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Know Thy Donor

My former colleague Josh reminded me of a clever way to identify new donors during our monthly coffee chat.

His new boss presented him with a curated list of 25 local high-net-worth philanthropists and their giving patterns. She asked him to create a series of moves-management plans to cultivate them.

Josh wanted to respond by saying, “I’ve pursued these people a million times. We don’t have connections with them. I can try again, but I am pretty sure they won’t respond.”

Josh felt that this approach was unlikely to bear fruit. But he knew what would work. In fact, he’d recently secured a $1M gift from a family he had met only weeks ago.

What was his secret? Stewardship.

Not cultivation of the donor — but stewardship of a board member, who originally came in contact with this family.

This board member knew Josh well over her decade of service. She trusted him and the organization’s leadership. He regularly educated her and the rest of the board on key practices of fundraising. They even went to meet donors together.

So when she heard this person mention their interest in the issues that Josh’s agency focused on, she knew she could bring them straight to him to close the deal.

Slow and stewarded wins the race

Josh’s new executive director had reasons for pursuing her prospecting strategy. She came from higher education, where they had a large development department, a brand name, and a whole lot of alumni and parents with pockets as deep as their gratitude.

This reminded me of a key strategic insight: that different kinds of prospecting work at different kinds of organizations.

If the beneficiaries of your services go on to become prospective donors — like those from universities or hospitals — you can prospect within your natural constituency for large-scale gifts.

But if you work at an organization like Josh’s, which serves low-income communities, it doesn’t make sense to solicit large gifts from the people you serve. And with just a handful of people on the fundraising team, you need to be strategic and creative to find the people who will give generously.

Josh does this well. He knows where most of his best donors came from: they were referred by a small number of his existing donors and board members. That’s why stewardship, in its broadest form, is so important.

As Josh put it to his boss, “Instead of backward engineering the prospects from a list of strangers, we should go forward. Instead of pursuing cold leads, let’s go to our warmest connections.”

Then, not only will these donors continue to give and increase their gifts, but they will also be on the lookout to introduce their networks to you too.

Four ways to deepen ties with donors

Here are some ideas to engage your existing donors in fundraising, and strengthen their role as champions of your mission:

  1. Talk with them. Spend regular time by phone, Zoom, or in person learning about them, their general interests, and how they spend their free time. Find out how they like to be involved in your mission, and be sure to learn what they don’t like to do. Remember: fundraising is 75% listening.

  2. Do stuff with them. Ask them or a family member to join you on a mission-focused endeavor — seeing a new program, volunteering on-site, or interning for a summer. One donor told me that she would do anything that involves her children.

  3. Schmooze with them. Join the donor at another organization’s event that they support. See if they will host a small event of their own. I once hit it off with someone at another event and they eventually became a new donor to my organization.

  4. Thank them. Besides notes, occasionally send your donors a meaningful gift. Keep it mission driven. Perhaps a photograph that reminds them of your work, or a book on a topic related to your organization.

So be like Josh. Develop strong relationships with your donors. You’ll not only end up with a mutually fulfilling connection — but you can also exponentially grow your donor world and allow your organization to advance its mission with more power, passion, and resources.


Not My First Rotary

I recall coming back from a full week running a volunteer training program for a nonprofit organization. Upon collapsing onto the sofa, I blurted out to my dad, “it was a great weekend but I can’t stop now. I don’t want to lie down on my wreaths.” He burst out laughing.

With fundraising and stewardship in particular, it’s vital to engage your supporters in meaningful ways throughout the year. Reminder: resting on your laurels can backfire!


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