The Long and Steady Courtship of True Donor Relations

How about: Having accumulated many years of experience in the Jewish professional world, particularly with cultivating and maintaining donors relations, clients often seek out my advice. What I’ve noticed is that there is often little, if any, understanding of the connection between the solicitation process and the nature of the relationship with the donor. There is also a lack of understanding that an agency’s purpose and programs are not enough to guarantee the closing of a gift.

Although we would like to think that all nonprofit organizations are essential to the building of a strong society this does not mean that presenting the organization to the donor is the only thing that has to be done to secure a gift. In fact, the unending telemarketing phone calls everyone receives and the piles of unsolicited requests for contributions in the mail do not make a strong impression on serious contributors. There is more to the request for a donation than the plea over the telephone or the letter presenting a serious need for support for services.

The people who work for the thousands of registered nonprofit organizations in Israel do not always appreciate the nuances of process of soliciting a donor. Instead, they are more focused on receiving the funds than on how they are cultivated. Thus, fundraisers who work for these agencies typically find themselves under a great deal of pressure by their bosses to bring in a steady flow of funds.

The key concept that is often missing is “cultivating” the relationship between the donor and the fundraiser and between the donor and the agency. There is a mistaken notion that fundraising is only about soliciting the donor and making the case so that they will write a check. In contrast, a successful professional fundraiser often forms a strong personal relationship with the donor that elicits intense and meaningful conversation to both the donor and the solicitor.

For example, when I was the Director of the Israel office of a Jewish Federation in a major city in the United States, I would often engage with donors during my occasional visits to the main office. The purpose of these meetings was to maintain the relationship between the donor and the Federation and between the donor and the services in Israel. Often times the focus of the discussion was on issues confronting Israeli society and the role of the Jewish communities around the world in strengthening the social fabric of Israeli society through funding a variety of programs and services.

Much of the time I would be talking about the social, economic and political issues and the donors would be reflecting their thoughts and opinions based on their reading newspapers and watching television reports. At times we would exchange views on the nature of Jewish identity in Israel and they would discuss their families with me. We would talk about their trips to Israel and the impact it had on them and their Jewish identity. Following the initiation of the Birthright program, it was not uncommon for donors to ask me about this new venture, often because they were thinking about sending their children or grandchildren.

Often they would share their concerns about an impending intermarriage in their extended family and would share their worries about their own children. Through sharing their thoughts and feelings with me, we would develop a connection with each other and yes, these discussions did include the services provided by the Federation. In fact, often when there was a connection between their own thinking about an issue and the services that were provided by one of the Federation’s recipient agencies they would offer to make a gift and at other times I would solicit them for a gift at an appropriate moment.

These kinds of relationships do not develop based on a one time meeting between a nonprofit’s staff member and a potential or current donor. It is essential that the connection be based on an authentic concern for the donor’s as a whole. Through these kinds of connection, a trust develops between the two people and based on the relationship the donor will have faith in the effectiveness and efficiency of the nonprofit agency.

Of course, the nonprofit agency is under pressure to meet its budget and to end the month in the black. However, those who are either part of the executive team or the top volunteer leadership must also understand the long-term nature of the resource development process. When too much emphasis is placed on how much is brought in by the fundraiser without an appreciation for what it takes to build a solid donor base then there will never be a foundation of committed and sustaining donors to the nonprofit organization. There is more involved than just asking for the donation and the agency must be sophisticated in its approach to include focusing on raising friends, as well as funds.

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.