The Gift of Donor Cultivation: A Book Review

Donor Cultivation and The Donor Lifecycle Map
By Deborah Kaplan Polivy
John Wiley and Sons, 2014

by Stephen G. Donshik

It is very rare when an author writes a book that is a real gift to its readers. Well, Dr. Deborah Polivy has written such a book. “The Donor Cultivation and the Donor Lifecycle Map: A New Framework for Funding” is a gift to all of us who are involved in nonprofit organizations. In one way or another, every nonprofit organization is concerned with financial resource development and with attracting and engaging donors and sustaining their involvement.

The real beauty of Dr. Polivy’s book is that it integrates theory and practice. She does not remain on a theoretical level, but instead demonstrates each of her strategic approaches with vignettes from both her practice experience and that of others in the fundraising field. The connection between the two is one of the strengths of this book: It offers not only what might work but what has a proven record of success with organizations’ fundraising efforts and their donors.

The book is also structured in a very user-friendly way; it begins with the key concepts and then moves into a how-to approach that is relevant to both professional and volunteer leaders. It provides a “donor lifecycle map” as a way of planning and monitoring our relationships with our supporters.

In fact, one of the unique features of Dr. Polivy’s approach is that she does not conceive of cultivating donors as being the purview of professionals alone. Instead, the very structure and function of nonprofit organizations must reflect a commitment to building, strengthening, and maintaining their donor base. Organizations cannot be successful in raising needed funds if they believe that fundraising is the responsibility solely of the fundraising professionals or particular volunteer leaders. Of course, the professional and volunteer fundraisers are essential, but they alone are not sufficient to maintain a successful resource development program over time.

Readers will be intrigued by the number of times Dr. Polivy’s suggestions (and directions) appear to be common sense. Throughout the book readers may say to themselves, “Well of course, that makes perfect sense” or “Of course, that’s the way it should be done.” Yet, most of us can identify organizations that just don’t get it right. For example, when she discusses the back-room functions of an organization like sending out acknowledgments and thank you letters for donations, she offers practical guidelines for how to connect with donors in a way that is not just a pro forma communication but seeks to initiate a personal connection with them.

Moving forward, she develops and demonstrates how cultivating donors’ relationships with nonprofits is not the end goal, but rather a process that does not stop with an annual gift or a major gift to a capital project. The aim of the process is to maintain donors’ interest so that they become part of the sustaining support of the organization and have a continuing interest in ensuring the ongoing functioning and development of services to the community through their own identification with the organization’s purposes.

Dr. Polivy also helps us understand that there are both personal and nonpersonal donor cultivation tools and that they should be used strategically. Because the relationship that develops between the organization and the donor must go beyond just a request for financial support, there must be an element of concern and personal interest in the individual. There are times when it is appropriate to make a personal phone call to a donor that might have nothing to do with soliciting a contribution. Meetings with prospective donors may involve conversations about more than the support you would like them to provide to the agency.

At other times, it is appropriate to send updates by e-mail or brochures through snail mail. These can be very effective tools when used at the right time for the right purpose. Dr. Polivy provides us with the guidelines for understanding when it is appropriate to either pursue a personal or nonpersonal approach to maintaining donors’ involvement with the nonprofit.

So where is the gift in this book’s formulation and presentation? It lies in its framework for understanding the context of cultivating donors, using the donor lifecyle map. The book gives us a barometer by which we can look at what we do and how we do it, enabling us to evaluate our success not only by the results of fundraising campaigns but also on how we have built, strengthened, and maintained our supporters over the years.

It is a perfect tool to use to educate both staff of nonprofit organizations and members of boards and their committees, enabling development of an agreed-on and unified approach for financial resources that will be endorsed and adopted by the organization.

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.