Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Jan/Feb 2016, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

Deepening relationships with 275 people I’ve never met? Where to begin? When I started in major gifts fundraising at Inter Pares in 2013, I needed to build and maintain relationships with a group of 275 major donors spread out across Canada, from St. John’s Newfoundland to Vancouver Island, British Columbia (over 4,500 miles apart). I was worried that it would take me years to get to know the individuals who make up such a large and diverse group. I have now spent over two years in this role, and I’m happy to say, this broad group is starting to feel like a community.

Inter Pares is an international social justice organization with a single office and 15 staff in Ottawa, Canada. We raise funds to support the human rights work of over 100 counterpart organizations working in Asia, Africa and Latin America. For many years we have had a relationship-based approach to fundraising. All staff recognize the importance of donor stewardship. When fundraising staff, program staff, and board members are traveling in Canada, or on a layover en route to Asia, we try to meet donors whenever possible. So when I began work, our fundraising database already contained useful notes from visits with our major donors. Nevertheless, in 2013 we had only met about one-third of our major donors in person. We still have work to do in this respect, but as of summer 2015, we have met over 60 percent of our major donors. In this article I will share the strategies I have used with my colleagues at Inter Pares to prioritize our time and energy in really getting to know our major donors as individuals.

Step 1: Scoring Our Major Donors

To begin creating a more manageable caseload of major donors, I knew I had to scale back the group. My first step was to use the Recency Frequency Longevity Monetary (RFLM) scoring system to compare individuals in the major donor caseload. This system, which I learned at a workshop given by Ted Hart at an Association of Fundraising Professionals Congress in Toronto in 2013, allocates a score out of 100 to each of your donors based on how recent their last gift was, how often they have made donations, how many years they have been supporting the organization, and the size of their largest gift. Extra points are allocated for high total lifetime giving amounts.

By applying this RFLM scoring system to each person in our caseload of 275 donors, we were able to identify our strongest major donors, and from there we could choose who to include in a caseload of 150 major donors. Richard Perry and Jeff Schreifels’ recent book, It’s Not Just about the Money: Building Authentic Major Donor Relationships, talks about building a strong caseload of 150 major donors. Having a caseload this size made our major gifts program strategies much more manageable.

Step 2: Survey Says…

Within six months, I was able to gather an extensive amount of useful information on the following: how our major donors view our work; who is open to being asked for a special gift; who would like to be visited; who is interested in getting involved in other ways like volunteering; and much more.

I created a five-page survey for our major donors, which we sent out to our 150 major donors. The two-page cover letter talked about our changing funding context and our rationale for wanting to gather this kind of information through a survey. The letter also gave some examples of exciting new fundraising and public engagement strategies we were working on.

The survey included questions such as:

  • Inter Pares and our counterparts concentrate on six specific themes of work, across four regions. Which themes and regions interest you most? (multiple choice options)
  • What motivates you to support Inter Pares? (multiple choice options with space for comments)
  • Is Inter Pares one of your favorite charities? (multiple choice options with space for comments)
  • Do you feel that you receive enough information on how your donations are used by Inter Pares? (comments only)
  • Is your relationship with Inter Pares stronger or weaker than the relationships that you have with other organizations that you support? How can Inter Pares improve? (comments only)
  • Would you be interested in meeting with Inter Pares staff at some point in the next few years to discuss making a special donation? (multiple choice options with space for comments)

We received an amazing response: 90 surveys were returned out of 150 mailed. I would attribute this response rate to a few factors:

  • We used lots of personal touches on the surveys, including live signatures from both our executive director and board chair on each cover letter.
  • The end of the cover letter had a box with the text: “Would you like to get in touch with us about any of the issues raised in this survey? We are always happy to hear from you.” This was followed by the email addresses and direct phone numbers for our two fundraising managers and our executive director.
  • We have not done surveys of this kind to our donor base before, so it may have felt like a new opportunity for engagement.

From the rich detail in the comments sections of the survey responses, we compiled a 22-page document of words of encouragement, suggestions for new ways to engage with our supporters, and clear ways to articulate what donors appreciate about our work. Now we often refer back to these comments to rediscover clear ideas for how to describe what our donors like about our work, using their own words.

Step 3: Creating Segments of the Major Donor Caseload

One of the most useful outcomes of the survey was the idea of creating segments. Around the same time that these survey responses were being returned, we had a phone call to discuss our major gifts program with former Inter Pares board member and fundraising veteran Delyse Sylvester. She raised the idea that Inter Pares could create profiles of our major donors and treat those segments in a particular way based on their characteristics. Delyse suggested that we look for the characteristics that differentiate our major donors and try to identify five or more common profiles within our major donor caseload.

When Delyse first proposed this strategy, my immediate reaction was: We have barely put together a single coherent strategy for our 150 major donors. I can’t imagine trying to juggle five different strategies for subgroups of major donors. There just aren’t enough hours in the day!

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that creating different segments of our major donor base would actually be incredibly useful and informative. It would help us develop outreach strategies that made sense for each major donor as an individual with particular characteristics, rather than a major gifts fundraising strategy that treats everyone the same. Up until that point I had been mostly operating under a loosely coherent major gift mantra of: Be clear about who your major donors are, and then pay more attention to all of them. More cards! More phone calls! More visits! But as I started to read the responses from the surveys, I began to see that just because 10 different people make large donations to our organization, they don’t necessarily all want to have the same kind or amount of attention from us.

As I entered the survey data into our database of donor records, I started seeing patterns emerge right away. There were surveys that came in from current or former board members and close friends in the sector. These are people that we already knew well, and because of these deeper relationships, we were already treating our outreach with them differently from the rest of the major donors. Their surveys included comments like: “We are happy with our relationship with you. We would be interested in arranging/supporting conversations to discuss the political context and deepen our collective analysis,” and, “As you know, there are a few charities of which Inter Pares is one that I support every year without question.” I called this segment the “close allies.”

There were also the surveys that, when I read them, I could feel the donors’ emotional connection with Inter Pares in the way they spoke about what our work means to them. These are the people who stated unequivocally that Inter Pares is their favorite charity. They made comments like: “I love what you do, enjoy reading the bulletins, appreciate the thoughtful, handwritten notes, and am glad to be able to contribute. Keep up the great work—bringing an alternative voice and vision to a too-uniform world.” Because of the depth of their affinity, we call this segment the “best friends.”

Then there were university professors and doctors, for example, who made comments like “I really don’t want to spend too much time on the organizations I support. I don’t have time, but I do have a commitment to contributing somehow.” These became the “working professionals” segment.

I also read surveys from the more business-minded major donors who were particularly interested in low spending on overhead. They are often seeking more information so they can evaluate our projects and analyze our budget. Their survey comments included, ”I find it difficult to sort out your costs of operating, traveling, etc. I realize that there may be some co-funding involved.” This group perhaps sees their donations as a form of philanthropic investing, so I called them the “investor-donors.”

The last segment we identified included long-time generous supporters who made clear comments like, ”We’re on a pension and well into our 80s.” They asked for less mail and said they were not interested in meeting with Inter Pares staff or being asked for a special donation. This segment we identify as “the elders.”

How Segments Influence Our Approach

Our first opportunity to put strategies into practice for the different segments came at the end of 2014, when the Inter Pares fundraising team usually sends a card to each of our major donors to thank them for their support this year. In past years, we would send everyone the same card (a monotonous experience—we would create a stock message to write in the card, and a number of staff would each handwrite dozens of cards with little or no personalization). Instead, this year we sent smaller batches of five different kinds of year-end messages to our five segments. Coordinating these five different packages took some planning: I determined who would get which package in the summer and made a timeline to roll out these different approaches one at a time between early November to early December. Creating and sending all these packages was made possible with the support of six of my staff colleagues and three of our board members.

The 27 close ally donors each received a personal email from our executive director with details of three exciting recent activities at Inter Pares that had not yet been shared with supporters in our direct mail or e-newsletter streams. I think this came across as a refreshing personal contact from someone in a leadership role at Inter Pares, with details of our work shared in an informal, conversational way. It hopefully helped our close ally donors understand they are part of the inner circle of our organization. One of our close ally major donors wrote back to say how much they appreciated this year-end email from our executive director, and how it was one of the most honest and authentic communications pieces he had ever received from a charity.

The 35 donors in the best friend segment received an email trip summary with photos from programs overseas, sent by program staff who had traveled overseas in October and November 2014. The email gave specific examples of the kind of work that our major donors are supporting. Since it was shared using a simple person-to-person email without any fancy formatting or special effort but clear details and photos, I thought it would be appealing to the major donors in the best friend category. This group appreciates the personal connection of an individualized email sent from a program staff.

For the 26 working professional donors, we did not send an additional mailing, but we personalized a December year-in-review newsletter that they would have received anyway at that time of year. This way, a busy person does not receive one direct mail newsletter and a separate handwritten card in December at an already busy time of year, but instead receives one in-house mailing with a newsletter and a simple card with a handwritten message thanking them for their support.

For the investor-donors, we sent out 36 cards that demonstrated the impact of their support. The investor-donors received a simple package with a card and two photos from a recent learn-ing exchange that Inter Pares had coordinated for farmers from India and West Africa. The card gave details of the exchange and thanked the donor for helping to make those kinds of activities possible through their ongoing support.

For the 25 elders in our major donor segment, we sent cards handwritten by a board member that said why they like being on our board and shared one highlight from Inter Pares’ activities in 2014.

Does Segmenting Improve Relationships and Revenue?

Compared to our previous one-size-fits-all strategy for year-end stewardship from the previous five years, we saw our year-end revenue from our major donors increase by eight percent when we used a segmented strategy in 2014. It’s a new strategy that we will continue to refine and build into our communications and outreach with major donors throughout the annual cycle. But I feel these segments will help inform our strategy moving forward, and the segmented system will continue to present new ideas for creative ways to develop relationships with these manageable sub-groups of our major donor caseload.

We have also been able to use the segments to help create a shortlist of donors who have high RFLM scores and also value having a relationship with Inter Pares (the close ally and the best friend segments in particular). The segments, and this shortlist, have also been very useful in determining who in our major donor caseload may be ready to be asked for a special gift. Our team has made six asks in 2015 to individual major donors that we have been cultivating from our best friend, close ally and investor-donor segments. We have received over $80,000 as a result of these asks. Compared to 2014, that’s a five-fold increase of revenue from major gift asks.

In the space of two years, we have gone from trying to juggle relationships with 275 major donors, to a cohesive, strategic system of developing closer relationships with 150 major donors. And we did all this thanks to two fairly straightforward steps: a survey and some segmenting.

The relationships in our lives help define our path, our perspective, and our outcomes. So with a job like major gifts fundraising where building many relationships is central, we need to be prepared to build those relationships correctly. ■