Relating to the Donor: When Does the Relationship Begin?

A reader commented on last week’s column, A Guide To Being A Good Solicitor, and queried about the beginning of the relationship with a donor. She raised a question about whether it is really possible to develop a relationship with a “non-donor”. This is a multifaceted issue and I would like to explore a few aspects.

How much effort does the non-profit organization invest in someone who is not a donor? Can there really be a meaningful relationship with a person who is not a donor? The answer to these questions has to be viewed through the prism of “donor cultivation”. There is no simple response. One has to make a determination on how much time and effort should be invested in forming a relationship with a potential donor so that she becomes a supporter of the organization in financial terms.

“Donor Cultivation” means investing in the connection the person has with the organization through a volunteer leader or professional staff person. The concept is one that focuses on how one begins with an initial conversation and moves to a face to face meeting and then winds up spending time with the potential donor. The interaction has to be multi-dimensional. It is not enough to talk about the needs and the way the organization responds to them.

There has to be an engagement of the potential donor that reflects their interests as well as the non-profit agency’s desire to receive the person’s financial support. Whether a volunteer leader or professional staff member, the organization’s representative has to take an interest in the person being solicited. The focus of the discussion is both on the agency’s services as well as on the potential donor’s interests and involvements. The more that is know about the donor the easier it will be to connect with him or her.

The first objective is to develop a personal connection between the organization’s representative and the potential donor by identifying areas of common interest and concern. For example, if the donor is interested in Jewish education and he is being courted by a Jewish day school, this is a natural fit. The various facets of Jewish education should be explored to determine the donor’s primary interest.

If the donor is interested in libraries then this could be a focus for the discussion along with the school’s plans to develop the collection of books. If there is a special concern for teacher training then perhaps the conversation focuses on how the school provides training for the present faculty and integrates new faculty members into the school each year. The donor could be interested in more children receiving a Jewish education. Due to the high cost of education there is a concern for the amount of resources that are funneled into scholarship funds.

In each of these examples the school’s needs have to be paired with the donor’s interest and to find out whether the donor has had a relevant experience at some point in her life. It is essential for the school’s representative to explore the donor’s involvement with Jewish education with her and to make a connection with the school’s present situation and plans for the future. In the course of the meetings and conversations the donor’s ideas and thoughts should be explored. It is through this process that she may become connected both to the solicitor and to the school.

The key element in “cultivating the donor” is the focus on both the donor’s interests and the organization’s needs. In this example, it was a Jewish day school, however, every organization has their needs and the key is relating them to the donor’s interests and experiences. The relationship that is developed with the donor must consider both aspects of this process.

If an organizations’ financial resource development process is seen as “sales” it is missing the point. Of course the organization is promoting itself but developing donor support is more about the relationship and not just about making the case for giving. Yes, the reasons for asking for support have to be solid, but donations do not build friends. For the financial sustainability of the non-profit organization it is important to “raise friends” as well as funds.

When a new friend is enlisted then there is a possibility of securing continued support and not just a one time contribution. The success of cultivating a donor is noted in the strength of the relationship and is measured not only by their commitment to support the organization financially but also by their identifying other people in the community who will also contribute to the agency. It is a strategic process that warrants a concerted effort both in planning and implementation.

Of course once the donor is committed to support the organization she may demonstrate interest in joining the leadership by participating in the board of directors or a board committee. It is essential to maintain contact and communication with the donor and to continue to encourage the person’s on-going involvement with the agency. The donor’s commitment will not be sustained without maintaining contact with the staff and volunteer leadership of the organization.

Thus, I maintain the relationship begins with the first meeting or conversation with the potential donor and develops over time as she learns more and more about the organization. Once there is a financial commitment the relationship moves to a new level and it is essential to maintain the donor’s involvement with the agency. This is accomplished by a well thought out financial resource development plan that provides guidelines for how the non-profit relates to all donors and potential donors. The concept is best expressed by the phrase, “In order to secure the donor’s investment in our organizations we need to invest in the donor.”

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.