My challenge to you: Bring joy back to your development efforts by not fundraising. Sounds crazy, right? But you can drive forward and build your multimillion-dollar nonprofit in a different way. That does not mean I want you to stop asking for money — “no money, no mission” still applies. Instead, re-envision what development can and should be.
The development process seems straightforward on the surface. Explain the mission, make a budget, ask for money, cash the check. But for many, the transactional piece of fundraising — crafting the impeccable ask or finding the right angel donor — becomes the never-ending stopgap.
Sure, this approach leads to some quick fixes for cash flow, but what happens the next day? To enjoy long-term success, we need to build relationships. View yourself as a facilitator and your donor as self-directed. Along with setting a dollar-based fundraising goal, build your key performance indicators around creating strong, lasting bonds with your major gift donors. Focus on discovering what philanthropy means to each one.
Below are three best practices that can help nonprofits and their donors find meaning and joy in philanthropy:
Seek to understand, not to be understood.
Most of us go into that first meeting with a donor itching to delve into our pitch. I say resist the urge and start with your donor’s “who, what, when, where, why and how” for giving. Ask the questions that open a conversation. Do not give them a chance to walk away with a one-word answer by beginning the question with a verb, for example, “Is it your intention to give $10,000 this year to the annual fund?” Instead, ask, “How does giving to our annual fund at your level match with your overall philanthropic intent?” This invites a thoughtful response and can give you a healthy insight into your donor’s goals.
Understand why they’re talking to you. Sometimes, donors haven’t thought a lot about your organization and why they took the meeting. Listening is an active exercise, and it takes practice. Donor meetings can be difficult to secure, and sometimes we get so excited to finally get our foot in the door, we frame the meeting around our agenda. Remember that investors get asked for money a lot. Don’t tell them how your organization is different, show them.
Don’t make a pitch, tell a story.
Your organization excels at outcomes and measuring your results — good for you. The nonprofit sector should be outcome-driven — but don’t lose the people behind pie charts and percentages. Humans run and fund your organization to serve, in one way or another, fellow humans. Always make it personal — put a real face and name to the many ways in which your organization makes the world a better place. Investors listen to the metrics, but they remember the story.
I’ll never forget one conversation where a story made all the difference. During a meeting between the school board of a Catholic school serving a low-income community in Philadelphia and a prospective donor, a board member caught up in the details of “great” test scores was suddenly interrupted. Another board member cut in with “that’s not the only reason kids come here,” and then began to tell a story about a mother who had come to the principal sobbing because she didn’t have the money for her son to attend. She feared for her son’s future if he remained in the district school plagued by violence. The board member then explained how the school has helped many families like this one. After that story, the prospect immediately became a donor.
Honor your commitments, big and small.
It’s easy to make a million promises in a donor meeting. Most of us sincerely mean to follow up. We’re rushing to the next donor meeting, answering texts, calls and emails — and we forget. So, you didn’t send the data you promised. That’s not harming your mission right? Or is it? The truth is that relationship building is in the details. Would you want to be in a long-term relationship with someone who promised you something, even something little, and didn’t follow up? Of course not, and neither does your donor.
It can be hard to remember the details of every donor meeting. Take notes, or simply ask the donor if you can put the reminder in your phone whenever you make a commitment. I never have my phone out during meetings, but showing my donor I am serious about honoring my commitment by taking a minute to write it down speaks volumes. Details matter. They make your donor feel valued and they build trust. Following up on each one — no matter how small — will distinguish you from the scores of nonprofits that likely come through your donor’s door to ask for money.
In matters of importance, like raising money for a great cause, it is the simple things that make the difference. Seeking to understand, telling a compelling story and honoring your commitments are the fundamentals of long-term relationship building that can pull you out of the transactional mode of fundraising and bring you into a deeper and more joyful way of funding your mission.