How to Use Strategic Communications for More Successful Donor Cultivation

by Jo-Ann Mort and Judith Wineman

When a client hires us, the first thing we try to explain is that cultivation is more than an ask, and developing well designed, targeted materials and messaging are key to building a permanent and sustainable donor base. Raising money is a goal, not a step. Cultivation is about building relationships. As the saying goes: “people give to people.” One good donor relationship can easily lead to three more, but one donation is never a promise of another. As alluring as a one-time gift is, it’s the long-term investment that best aids an organization.

That’s where the communications piece comes in. There are timeless tools that are used and will never go out of style. Communications professionals can help development professionals with the best scripts to use, including how to develop elevator speeches for general outreach and customize cultivation work in a holistic way. They can also assist with keeping the messaging clear, concise and consistent. And, based on their training and experience, they will have valuable input regarding how to time an ask.

Always use a well thought out timeline. Whether the ask is 5k or 50K, when and where you engage donors and how you tell the story of your organization is critical to successful cultivation. Communications professionals live and breathe the 24/7 news cycle. They can help development staff understand when and where to pitch and to place stories that will bring increased visibility to your organization, which is an essential part of inspiring new donors. A holistic development plan contains flexible cultivation strategies using different vehicles, dependent upon the targeted donors profile and whether they are new or existing donors.

While many readers have just finished with an end-of-year appeal, within a few weeks, you may be thinking about a mid-year appeal. Whether you organize an appeal once a year or more often, whether you use direct mail, web, special events or all of the above, the messaging for a potential donor is different than the one for an existing donor. Because development professionals are usually more focused on numbers here, with monetary goals that they must raise for each appeal, they don’t often have time to integrate changing messages. One of the advantages we have in an era when we don’t have to depend entirely on mass-mailing solicitation letters, is that we can adapt messages for different clusters of donors.

Another advantage of having so many communications options is that asks don’t stand on their own. It has become very easy to integrate the same message into multiple mediums. For instance, a fundraising appeal that goes out by mail can also be posted on your website. A cultivation event should include messages that are more than just invitations for attendees; in fact, an event is a great opportunity to use real-time social media such as live tweets in which members of your organization interact directly with attendees as well as those who cannot make the donor event.

How many times has your organization spent money and staff time on producing a beautiful journal that ends up on the chairs after everyone has left your event? Consider taking the time and energy from this journal and using it for an online presentation that lives on your website; it’s a better use of your dollars and you can link to it in future solicitations that you send out by email.

Just as in all resource development work, the most important part of the staging is deciding who will do the asking. A script is only as good as the person who speaks it. It is imperative that potential and current donors are matched up with their peers to enhance the likelihood of a successful ask. Consider here, too, the options that new media brings to an organization. If your board chair can’t travel to a meeting, why not set up a video chat?

Finally, just as donor cultivation has always been an ongoing process, the messaging never ends. Don’t let your leadership leave an event without talking points in hand, poised to carry your story to the next level.

Jo-Ann Mort is CEO of ChangeCommunications, a strategic consulting firm based in New York City with clients in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere. Before starting her company 5 years ago, Jo-Ann directed communications for the Jewish Funders Network and also for the US Programs of the Soros foundations network, OSF.

Judith Wineman, of Resource Development Consultants, works with ChangeCommunications on behalf of clients.