Editors’ note:
This article, first published in print during Sep/Oct 2010, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

GOOD FUNDRAISING IS ABOUT GOOD RELATIONSHIPS. Board members and nonprofit staff often refer to donors as personal friends. But how many “good” friends can you actually have?

Donors report that communication quality and depth of re-lationship between them and the nonprofit are primary drivers for making gifts—both annual fund and legacy gifts (bequests). Donor research consistently reports that personalized and face-to-face interaction generates more in the way of gifts and resources for nonprofits.

But what if your brain is already filled up with the details of personal relationships? How many more can you add?

Researcher Robin Dunbar suggests the most friends your brain can handle might be around 150 because of the way the human brain is hardwired (see liv.ac.uk/researchintelligence/issue17/brainteaser.html). Other research suggests the number of close or best friends may be far smaller. Therein lies the rub. How do you stay “friends” with the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people who value the work of your organization? Technology can help a little, but the root of the problem persists.

This is not a new problem in the fundraising world. Faced with this very dilemma, in the early 1970s G.T. “Buck” Smith devised a conceptual solution you can use in your small or mid-size nonprofit today and that will serve you as your nonprofit grows.

While driving the back roads of Ohio to visit donors, Buck realized he could only track a small number of relationships in his head; after that number he needed some help. Buck approached his work with an emphasis on the quality of the relationship—especially the fact that no manipulation of the prospect or donor is ever intended. Instead, he focused on nurturing a passion within an individual to make a difference in a cause with the potential to bring joy and satisfaction to that individual. He envisioned a way to enable him to significantly expand his ability to cultivate and nurture greater numbers of donors who have the ability to make important contributions. Of course, “important” is relative, and what counts is what is “important” to your group—whatever the size of your non-profit.

If you are just starting with this approach, I suggest trying it out with your top 5% or 10% of donors first or perhaps the top 50 or 100 people who are most important to the group. You might define “most important” by selecting people who have made the largest one-time gifts, people who have given the largest amount cumulatively over time, or a combination of both factors.

In the years since Buck Smith developed this process for managing donor relationships, now often called moves management, it has been modified and institutionalized (in fact, the term “Moves Management” is a registered trademark of the Institute for Charitable Giving in Chicago).

Over the last few years, I experimented with the concept of relationship management with a number of small and mid-size groups with the intent of discovering what would best serve smaller groups. What I discovered and observed worked is based on five simple questions. There’s also one question to ask yourself in advance: Can I do this?

Here’s a quick test for success. When was the last time you emailed a friend or family member a picture (subject line:“Pix!”)? Or perhaps you sent a short note telling them what you were up to, or you came across an article, blog post, or website you thought they might like? If you have ever done such things, you can probably make this relationship management process work for you and your nonprofit.

In each instance, there is evidence that you listened, paid attention in earlier conversations, and have a sense of what could be of interest to your friend or relative. You remembered their interest at the right time and then made a small but thoughtful response. Such simple mindfulness is the essence of effective relationship management. This is not the same as tweeting or posting something on Facebook, in which you broadcast a single message to a range of different people. Rather, success will require a focus on what interests and engages others; these interests may or may not be of equal interest to you personally. In contrast, on Facebook most people post things that are all about themselves—“Look what I just did!”

Start with Your Interests, then Shift to the Donor’s Interests

The simplicity of relationship management as originally envisioned is to help you discover people who might be interested in what you do and how to help them discover if they are, in fact, interested. If there is interest, together you and the prospective donor discover how best to be connected in a meaningful way. Out of that connection comes increased involvement on the part of the donor.

In my experience it’s at this point that prospective donors end up asking you to ask them for a gift, by saying something simple such as, “How can I help?” Of course, by then you understand more about their interests and capacity, and you can respond intelligently to their request in a way that results in a gift everyone can be pleased and proud about.

By the way, once you secure a gift, you can start the process all over again. The same questions and process, as described below, still apply. Think of it as a circle going around, often asking for a larger gift in the next round.

Many people can manage this process intuitively with a number of individuals. However, how can you systematically nurture, involve, and connect with a growing number of supporters? In obtaining gifts of all sizes, in particular larger gifts, nonprofit fundraisers must pay attention to how each relationship unfolds.

It takes time and attention. In my experience, using a relationship management process as a tool to manage how you relate with donors consistently adds to the joy of fundraising you experience representing the work of your nonprofit; it also enables you to get results with larger numbers of people.

Five Steps: Five Simple Questions

Five questions that you ask yourself can form the basis of your relationship management system. These questions can be used in multiple ways: in donor meetings (slightly reworded), as a way to categorize groups of donors and their relative status so you can track overall progress, and to help frame the right perspective on designing informational and solicitation materials. The questions focus on the following steps in building a relationship:

  1. Discovering a likely interest combined with the capacity to make a gift
  2. Deepening understanding
  3. Nurturing involvement
  4. Inviting a gift
  5. Recognizing the gift, then beginning the process anew

Some groups condense the following set of five questions to four, others expand it to six. It rarely works well with fewer than four steps because too many distinctions get lost.

Here are the five steps that form the basis of this relationship management system and the questions that you ask yourself for each one:

  1. Introduce. Does this person have the financial capacity to make a gift and is there an existing connection or likely interest in supporting the work of our nonprofit?
  2. Understand. Have we personally introduced or discussed our work with the prospect? Often we think this has been done, but it has not. Use this conversation to figure out what they need and how they would like to be involved.
  3. Involve. What must occur or be understood by the prospect in order for them to make a major gift? Most often the donor wants to find out more and the best way to do that is to become involved in some way with the work of the organization. For example, a number of attorneys have told me that they don’t want to offer legal services, but instead want to become involved with the service an organization provides, such as delivering meals to seniors or reading to children in the schools. Looked at from the perspective of the donor, then, what kind of involvement will help them complete this statement: “Now that I know (or understand) that ____________, I feel comfortable and confident in making a gift.
  4. Invite. Have we made the case for a gift in a way that connects with the prospective donor’s highest interests and values? (Or, Do we understand how the prospect would best like to make a gift, for what purpose, and in what gift range?)
  5. Recognize. How will we most effectively—in the experience of the donor—recognize this gift? The following chart shows how one development director of a local conservation advocacy group described his journey with a particular donor, with notations about each stage or question.

Keeping Track

You can create a simple spreadsheet to track your progress with each prospective donor (see the example on next page). At the top you could label a series of columns with the primary contact name, current status, next steps, and notes sections. Use the questions as the basis for creating your strategy for what is next.

I have noticed it is useful to write in complete sentences about the purpose of the next step as a way to provide guidance for how a meeting or contact might unfold. For example, a task described as “meet the executive director for breakfast” might be an appropriate strategy—but only if you have clearly thought it through. A more considered description might look like this: “Step 3: Mary the prospect starts her days early and has break-fast meetings most days at her favorite spot. She has also been asking some pointed questions about our budget. The executive director should ask to meet her for breakfast with the purpose of discovering what questions she needs to have answered in order for her to consider a major gift.”

Using the Questions

These questions can be used to guide individual visits with donors, do internal tracking, or help project future fundraising resource needs.

Guide Individual Visits with Donors

Seeking the answer to a question could be the focus of a donor visit. Too often when we think about fundraising we think about asking. Asking for a gift is critical, but if we take the time to connect and involve the donor, the process will be more rewarding and the gift will likely be much higher, and repeat-able. For example, what might a visit look like if your primary goal was to discover the answer to the question, “What must oc-cur or be understood by the prospect in order to make a major gift?” Finding an answer to a question could also be the assign-ment of board members to discover, for example at an event the prospective donor is expected to attend. In some cases, it might even be appropriate to ask that question directly of the donor.

Do Internal Tracking

You can use these questions to help plan individual donor contact as well as contact with groups of donors. Aggregating your individual information, you can track groups of donors and gain insight into your overall fundraising progress. Understanding the quantity of prospects at each stage in your gift pipeline can be a powerful planning and forecasting tool. For example, if you have 25 donors at step two, but only three at the third step, then you immediately know that you need to put your emphasis into moving group two along.

Project Future Fundraising Resource Needs

Analyzing the trends you see could give you insight about what kinds of fundraising objectives to set, what kinds of activities to plan, and what kinds of resources you will need. You can also use this kind of thinking to set up for a new campaign project, a capital effort, or expanding your current operations.

One group planned an expansion effort using their relation-ship management experience of the previous year. They tracked staff and volunteer time related to fundraising and matched that against the numbers and stages of donors. As a result, they were able to estimate the numbers of prospective donors they would need to interact with and the amount of staff and volunteer time needed. Armed with that data, they constructed a more realistic plan for interacting with donors and prospects for the coming year.

You can put this idea to work immediately by starting with a list of your current donors and prospects and labeling each by step as best you can. Then, your next assignment is to connect with them in some way to discover the next most appropriate action needed. Repeat as needed. ■

Kevin Johnson, CFRE, CSPG, principal of Retriever Development Counsel, coaches nonprofit leaders on how to be more effective in strategy, charting new directions, and building sustainable funding models. His book, The Power of Legacy and Planned Gifts: How Donors and Nonprofits Can Change the World, was published by Jossey-Bass earlier this year.