Donor relationships seen as key to fundraising success

By Todd Cohen

HIGH POINT, N.C. — A coach at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater High Point with a natural gift for connecting with people has helped cultivate important relationships for the nonprofit. When a parent of one of his soccer players was sick, for example, the coach sent get-well cards.

Later, that parent’s spouse phoned the Boys & Girls Clubs and asked how to help the organization. So it invited the spouse to serve on its board of directors. That individual, in turn, invited the nonprofit to apply for grants from the family’s foundation. Then the donor began volunteering for the organization, reading with children and helping them with their homework.

Over the course of a 10-year relationship, the donor has become one of the Boys & Girls Clubs’ top contributors, making a string of individual gifts of more than $10,000 each, compared to an average gift to the organization of roughly $150.

“All you have to do is say, ‘This is what’s going on,’ and that donor will say, ‘Let me write a check, let me help alleviate that problem,'” says Holly Ferree, vice president for development at the Boys & Girls Clubs.

Managing relationships

At a time of growing competition among charities for donor support, continuing uncertainty about the economy, and increasing expectation from donors for a measurable return on their investment, nonprofits increasingly are focusing their fundraising on building relationships with donors who have the ability to make large gifts.

“The number one lesson for any nonprofit is maintaining a close relationship with donors,” says Whitney Jones, president of Whitney Jones Inc., a fundraising consulting firm in Winston-Salem. “Fundraising is all about relationships management.”

Ferree agrees.

“The key to any fundraising is establishing relationships, making sure you’re letting donors know how the money is being used, and reporting results, being transparent,” she says.

Keeping it personal

At many charities, Jones says, 80 percent of the income comes from 20 to 30 donors.

“Even in a small organization, some donors are giving significantly more than anyone else,” he says. “The key is to maintain really close relationships with them, which is regular, personal visits to keep them informed.”

The goal of those visits, which should take place every three months, he says, is not to ask for money but to talk about “here’s where we are, here’s who we’re serving, here’s a touching story of someone we’ve served.”

Ferree says building relationships with donors requires “constant communication, making sure you have touch points throughout the year where you’re trying to reach your donors through quarterly publications, and having them in for special recognitions.”

The best approach is to have one-on-one conversations with key donors, she says, “making people feel special, making them feel they are part of something and really contributing to something that is making a difference.”

Board role

Jones says many nonprofits are small and lack sufficient staff to maintain relationships with donors, making it “incumbent on the board to get involved.”

And that makes it important that the CEO of a nonprofit work to build the board by developing relationships and identifying potential board members who are “connectors” who can connect the nonprofit to prospective donors.

To help find those connectors, a nonprofit CEO can ask either a board member or community leader to host a “friendraising” event in their home at which they can “share the vision and the passion for the organization,” Jones says.

A nonprofit also could host a luncheon both to raise money and identify prospective board members, he says. The organization might recruit sponsors to contribute, in advance, 90 percent of the total to be raised, and ask existing board members and donors to invite prospective board members and donors to the event. At the event, the nonprofit also would spell out its “vision and passion,” Jones says.

Setting priorities

With small staffs, limited resources and significant demands on their time, nonprofit CEOs need to focus and be resourceful about how to invest their time and the organizations’ efforts to raise money, Jones says.

“You’ve got to set your own priorities, goals in terms of the people you’re going to visit based on the potential return on investment of your time,” he says.

Accompanying the CEO on those targeted donor visits, he says, should be a member of the nonprofit’s board or development committee, which typically might include individuals such as those connected to foundations, corporations or local businesses, or a lawyer who handles trust work, or a banker who focuses on wealth management.

Peer connections

At Guilford College, a key strategy has been to recruit “passionate” major-gift donors to help secure major gifts from their peers, says Mike Poston, vice president for advancement.

“If somebody gives $100,000, put them in front of someone else who can give $100,000, he says. “Here is a passionate person, and make sure they talk to another person who hasn’t given but will give if they see someone who has the same passion and will invest. It’s matching the passion with the ability to invest through a gift.”

Equally important, he says, is to “cluster” those volunteers around a set of core needs, so existing donors who have made gifts to support a particular need will talk to prospective donors with a passion for the same need.

Organizations also should give prospective donors an opportunity meet people who have benefited from the programs that donors are supporting.

“You want to know that what you’re giving your money to is appreciated,” Poston says.

Volunteers as leverage

Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro has engaged volunteers to work closely with its staff on developing and soliciting key prospective donors, says Gordon Soenksen, chief development officer.

That requires communicating effectively with key volunteers “so you’re developing strategies that are appropriate for the prospects but also comfortable for the volunteers,” he says.

It also requires “engaged volunteers who are passionate about the mission of the organization and who are clear on the vision of the organization,” and “who are confident enough that they are willing to ask for the commitment or the gift, or appropriately set up the fundraiser to ask for the gift,” he says.

“Most of us at nonprofits are small staffs,” he says, “and engaging volunteers appropriately allows us to leverage our activity.”

Investing in infrastructure

Boys & Girls Clubs of America is promoting a program known as “Advancing Philanthropy” that encourages its more than 1,140 independent local Clubs to invest in their infrastructure “to get the best payoff for the kids we’re serving,” Ferree says.

“Donors want to see what their investment is doing,” she says. “That takes a greater investment of time and more people. We’re starting to see we have to do things differently.”

Instead of spending time on special events that might raise $20,000 and consume staff time, for example, local Clubs could assign a staff member to work with prospective donors and make requests for major gifts that might generate as much in donations, if not more, she says.

“It’s a culture shift,” she says. “It takes time.”

Telling stories, and selling

To raise money, Jones says, nonprofits need to create a “compelling vision” and two or three stories that reflect that vision and show how their organizations have helped transform the lives of the people they serve.

Soenksen says nonprofits should focus their fundraising on individuals — who account for well over three-fourths of charitable giving in the U.S. — and avoid “the trap of grantwriting as the sole fundraising activity.”

Grantwriting can consume “enormous amounts of time that could otherwise be spent with individual prospects.”

Nonprofits also should not be “afraid to hear ‘no,'” he says.

“It gives you a chance to come back to the conversation later on,” he says. “Fundraising success comes from relationships that have been carefully developed over time.”

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