Much has been written about the importance of donor relationships in fundraising. Building solid donor retention, moving donors up the giving pyramid, and finding and keeping new donors are all based on what kind of relationships you establish and nourish with your donors. And since, if you are like most organizations, eighty percent of your dollars come from the top 20% of your donors, it is especially important to foster strong relationships with your major donors.
I have been a major donor to a number of organizations over many years of philanthropy, and I can tell you from personal experience that some organizations are much better at this than others. So I am going to offer a few tips and a few stories that I hope will cause you to think a bit about your own approach to managing these all-important relationships.
It goes without saying that you need to communicate to your major donors how their money was used and what happened as a result. You should understand the level of communication that an individual donor prefers. Some want to see a lot of data while others are moved by human stories. For your top donors, take the time to write something catered directly to them. Or invite them to come to see the work in person. No matter how you steward someone, make sure to listen carefully to their reaction and personalize your message. Dig in to understand what resonates with them and what doesn’t. Target your next ask to their specific interests, of course as long as it fits in with your organization’s aspirations.
I count among my good friends people at nonprofits where I have been a major donor. These are people that I did not know before, but once I learned of their work and began to support them, we became friends. In some cases, we have remained friends long after they retired or moved on to other pursuits. How did we become friends? The usual way- they told me about their families and learned about mine. We shared common passions, like travel or pets. We had lunch together periodically. They sent little updates by email. One even put together a small surprise dinner party for my birthday, inviting key staff members from the organization whose work I had supported. Another sent a lovely bouquet of tulips for Easter.
The danger, of course, of being friends with your major donors is what can happen when you leave the organization. If the support is based solely on friendship, the donor could also move on. So it’s really important to record all of this personal knowledge so that the next development person can keep that relationship alive. An old school friend just told me a story about an organization she has been supporting for 25 years now, as a major donor and a board member. She just received a letter from them that opened with “Dear Cynthia” even though she is known by everyone as “Cindy.” Of course, this won’t cause her to end her lifetime support, but it does disrupt the feeling of friendship that can be so important.
And I’ve had a similar experience with an organization I’ve supported as a major donor for years. The longtime executive director there made a point of taking me to lunch once a year (even though I paid, she organized). We would catch up personally, and then she would tell me all the things that have been happening at the center. A few years ago she retired. After that, all of my interactions with the organization have been with the development director, and they are all about money. I hardly know the new executive director, and she certainly has never made the effort to connect with me personally.
A major donor should feel special, like an insider. There are several ways to do this. One is to have some sort of giving circle whose members give at a certain level and in return receive special treatment. The special treatment could be as simple as a periodic update just for circle members or as involved as an event where they hear from an interesting speaker on a topic related to your work. If you do an event, make sure you have plenty of staff in attendance – not fundraising staff, but the staff who can talk firsthand about the work of your organization. In general, it’s just a good idea to involve your staff beyond the development office in building relationships with major donors. Perhaps staff could lead a tour of your facility for giving circle members, or author stories about the families you serve.
Once you have established a giving circle for major donors, don’t forget to remind them that they belong and to ask them to renew their membership each year. And on the subject of asking each year, major donors should receive a special ask, with an amount, from the executive director or board chair. And make sure to remove their names from any direct mail campaign you might be launching. I once received a slick direct mail piece asking for donation levels that were all well below my usual gift amount to that organization. I just found it confusing and wondered how well the rest of the organization was managed if they could not do a simple segmentation of their data.
Another way to make donors insiders is to ask for their advice. Invite them to serve on a task force, for example. Some organizations allow non-board members to serve on board committees. Others establish advisory councils. I recently received a draft copy of a strategic plan with a request for my input. And I’m frequently asked to look at prospect lists to provide any insights I might have about the best way to approach people. When you ask for advice, you need to come with an open mind and try to convey the honest sense that you are, indeed, interested in what the donor has to say. And then you need to show some appreciation that they spent the time to share their thoughts, whether or not you decide to act on them. All of this will make them feel more a part of your organization and more likely to continue their support. After all, now it’s their organization too.
Major donors are used to recognition. I have a shelf full of crystal mementos and plaques. But I’d really rather not receive these – I have too much stuff already. I’m happy with a simple thank-you and some periodic updates about the work. But I am only one donor. The important thing is to know what each of your donors prefers, and then remember and honor those preferences.
Major donors truly are your friends. They love what you do and want to see you succeed. They deserve to be treated as insiders and made to feel special. That’s how you’re going to keep them as major donors year after year.