Building Cultivated Relationships with your Donors

Date Published

The dictionary definition of cultivate is “to promote or improve the growth of something by labor, care and attention”… “to further or encourage”… and even “to seek the society of or make friends with.”

Every good fundraiser knows how to ask for money. Only true development professionals know how to build strong relationships with their donors. They do the work of giving them care and attention, encouraging their involvement with the organization, and even personally meeting and making friends with some of them. Ultimately, building relationships with donors will result in strong donor retention and increased contributions.

But with so many demands on us as fundraisers, where do we start?

First, create an annual donor cultivation plan. Map out your calendar of yearly activities and work the plan. Be sure that your touchpoints are regular and predictable.

The basics apply to all donors and should be done on a regular, ongoing basis:

  1. Say Thank You. For every gift. Promptly – ideally within a week. And accurately! Invest in your back-office infrastructure as needed to make this happen reliably.
  2. Tell donors why their support matters.
  3. Show them examples of the impact they are making with their gifts.
  4. Use your CRM to track their likes, preferences, and interactions with the organization. And use that data to target your communications when possible. “Show me you know me!
  5. Ask for another gift! (Yes, even asking for more shows you value their support.)

Every donor should be getting regular mail and email from your organization that accomplish these things. The language should not be in terms of what your organization is doing, but what the donor is doing by giving to your organization. Mass mailings of newsletters, postcards, and emails are all great vehicles for this and should be the base of your cultivation plan.

What’s next?

How do you determine which donors are worth some extra time and attention?

Identify those supporters on your file who have demonstrated passion for your cause and capacity to support at a higher level. These are the ones you want to cultivate, to grow that passion till they are giving the largest gifts possible for the longest time possible.

Take a look at your donor file, and all that data you’ve been collecting about their interactions and giving behavior. Create a pool of the donors who exhibit the following.

  • Longevity – highest number of years as an active donor
  • Consistency – regular giving pattern from one year to the next
  • Cumulative Giving – highest number of total dollars given
  • Largest single gifts – demonstrating financial capacity
  • Monthly donors – from your sustainer program, or if not, find donors who give frequently and regularly on their own
  • Frequent interactions – donors who call you, email you, attend events, volunteer, open emails, click through on emails, visit your website – any sort of engagement that you have been able to record
  • Data appends – wealth screening scores, giving propensity tags, any kind of external donor intelligence you have invested in

Donors at the very top of the giving pool should already be receiving personal attention as your Major Donors. If not, that should be your highest priority!

The next group below them (and how many you choose will depend on your resources) becomes the group that you target for building cultivated relationships. You may choose to make this the basis for a mid-level giving program. Make friends!

Invite these donors to become more involved. The ones who really care will self-select and accept your invitations. Here are some cultivation activities that allow you to make personal connections. Ask donors to participate in the following ways.

  • Volunteer, especially on a regular basis. Help in the office, host special events, deliver meals or take care of animals (or join in other mission-oriented activities), give tours of your facility to other donors.
  • Join a committee of advisors. Have them meet with you monthly for updates on the organization’s activities and the opportunity to offer their feedback.
  • Attend a lunch or reception at your location, or near their home, to learn more about your organization and their passion for it. Let them bring a friend.
  • Go on a day trip or longer donor tour with experts from your organization.

All of these activities give you a chance to spend extended time with these individuals and get to know them on a personal basis. Larger donor galas and parties are nice, and a good way to introduce yourself and your organization to the donor, but rarely afford time for deep conversations. Being on the invitation list for these makes the donor feel included and valued, which is worthwhile in itself. But to truly cultivate a relationship, you must find ways to spend regular, quality time together.

People give to people. Once you have put a human face on your organization, and the donors know there is someone there who knows them and cares about their involvement, maintaining and increasing their support becomes a pleasure to them. Major gifts and bequests will follow from those with capacity for them. And for the rest, their lifetime value will be maximized as they continue to happily give at the highest level they can afford.

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