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Donor Cultivation is a Terrible Thing to Waste

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The early months of the calendar year tend to be when nonprofit staff turn their minds towards donor cultivation. The year-end fundraising frenzy has abated and the time feels ripe for hosting house parties, behind-the-scenes tours, getting-to-know-you coffees, and cultivation events.

Noble pursuits.

But… don’t lose sight of why you’re doing this.

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there” – Lewis Carroll

Determine your cultivation goal

Cultivation must have a point. It’s a means to an end; not an end in itself.

Sadly, too often organizations engage in “checklist cultivation.” They’ll report back to their boss or board that “We held a parlor meeting and 12 people attended.” Check! As if the fact the event merely happened is enough to justify the work that went into it.

No, no, no.

You could host a parlor meeting every week and it wouldn’t help you one whit if you simply ended there.

The devil is in the follow up.

And you can’t follow up effectively if you don’t know your goal.

Incidental cultivation is purposeless

When you simply engage in incidental cultivation – a meeting here, a party there – the only place you get to is the meeting or the party. 

Is that your goal?

If at the end of the year you’ll be happy if you’ve hosted six house parties and sent out holiday cards to your donors – yet have seen no increase in numbers of gifts or average gift size – then perhaps your time hasn’t been wasted. But I’ll wager that status quo is NOT your goal. 

So, how do you move from a random series of unconnected activities to a purposeful, systematic, coordinated approach that is part of an overall solicitation plan?

Purposeful cultivation leads, inexorably, towards solicitation

Cultivation can be defined as the strategic “road map” to effective solicitation

The coordinated series of planned “actions” or “touches” with the prospect/donor that you put in place along the way can be viewed as the stopping points you and your donor take on the journey towards your destination. 

  • Sometimes you stop to refresh yourselves (i.e., take the donor out for tea and learn more about their philanthropic interests).
  • Sometimes you take in a view (i.e., show your donor the results of your efforts and the impact of their giving). 
  • Sometimes you need to refuel and re-engage your donor’s passions (i.e., invite them to an event where they’ll have the opportunity to engage with clients, board members and other volunteers and donors). 

If the journey is a pleasant, enriching, rewarding, enlightening and enjoyable one — as opposed to one where you merely wander around, never sure where you are or where you’re going — then reaching the destination – an “ask” for philanthropic investment — is a natural culmination.

6 Tips to Ensure Donor Cultivation is Not Wasted:

1. Make it donor-centered, whether it’s general (for a group) or specific (for one prospect)

            Your focus, no matter your target audience, should be donor-centered, offering:

  1. Opportunity for you to learn about your donor;
  2. Opportunity for your donor to learn about the organization, and 
  3. Concentration on the impact of donor investment on fulfilling your mission.
  4. Delighting your donors and letting them know they mean more to you than they even thought was true.

Indicate to the prospect/donor they are valued partners with you in providing community services, enacting cherished values and righting wrongs. Determine whether an individual or group approach makes sense with any given prospect.

Remember that not everyone wants the same type of cultivation/recognition. Some want simply to “belong” to a community of like-minded folks. Others feel compelled to give back. Others want to fulfill a moral or religious obligation. Others want to simply feel better about themselves when they look in the mirror. Others want the rest of the world to feel better about them when they look at themselves (or see their name on a building). No motivation to give is better than another. You just want to match your cultivation and, ultimately, your solicitation to the particular motivations of your donor. Think like a matchmaker.

2. Plan ahead to follow up

            The follow up is more important than the cultivation activity itself. Good follow-through includes:

  1. Getting names/addresses of attendees and adding them to your mailing list.
  2. Passing around a sign-up sheet for folks who’d like to get further involved.
  3. Making notes about what you learned from attendees so you can input this into your database (donors hate it when they tell you something and then appear to forget or ignore it).
  4. Debriefing staff and volunteers who attended to find out what they learned about your prospect.
  5. Sending thank yous.
  6. Making follow-up phone calls to get feedback, answer questions and follow through on anything that came up at the event.
  7. Planning for next steps (i.e., when folks will next hear from you, who they’ll hear from and what you’ll emphasize).
  8. Sending reports demonstrating positive impact.

The risk of random cultivation is “burn out” of staff and volunteers – not to mention a too high cost of fundraising (e.g., parties without follow-up; people leaving without increased knowledge of the organization).

3. Cultivation is a partnership with board, volunteers, donors and staff

            Everyone has a specified role. It’s incumbent on staff to communicate this role to all involved and manage the cultivation process:

  1. Staff plans and participates in opportunities for volunteers to meet and talk with prospective donors.
  2. Volunteers make themselves available for planned events.
  3. Volunteers invite guests and may serve in the role of host or door-opener.
  4. Staff debriefs volunteers after the event.
  5. Staff and/or volunteers follow up with guests according to plan.

4. Cultivation requires a budget and assigned personnel

            It costs money to raise money. Remember that nothing comes from nothing. Consider what you’ll need for:

  1. Invitations and postage
  2. Space, rental, utilities, insurance, security
  3. Refreshments
  4. Entertainment
  5. Décor and signage
  6. Personnel
  7. Follow-up mailing

Take care your efforts are not so lavish it appears you don’t need the contributions you seek. But make the event fun, comfortable, inspiring and pleasing to all.

5. Cultivation should incorporate elements that lead to building a stronger relationship.

Treating donors as ATMs all the time does not build a happy, productive friendship. If that’s the feeling donor prospects get from your cultivation activities, you’re going down the wrong path. Fundraising luminaries for years have been studying what drives donor commitment and retention. It turns out there are seven principle drivers of donor love and loyalty. You will want to incorporate as many of these as possible into your cultivation strategies:

  1. Trust
  2. Personal link to you
  3. Performance in accomplishing your mission
  4. Tangible link to beneficiaries
  5. Multiple engagements
  6. Shared beliefs
  7. Choice and quality of communications

6. Cultivation must ultimately resolve in a call to action.

            Cultivation without an “ask” is not only pointless; it can annoy prospective donors who expect to be invited to become further invested in your mission. When people agree to attend a donor cultivation event they do so for a reason. They know what this is all about. If you fail to engage them following the event, they may feel any or all of the following:

  1. I guess I didn’t make a good impression.
  2. I guess they didn’t think I was interested.
  3. I guess they didn’t think I had the ability to contribute.
  4. I guess they’re inefficient.
  5. I guess they can’t be trusted to follow up.
  6. I guess they didn’t like me.
  7. I guess I don’t meet their needs.

Be very careful, and thorough, with donor cultivation. When you invite donors to be cultivated, and then don’t follow through to reap the fruits of your labor, you nip the donor’s flower in the bud. This feels worse to them than if you never singled them out to be nurtured in the first place. In effect, you got their hopes up. They thought your organization might be a way to bring more meaning to their life. And then, nothing. This makes them sad. They may go elsewhere.

Think of ‘cultivation’ this way: In a garden, what you do depends on your end goal. If you just want the foliage to look pretty, you just cultivate. If you want to pick the flowers or harvest the fruit, you take the next step.

Bottom line:  Cultivation is about building lasting relationships

You’ve got to be in this for the long haul. 

If you’re not:

  • Articulating your goal;
  • Determining your best strategies;
  • Building a plan and timeline;
  • Allocating budget and personnel;
  • Incorporating feedback mechanisms;
  • Including follow-up actions;
  • Debriefing staff and volunteers;
  • Recording data and next step actions in your database, and
  • Assigning someone to manage and implement next steps…

… Then, forget about it. Focus your cultivation efforts on an articulated goal, and make your next moves management piece as part of a systematic plan thoughtfully designed to get you towards that end.

Otherwise, cultivation is a waste.

You don’t need stuff to just keep you busy. While it can be challenging to find time to sit down and plan, assuring there’s a vision, big picture goals, objectives, strategies, tactics and accountability before you move into implementation mode is absolutely essential. Otherwise you can be really busy, but just spinning your wheels. Hamsters run really hard – but the wheel stays in the same place.

To avoid the dilemma of the hamster, ask yourself:

  1. Did we make the most of our last cultivation event or strategy?
  2. If not, where did we go awry?
  3. What would we do differently next time?
  4. What did we do that worked really well, and how can we do more of that in the future?

Now move forward with your thoughtfully planned, not random, cultivation and seize the day!

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  • Nate Nusbaum

    Well done, Claire! Great info for new and more experienced development people. Thank you for posting! Nate
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