interests as well as the person’s specific concerns for the community, in the case of a local agency, and the broader commitments for the Jewish people, in the case of overseas agencies.

The most important aspect of “cultivating donors” is to understand their concerns and to connect with their way of thinking. When this is accomplished it is possible to find a way of creating a bond between the organization you represent and the way they choose to express their desire to make a difference in the lives of the people they want to assist. Remember the key is, “its all about the donor.”

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.