Got Milk? How About Cultivation?

by Sherri W. Morr

I always have milk in the refrigerator. I like it with my coffee, and as a child drank it every night with cookies before bed, so it’s a memory to always have milk. As a child I was thin, so drinking whole milk (and sometimes the fat on top too) before bed was my Mother’s way to insure I would be gaining weight while I was sleeping. As I said it’s a memory. Same thing with cultivation. Always have to have it, create the memory. In the nonprofit field, one has to cultivate at least daily, or there will be no memory. Just the way it is.

For non Jewish nonprofits this is the big season. It’s a necessary element of the last 3 weeks in December to be calling, writing emails, sending year end appeals, and generally thanking and wishing donors well. Everything packed into 3 weeks, once a year. Taking advantage of Thanksgiving and sending grateful wishes is also popular, but only a drop compared to Christmas and New Years.

In the Jewish world we are not limited to just this merry holiday season. We are far luckier. If you look at the Jewish calendar, there is always something to use as a cultivation piece, or an excuse to speak to donors.

“Hello Mrs. Gold, I wanted to wish you Hanukah Sameach, and thank you for all you do for us”.( our school, our shul, our camp, our educational programs).

“Hello Mr. Simon, I wanted to say Chag Samach, Happy Succoth, may you enjoy this harvest holiday and bench lulav and esrog in your Succah”. And by the way, did you see the campaign for Succoth building for the Rosh Yeshiva boys?

Hello, Simcha, L’Shana Tova, may you be blessed and inscribed. Thank you for traveling to Israel in the horrible heat to see our newest projects.

It can go on and on. But I repeat we are lucky. We do not have to dream up fishy stories as a means to start conversations. We have multiple holidays, feasts, festivals, and Rosh Chodesh days in which to carry on a cultivation conversation. And then there are the eight (yes that’s 8 separate days!) days of Chanukah! As you consider each candle, each light, there is the opportunity to inspire each donor via calls or visits. Perhaps you manage a major donor list of 100 donors, choose the most worthy, call them on a particular day, tell them…”Harry, it’s the 4th candle tonight and I was just thinking about the time back in 1998 when we were together in Israel, walking together to the Kotel for Shabbat. Do you recall?” Or, an email or note that says: Dear Sol and Joyce; Tonight as we light the 6th candle I remember our visit to the Family Services dinner with the seniors at Venice Beach. What an evening it was, singing, lighting the menorah, and oh those yummy latkes.

That’s what cultivation is, creating the memory, reminding the donor of the memory, continuing the connection. Our job in the field is to do exactly that. Some may think it sleazy, manipulative. But not really, not at all actually. You the professional are continuing the connection, reminding the donor of how happy and good they felt at such Jewish experiences. Keep them happy about their connection and you will keep them as donors.

Cultivation is a little like a dance. Two steps back, two steps forward. We invite the dance (may I …), we carry on pleasant conversation (nu, how is the shul building campaign going?), and then after several whirls the prospect is back in his/her seat, waiting for the next invitation (to dance). I have not danced with that many donors but the dance of cultivation is a daily activity. The high priced time management experts, who devise your day for you, usually leave out cultivation time. If you are the staff person with the 100 names on your major donor management list, that’s about 12 calls during the eight days of Chanukah. Not insurmountable. You just have to prioritize and do it.

In the Jewish nonprofit world, and beyond, individuals are hired who have good social skills, who know how to listen, how to carry on a conversation, tell the story, and sell the product. Cultivation for some has to be learned. It can be taught. In some organizations its part of new staff orientation. It’s taught as how you relate to colleagues, to volunteers, to leadership, and to donors. For Israelis who come to America to work they take a course (Shlichim School) including how to interact with donors. Invaluable training. At high prestige law firms, new associates attend dinners and social functions and then review the next morning how their interactions were observed. Their social skills are honed, they learn how to socialize and recruit new business simultaneously. At human rights organizations, the staff has a 20 minute, ‘how to interact’ session before a major dinner where staff are seated strategically at donor tables. At national conference meetings where staff will be on for 3 days, they get training ( it’s the pre-game huddle) on how to dress, how to discuss organization issues, how to diffuse negative conversation, how to help newer participants feel comfortable, and generally how best to represent the organization. One time, the CEO of a major organization at a warm up session prior to an event instructed the staff how to respond when participants complained…about the food, the temperature in the room, or their table placement. At some organizational dinners a post meeting is held where staff share what they heard, compared how many business cards they got, and how many they handed out, and what immediate follow up had to be taken…the next day! The purpose is not just to tend to the negative but how to use interaction as part of cultivation, and continuing the connection.

Which brings us back to the dance. And to the season. There is but one week left in the merriment of December 2010. Use it. Call and remind donors about a meaningful experience in 2010, how 2011 will give us so many more challenges and opportunities to work together, to do good, to tell our story. Keep the connection, remember the moment. Create the memory, and keep your organization foremost in their thoughts.

Sherri W. Morr has spent the last several decades working and consulting in the Jewish community as a fundraiser, a teacher, and trainer, most recently as Director of the Western U.S. at the Jewish National Fund for 12 years. She has completed an MA and received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Her work outside of the Jewish world at independent schools, the Baltimore Symphony and Tufts University have given her an awareness beyond practice in the Jewish community. Sherri has 3 grown sons and lives in San Francisco.