The Importance of Tracking Relationships: Cultivating and Stewarding Relationships with Donors

By Avrum Lapin

In the world of nonprofits – and especially at the intersection with the philanthropic marketplace, understanding and embracing relationships and personal connections is the path to organizational support and growth. Successful organizations have established an imperative, and a framework where current donors may recommend their friends and colleagues as potential supporters.

Development and fundraising professionals hear of these new potential donors through connections and invest time and energy into research and cultivation, enabling the introduction and the connection to be made. They send a letter, leave a message, and perhaps put the contact into the database. They might ask the donor to invite them to lunch or bring that friend along to an upcoming event. However, if the results are not immediate, too often that file gets set aside, buried under more “important” things.

Effective management and stewardship of prospects and donors is the cornerstone of successful fundraising. Most nonprofits have donor management systems in place. As we have recently written, in an article entitled “Synagogue Fundraising Success: Data is the Difference”, the use of data is critical to the successful execution of any development plan. Even the most basic excel spreadsheet, though we recommend something a bit more sophisticated and built for the task, can be used to track donor communications. Data such as when and what kind of communication is sent; when and how donations are made; donor connections and contacts; events attended and volunteer hours spent; will all inform and hopefully advance the process.

To make the collection of data truly meaningful, and the key to cultivation of relationships, is using that data to track and develop those relationships and to create a targeted plan. This practice is not only essential for tracking new donors and prospects, but also for supporting and speaking to existing supporters. Strategically reviewing and analyzing the data on donor communications can increase mission engagement and financial support with existing and potential donors alike.

The goal for donor cultivation is to create a marketing and communications plan that works in tandem with a fundraising plan. Tracking donor relationships will improve efficiency at maintaining relationships with donors as it will offer clarity to what donors and prospects will best respond to. For example, tracking that a prospect opens newsletters and signs up for events online, can mean that they should be offered donation opportunities via email and digitally. The prospect that likes to give over a meal should be scheduled to meet in person at their favorite sit down lunch spot on a regular basis. Tracking these relationships will help to inform where to focus efforts to achieve the best results.

The benefits of tracking donor communications are multifold:

  • Avoid gapsor overlaps: With a communications plan in place which focuses on engaging donors and prospects, nonprofit staff will be assured that they are not forgetting to include anyone in their outreach. This also will prevent multiple staff members from reaching out to the same person, potentially generating a conflicting or a confusing message, or having that prospect or donor fall through the cracks.
  • Create opportunities for engagement: The goal of tracking relationships is to make sure that donors and prospects are being “touched” by the nonprofit, through appropriate professional and volunteer leaders, consistently and in a way that advances and best synergizes the organization’s mission with the donor’s interests.
  • Speak to people in their own language: By tracking communication, it will become clear if a donor likes to come to small events versus large galas, volunteer time or simply spend money – openly or anonymously. Remember that the communications plan supports the fundraising plan.
  • Targeted campaigns: Not every communication campaign needs to be sent to everyone in the database. It might make sense to have a campaign focused on a segment of your donor pool, or one that is only online. The more personal and direct that “ask” feels, the more likely someone will be to give.
  • Ensure relationships are with the organization, not a person: The “2016 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey” published last year by GuideStar and Nonprofit HR revealed that staff turnover rates have generally increased among nonprofits, with the average rate growing from 16 to 19 percent between 2013 and 2015. Keeping track of donor relationships makes it easy for an incoming development director to pick up the thread; and those donors and prospects will not be lost in a transition. The database “backs up” the organization’s human institutional memory.
  • Donor Data: Making the tracking of donor relationships a priority will have the secondary benefit of keeping donor data up-to-date and current. By tracking relationships, there will be no need to a scramble to get correct addresses and emails at peak times throughout the year.

Having data is the start; using it is wisely and strategically the key to success.

The goal is to create transformational relationships that move beyond the prevailing current “transactional” thinking. According to a recent study released by Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University’s Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy, successful fundraising should focus on the idea of “total relationship marketing.”

Tracking and fostering relationship with all stakeholders, including media, suppliers, and regulators translates to a higher degree of connection to the community by the organization. Creating a working platform for communication and connectedness in all areas of an organization will help foster a culture of giving.

Fundraising and organizational growth cannot be effective if we continue to treat our donors simply as data records representing gift categories to fund our projects. A renewed focus on relationship fundraising will garner immediate and long lasting benefits.

Avrum Lapin is President of The Lapin Group, LLC, based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a full-service fundraising and management consulting firm for nonprofits. The Lapin Group inspires and leads US-based and international nonprofits seeking fund, organizational, leadership, and business development solutions, offering contemporary and leading-edge approaches and strategies. A Board member of the Giving Institute and a member of the Editorial Review Board of Giving USA, Avrum is a frequent contributor to and speaker in the US and in Israel on opportunities and challenges in today’s nonprofit and philanthropic marketplace.

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