Transitioning the Donor: How to Maintain Your Organization’s Relationship with Key Supporters

person al connectionThere has to be a personal connection between the donor and someone at the organization – and if and when the donor’s connection leaves the nonprofit organization, there has to be a way to continue that personal connection to the organization.

By Stephen G. Donshik

Every nonprofit continually strives to recruit new donors and to cultivate and maintain the connection it has with its supporters. Ideally the donors will not only think highly of the organization’s purpose and its delivery of valued services but will also have a strong connection with the chief executive officer or one of the senior staff, such as the financial resource development professional. What happens when there is a major change in the agency’s staffing, and either the CEO or the FRD professionals move on to another organization?

We sometimes take donors’ support for granted. We assume that, because they have been supporting our organization for many years, they would not stop giving their annual contribution just because one of the professionals leaves the organization. They have been supporting the wonderful programs we offer the community and the good work we are doing, and we assume they will understand that staff change will not mean we will change what we do or how we do it.

This way of thinking underestimates the personal relationship between the donor and an individual staff member of the nonprofit. I remember very vividly the experience that one generous donor shared with me many years ago. He had been contributing $25,000 annually to a Jewish federation, and each year the chief operating officer (COO) would call him and schedule a lunch together. They would discuss any number of issues during their meeting, ranging from Israel, to the state of the American Jewish community, to the Jewish identity of the donor’s children.

The donor thought the Jewish federation supported a number of worthwhile activities and was providing an important, and perhaps invaluable, service to the Jewish community. However, the donor’s axis point was not the organization – the federation – but his relationship with the COO. He valued this relationship and so was happy to continue his annual contribution. After the COO moved on to another position with a foundation, the donor mentioned that the only communication he received from the federation was a letter in the mail requesting his contribution.

He told me quite clearly that he was not going to make a contribution without a personal phone call from someone: “If the $25,000 is not worth a personal conversation, then obviously the organization does not need my support.” He went on to say how much he missed his annual discussion with the COO, and he was hurt that no one at the organization thought it was important to continue to be in contact with him. I quickly passed the comment on to the head of financial resource development at the federation. Unfortunately, when I saw the donor later that year, he told me that no one had ever called him and he had stopped making his contribution to the federation.

We can learn several lessons from this vignette. The most important lesson is that an organization can never take a contribution for granted. It does not matter whether a donor is giving $250 or $25,000: Every donor feels his or her contribution is important and would like to have that recognized by the organization in an appropriate way. Of course, there are a myriad of ways to respond to donors based on their contributions and involvement in the organization.

The second lesson is that we can never think that the donor has an unending commitment to the organization, and third, we have to acknowledge the crucial role of a personal relationship with one or more of the nonprofit’s professionals. The phrase, fundraising is friend-raising, is not an abstract concept. There has to be a personal connection between the donor and someone at the organization – and if and when the donor’s connection leaves the nonprofit organization, there has to be a way to continue that personal connection to the organization. To assume the donor will just continue writing checks demonstrates a lack of understanding of the role of the professional in cultivating and sustaining donors.

Thus, when there are professional transitions in the organization there must be a strategy for strengthening the relationship between the donors and the organization. This means that an analysis of the present donors and their relationship with professional staff members should result in an approach for transitioning their connection to another staff member based on matching their personalities and areas of interest. It is essential that donors know that the organization not only values their writing checks but also understands the importance of the personal relationship they have developed with a particular staff member. The agency needs to be committed to continuing that kind of agency-donor connection through transitioning the donor to another staff member.

We all understand the importance of planning for the transition of staff members. We want to make sure that when a staff member leaves the organization it is done in a professional and appropriate manner and that the new staff member joining the organization is able to develop positive working relationships with staff and volunteer leaders. In a similar fashion we have to not only understand but also develop professional practices for the parallel transitions that donors experience when there is change among the professional staff members. It does not matter if it is the chief executive officer or any other senior staff or campaign staff member who leaves. Planning for such transitions will not only ensure continuity of donors’ relationships with the nonprofit but will also strengthen the overall organization.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.