The Art Of Donor Relations

There is an abundance of advice about strategy and the how-to’s of fundraising, however little time is spent on developing personal qualities, like empathy, patience, integrity, ability to motivate and good listening.

These are qualities that can be developed over time and are essential to being an excellent fundraiser. Let me share with you two real-life scenarios to illustrate my point:

A few years back I had a fundraiser call on me to ask that I donate $10,000 to a capital campaign (I will not mention the charity). While I was generally aware of why he requested our meeting, I was not prepared of what was to come.

The meeting began with the usual exchange of pleasantries, made easier given we were both familiar with each other and shared an affinity to the charity. As I listened to his presentation (or case of support) the meeting took an unsettling turn when I realize that the individual knew very little about the campaign or in-depth knowledge about my history, affinity nor passion for the charity. Within minutes the presentation leaped to the ‘ask’ for a donation with an assumption I would contribute and the absent of making any personal connection with any motivation I might have.  Needless to say, I was shocked and a bit miffed. Of course, I requested time to consider a request and expected a follow-up in the coming weeks. No follow-up came and no gift given.

This scenario highlights the importance of research, prospecting and the art of building a relationship with the donor (regardless of history) before requesting any gift. Here was a few of take-aways from the encounter:

  • Professional and volunteer fundraisers represent a charity’s brand and should not ever be placed in a compromising position not knowing anything about the donor. This only serves to tarnish the brand and risk any goodwill.
  • Quality technology systems and fundraising processes can’t replace the need for quality human interaction to forge meaningful relationships with donors. This takes time to learn, listen, connect and patiently waiting for the proper time to ask for a donation.
  • Regardless of the relationship history, fundraisers need to take every opportunity to forge or reinforce the donor-charity-fundraiser relationship. Anything less is to risk losing the connection and donor support.

In another scenario, I accompanied a professional fundraiser (who was with a significant national charity) to a meeting of one of Canada’s Fortune 500 corporations. The meeting was planned to be very brief and we were grateful to be given the time. The key message was to thank the CEO and thru him, thank his team for their financial and volunteer employee contributions. It was a stewardship meeting.

After the exchange of introductions the professional fundraiser went off message, dominating the conversation and missed every opportunity to engage the CEO about his thoughts on the partnership or how the support relationship could be enhanced.  The  chance to honour the CEO’s leadership, the corporate gift and the volunteers was lost as one person dominated the meeting. 

This scenario highlights the importance of expressing empathy, patience, good listening skills and the art of building a relationship with the donor. Here are a few take-aways as how a fundraiser should conduct themselves:

  • Read the room and the people in it to decide when you take the lead and when you should follow the conversation. This requires understanding the relationship dynamics, having patience and honing your listening skills.
  • No matter how prepared you are, how many documents you have or facts to convey, remember to be ‘efficient with systems, but effective with people.’ Relationship building is a different process than is donor systems management.
  • Always yield the right to speak to the donor.

While it’s important that fundraisers have the abilities to conduct sound research, operate data management systems and prepare a compelling case for support, demonstrating particular personal qualities, such as empathy, patience, integrity, ability to motivate and good listening throughout the donor solicitation and stewardship process is paramount. It’s what makes fundraisers go from good to great.

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