Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Nov/Dec 2014, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
When I was a green fundraiser just learning how to work with donors, some of my mentors were pushing me to “move up” habitual donors to the major donor category. I really had no idea how to approach a major donor prospect. I wrote some letters asking for meetings and had some halfhearted, very awkward conversations with donors that basically went nowhere.
A few years later, Su Teatro, the organization where I work, was launching its first capital campaign. I had more grassroots fundraising experience by then, but still, I was no expert. My executive director and I put together a committee, and our volunteers started to identify their version of prospects—people with the “capacity,” but not necessarily the commitment or the contact with the organization that is essential to the major donor relationship. While in the end a few of these prospects ended up making major gift, for the most part, this strategy was a bust.
Then, as we continued our campaign, an amazing thing happened. People within our community—folks who had been long time and thoroughly engaged supporters started to step up with large gifts. In most cases, we didn’t even know that these donors were capable of making larger commitments. Th response we saw was textbook grassroots fundraising: it is always our most loyal and engaged supporters that give the most and the most often
At this point, I realized that major donor fundraising is the product of organic relationships that are built over time. As inexperienced fundraisers, we attempt to “follow the steps” to successful grassroots fundraising. While fundraising is reliable in its concrete and formulaic aspects, it is also the result of genuine and authentic relationships with real human beings. I began to reflect deeply on some of the lessons I had internalized, applying them more intentionally to my work. What follows are some of the best practices I have learned in the process.
THE MORE DONORS SEE THAT YOU ARE RESPONSIVE TO THEIR NEEDS, THE MORE DEEPLY THEY WILL ENGAGE WITH THE ORGANIZATION.
We all know this is the cardinal rule of grassroots fundraising. The point is the acknowledgement itself, which should be scrawled by a real human being on a note card. The thank you note doesn’t have to be long or fancy, but it needs to be in quick response to the gift within 48 hours when possible. In this crazy, fast, automated, too busy world we live in, the small, meaningful gestures that require some of our precious time really mean a lot. The thank you note is an expression of friendship, gratitude and caring in a world gone mad.
But it’s not just the note itself. It is what comes after the note. Often times, donors will respond to a thank you note with a gesture, and it is very important that you pay attention when your donors extend themselves to you. Which brings me to my next point.
Your goal is to build relationships with the members of your community, and you aren’t going to be successful if you are on autopilot. It isn’t rocket science, but when someone reaches out to you, you have to listen to what they say and know how to respond. When someone gives you a cue that they want to be more engaged—for example, they ask you about volunteering, or how to get their child into the classes your organization offers—it is important that you follow up. When someone takes the time on the phone or in person to share a personal story, you need to be present for the conversation, to really listen and to care.
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In my early days of fundraising, I was deeply affected by an editorial that Kim Klein wrote called “Clean Up Your Language!”
It was about how fundraisers often use objectifying language to describe the cultivation of donors, such as, “I’m going to hit her up” or, “I went in for the kill.” As Klein cautions, this crass attitude degrades the work of fundraising and violates the integrity of the a good fundraiser if you are not interested in building truly caring, multifaceted and nuanced relationships with your donors as whole you build your relationship day in and day out with your donors and listen to the encouragement and feedback that they provide to you, you will never have to worry about making the mistake of treating donors like ATMs.
Another aspect of being present is the age-old practice of treating donors as they want to be treated. That means taking them off your call list if they ask you to only contact them by mail, following up in three months if this is what they have requested, or not soliciting them again until next year if that is their preference. A certain level of commitment to record keeping—and the infrastructure to do so—is a necessary aspect of honoring donor requests. Make sure you have an adequate database in place, the staff to maintain it, and systems that remind you when donor follow up is needed
It goes without saying, but bears repeating, that everyone who walks through your door should receive hospitable treatment and excellent service at all times. In particular, your donors (regardless of giving level) and volunteers, who have gone out of their way to demonstrate their investment in the work you do, merit interest, not just by the development staff but by all members of the organization. All staff members should take the time to get to know them.
Being present also means being willing to hear critical feedback by responding with maturity and a desire to problem solve. The more donors see that you are responsive to their needs, the more deeply they will engage with the organization.
There is a lot of learning that happens between the day you show up at work, willing to put your belief in the mission of your organization ahead of your fears of fundraising, and the day when you confidently slip into the chair next to a major donor ready to make the ask (unless you are just extremely gifted with people and fundraising—and I’m sure some of you are). In a perfect world, your major donor relationship is the product of thoughtful and mindful cultivation that you have invested in over a period of years . If you are not intimately aware of your donor’s commitment to the work and capacity to give, it may be too soon for the major ask. The major donor ask is a natural outgrowth of a comfortable relationship that you have been building over time.
Of course, you can’t arrive at this perfect scenario until you truly overcome your fear of fundraising (or other issues with money). Like many grassroots fundraisers, I found the advice of the late Vicki Quatmann (“Organizing and Fundraising: Sisters in the Struggle,” v23, n5 of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal) very helpful in this respect. Quatmann argues that just like good organizing, fundraising is an invitation to our members to each think deeply about their level of commitment to the work and mission of the organization. Asking for money gives our supporters an opportunity to think about what they care about. Whether we like it or not, what we are willing to spend money on, says a lot about our priorities. Sometimes we don’t realize that our spending is out of line with our values until someone points it out to us.
You will not be successful at fundraising if you are not willing to ask for money (another truism of grassroots fundraising). As we all know, hearing “no” a lot is a big part of fundraising. They don’t call it prospecting for nothing. It is your job to find those right people—the ones who care about the work as much as you do. Not everyone has the privilege of working for a movement building organization, but people take great satisfaction in paying
Think of yourself and the members of your community standing shoulder-to-shoulder to accomplish a mission to which you are all equally committed. At the end of the day, true social change is always bottom up. We are the ones who will make the change we are waiting for—but first, we must assemble the people who care about the work as much as we do and are willing to invest in it. When you start to realize that fundraising really is movement building, the power of the process will start to dissipate your fear and help you build authentic donor relationships that will ultimately translate into an engaged, stable and sustainable foundation for your important social justice mission.