Blend: Using Science and Art to Build Relationships with Prospective Donors

I am a firm believer in using data and the science behind it to drive your fundraising results.  I encourage my clients to use giving data to uncover their best annual (sustainer) prospects, enhance donor growth using data-backed targeted gift asks and to use effective tactics to acquire new donors.  Instead of taking a buckshot approach, non-profit organizations must strategically focus their energy and efforts.

Prospect research and wealth screening allows organizations to get a feeling for their best possible prospects.  It’s important to run a batch screening annually to identify who is in your database, but it’s not as simple as “these are my richest donors.”  Identifying major donor prospects requires you to look at their affinity to your cause, their propensity to give, and how much they’ve given to organizations like yours and not like yours.  Start by looking at newly identified prospects who look like, on paper, major gift donors who already give to you.

But for as many times as I talk about “science” in fundraising, “art” is just as important – especially when raising major gifts.  When it comes to actually asking donors in person for a major gift to your organization, the “artful ask” is just as important as the science behind it. Wealth screening will allow you to identify who SHOULD give.  Building an authentic long-term relationship with a donor will allow you to identify who WILL give.

Simply put, people give to people.  The right person asking, at the right time, for the right amount, and for the right project ensures success.  Building relationships is an art.

The Right Person: I’ve worked with board members, executive directors, and even professional fundraising staff who think they’re great at asking for money, but they’re not. Either they get nervous about the idea of asking for money, don’t know how to handle rejection, or are just simply uncomfortable talking to anyone about money. I’ve worked with countless clients that say, “I don’t feel comfortable asking for money; that’s why we brought you on board to help us succeed.”  The most important step in beginning to build a relationship is to ensure that the right person from the non-profit is leading the relationship.

Learning how to pick up on non-verbal social cues, asking probing questions and matching donor passions with projects is step number one.  The only way to confirm donor interest is to ask them.  “Angela and Dan, you’ve shared how important your college education and experience was to you and how it set you up for the success you’ve had today. You’ve generously supported our scholarship campaign in the past.  Have you ever considered establishing your own endowed scholarship?”

The late Jerold Panas, an incredible force in the profession of fundraising, shares in his book Asking: A 59-Minute Guide to Everything Board Members, Volunteers, and Staff Must Know to Secure the Gift, “The only way to get milk from a cow is to sit by its side and milk it.”  While that might be a rather direct statement, it speaks to the importance of getting to know your donors in person.  Major gift donors are rarely, if ever, secured with a letter or an e-mail. Take the time to invest.

Consider investing in an outside consultant to train your board and organization’s leadership to build relationships and to help make “the ask”.  The Killoe Group is just one example of a consulting firm that can help organizations develop their talent and train their leadership to build relationships with major donor prospects.

The Right Time: Contrary to what we may want to believe, your organization and the needs they meet may not be a top priority to everyone else. As an example, prospects might say, “Mike, I understand the work your organization performs and I support it.  But it’s not a philanthropic priority for us right now.”  It is okay to hear that – that type of honest, direct feedback allows your organization to focus your time and energy on other prospects whose priorities are closer matched to your organization.

Professional fundraisers and organization leaders need to understand that just because people in the community have money, it doesn’t mean they have your organization in their priorities.  Yes – that can change, and building a long-term relationship can help.  But the sure-fire way to ruin that relationship is to not listen to the donor.

We also encounter prospects that just aren’t ready to make the gift now. Ensure you’re building honest, thoughtful, two-way interactive relationships to get to know your donors.

I’ve been a longtime fan of Jim Collin’s Good to Great.  Although it is primarily focused on companies in the for-profit arena and how some companies transition from being good companies to great companies and why some fail to make the transition, the lessons learned from these companies are very applicable to the non-profit world.  I encourage you to read it, and even if you have read it, re-read it with the lenses of a non-profit professional.  In the book, Jim and team stated, “Going from Good to Great is a quiet, deliberate process of figuring out what needed to be done to create the best future results and then simply taking those steps, one after the other, turn by turn of the flywheel.”  Apply this method of thought to your major gift cultivation process. Greatness does not just happen, so in that vein, major gifts do not just fall in your lap.

Take the time to set a deliberate course of action to build momentum to secure the gift. 

The Right Amount: “Well, when we did some prospect research we found out that you gave $250,000 to the Symphony, so we’re going to ask you for the same amount to the University.” The right amount is not what the prospect has given to others; the right amount is not what you need; and the right amount is not what you want.  The right amount is the amount of money you, as the professional fundraiser, have decided to ask for based on your research, their level of interest in your organization, their level of affinity to your cause, and their level of interest in the project you’re asking for.  The final piece of the “right amount” strategy is what your gut tells you, after all the above consideration, to ask for.  Building an authentic relationship, one that allows these prospects to get close to your organization and to learn more about it, will allow you to trust your gut.

The Right Project: Building a solid relationship with a donor allows you to learn about their passions and interests. You may find during conversations that a prospect had a specific life experience that they cherish and there’s an opportunity for you to match their experiences with the organizations’ needs.  Make sure that you have a few potential projects in mind as you build a relationship. Don’t hesitate to share, over time, all the projects your organization is working on, not just the one you’re hoping the prospect is interested in.

When I started my career as a professional fundraiser, the “rule” in the industry was that it took, on average, twenty-three unique touches over a period of time to secure a $1,000,000 gift. I’ve seen that number lower and higher over time, but I always remind my clients about this rule.  This statistic speaks to the need for building an authentic long-term relationship with your prospective donors.

Remember, rarely if ever does someone propose marriage on a blind date and receive a positive response! The first visit with a major donor prospect is just that, a blind date.  Blend the science of prospect research with the art of building a solid relationship over time to ensure major gift success.