It’s All About the Donor, Not the Nonprofit

How often have we heard a CEO or fundraiser for a nonprofit organization speak proudly about a creative new program? How often have board members been so impressed with what their organization is doing that they feel like people should just open up their checkbook and make a five-figure gift? How often have we heard a frustrated volunteer leader involved in a fundraising campaign say, “I cannot believe that they did not give a gift this year,” about one of their prospects?

What all of these people, and others we all know, have forgotten is that giving a philanthropic gift or making an investment in a nonprofit organization is not only about the cause or the organization or the great work that is being done. Probably 99.9% of the time donors’ giving or not giving is related more to their concerns, passions, and interest in the specific issue than to the specific organization and the services it is providing to the community. Once this is understood, volunteers and professionals involved in financial resource development can direct their efforts in the right direction – toward making a connection between the donor and the agency based on the donor’s interests.

Making such a connection may sound simple, but the trials and tribulations we often hear from volunteer and professional solicitors attest to the fact that many people have difficulty putting this into practice. Often the solicitors are so excited about what they and their agency are doing that all they want to do is share this excitement with the prospective donor – while losing sight of the need to understand whether the donor shares their interest in the social concern or the services developed in response to it.

It is similar to a car going straight into fourth gear from first, without going through the process of engaging the lower gears so that the car ends up in the right gear for the appropriate speed. In a standard shift car, if you try to go into third gear without engaging the first and second gears, the car stalls and the motor shuts down. The same thing happens in the process of soliciting a donor when the solicitor has not connected with the donor’s interest and established that there is a common denominator between that interest and the work of the organization. If the solicitor fails to lay that groundwork and instead speeds ahead with a pitch, the solicitation process will be over before it has begun.

Given this scenario, the question is, How does one engage a prospective donor and establish a common field of interest between the donor and the agency’s programs? There are several very important steps that we need to follow that not only set the foundation for building a solid relationship with prospective donors but also let them know we are trying to understand their priorities.

1) Doing Due Diligence: The first step that has to be taken is for the professional to do research about prospective donors. This means looking into their professional fields as well as where they have provided philanthropic support in the past. Some of this work is done through internet searches and possibly engaging an expert who knows how to provide a comprehensive picture of donors’ past philanthropic giving. It may also mean utilizing contacts through the volunteer leadership and current donors who may be familiar with the person. The more information you are able to put together, the better prepared you and your organization will be to reach out to prospective donors and begin to establish a meaningful connection with them.

2) Engaging the Donor: Once the background research is complete then it is essential to have a meaningful introduction. Ideally, such an introduction is made by someone who has both a relationship to the nonprofit and with the prospective donor. The person making the introduction could be a business associate of the donor who is familiar with the organization or a member of its board. Or it could be a current donor who wants to assist the agency in its fundraising.

3) Cultivating the donor: Perhaps the most important part of the process, this stage is when the professional and/or volunteer leadership have meaningful contact with the prospective donor. It is a time when discussions focus on the connection between the donor’s interests and the agency’s programs and services. Often the discussions are tangential to a solicitation, and their purpose is purely to maintain the contact and to explore the donor’s concerns. It is essential that the potential donor not feel pressured to make a gift.

4) Solicitation: Only after there is a strong connection to the agency’s mission, programs, and services is it the right time to discuss the prospective donor’s partnering with the organization in one of several ways. He or she might be interested in supporting its ongoing programs or a special project, or establishing a new program in honor of or in memory of someone. The solicitation process can begin with an inquiry about how the donor would like to be involved with the organization. The time is right when the donor shows interest in the organization and would like to enhance its ability to continue providing services to the community.

Of course, the donor may not be ready to make a commitment; that should be understood, and there can then be a discussion about the point in time when a gift might be forthcoming. It is important not to be disappointed, but to remain open and optimistic and to continue the relationship. Often it takes more than one conversation about the donation before the donor makes a commitment.

5) Maintaining the Connection: After the contribution is made, then that is the time to continue and deepen the relationship over the coming years. The fact that a donor has made a one-time contribution does not necessarily mean that he or she will continue that support. That first gift should be viewed as the beginning of the connection, and follow-up discussions with the donor should be approached with the same enthusiasm as evidenced in the first several meetings. The successful solicitation and recruitment of a donor can lead to similar successes with other donors and can broaden the influence of the organization among people who may share the donor’s interest in the agency. This is the time to follow Harvey McKay’s advice about strengthening relationships through thoughtfulness and appropriate forms of communication. For example, it is appropriate to send a donor greetings, cards, or e-mails around seminal events in his or family’s life.

Focusing on the donor’s needs and interests can be key to receiving a philanthropic gift. This is especially important to keep in mind during November and December when nonprofits often sponsor end-of-the-year campaigns. These campaigns are waged to appeal to donors’ interest in receiving a tax benefit for contributions made at this time. However, if the cause does not resonate with the donor’s interest, then the tax benefit may not be enough of a reason to give to the organization and the efforts to solicit funds will be wasted. The most successful approaches are those that engage donors by way of their priorities and not the agency’s priorities.

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.