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On this episode of Bloomerang TV, President of ML Innovations, Inc. and AFP Certified Master Trainer Michael Rosen joins us to discuss why donor cultivation is so important.

Full Transcript:

Steven: Hey there. Welcome to this week’s episode of Bloomerang TV. Thanks so much for tuning in. I’m super excited today because this is actually episode number 50. It’s our 50th episode, so I wanted to do something special. I wanted to bring on someone that I’ve been following online, been reading his blogs, been reading his tweets for a long time. Had a great conversation with him on the phone last week and super excited to welcome Michael Rosen to the show. Hey Michael. How is it going?

Michael: Terrific. Thank you for having me and having me for this terrific 50th anniversary episode.

Steven: Yeah, this is special. You’re in the Hall of Fame now for number 50. Michael, you are the president of ML Innovations Inc., you are an AFP certified mastered trainer and you’re also the author of the bestselling book Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing. There it is, for all to see. Everyone should pick up that book by the way. You’ve got a great blog as well. Every time you publish a new post I always share that on Twitter and always excited to read it. But before we launch into it, I want to give you a chance to talk about what you’re up to, what you do these days over at ML Innovations.

Michael: Well, thank you. At ML Innovations we do fundraising and marketing, consulting. I work with small, mid-sized and large non-profit organizations helping them with their annual funds, donor retention, mid-level donor, plan gift marketing and one of my favorite areas to work with folks on is fundraising ethics.

Steven: Very cool, very cool. Based on some of your blog posts and presentations, I know you’re a fellow fan, along with me, of calling donors and stewarding donors and cultivating donors. I wanted to talk about donor cultivation today because I feel like it’s a buzz worthy topic, it’s a topic that gets lots of different kind of definitions. Could you talk about, in your mind, what donor cultivation really is and what the point of it is and some of the things that nonprofits can gain from cultivating their donors?

Michael: Sure. I think, first of all, the difference between fundraising and development is when you start looking at the area of donor cultivation and education. If we’re not doing a good job of cultivating our donors and stewarding them after they’ve made their gift, really we’re not fundraising professionals, we’re professional beggars.

Steven: Right.

Michael: I don’t think that’s something we want to do. Cultivation, when done right, builds a relationship between the donor or prospective donor and the organization. When you do that effectively, you’re more likely to gain that person’s support, gain more support than you would have otherwise from the individual and have that support be longer lasting than it otherwise would be. Cultivation’s an essential part of professional development, it’s not a luxury.

Steven: Right. I really like that you make the distinction between fundraising and development because I feel like the fundraising side gets a lot of attention. There are a lot of people talking about how to make an effective ask and send out an effective appeal and there are a lot of people talking about how to effectively acknowledge gifts and thank donors. But that in-between space, what you’re talking about, that cultivation, seems super important. What are some ways you can cultivate donors beyond just sending appeals and newsletters and kind of the usual stuff that donors receive from non-profits?

Michael: One of the best ways to cultivate people is to pleasantly surprise them. Emphasizing the “pleasantly” part of that. What you want to do is not worry about being super fancy with cultivation or developing a four-color annual report that’s all shiny and glossy. There are so many simple things that you can do to cultivate people and build the relationship.

For example, I work with one international social service agency and when the plan giving director went out into the field, travelled to El Salvador to visit one of their affiliate agencies, she came back with some snapshots that she had taken on her iPhone. And she went into her email, began sending off personal email messages with a couple of snapshots that she took when she was in El Salvador.

She sent those emails to her lead prospects and donors saying, “Hey, just got back from the field, thought you’d be interested in seeing what we’re up to. Here are a couple of snapshots I took while I was down there.” She didn’t have a professional photographer with her, fancy pictures, she didn’t do some sort of fancy constant contact email newsletter. No, it was a one-on-one personal communication like you would send an email to a friend or a colleague. And you know what happened? She got thank-you messages from the people she was cultivating.

Steven: Nice.

Michael: Now when was the last time a fundraising person got a thank-you from a donor for having cultivated them?

Steven: Right.

Michael: And that should always be our goal.

Steven: Yeah, I love that. It doesn’t have to be tied to the asking for a gift or a formal update on campaign progress. It’s just a simple, “Hey, this is something cool that happened. This is what’s going on. Just wanted to share.” Right?

Michael: Absolutely. The essence of cultivation is that it is absolutely an ask, meaning if you put an ask-in, it’s not really a cultivation.

Steven: Right.

Michael: And if the only time that people hear from you is when you have your hand out, that’s going to erode the quality of the relationship that you have with them.

Steven: Right. Is there a secret formula to how often you reach out to cultivate a donor or what format? It seems like the examples that we talked about on the phone last week, they were just sort of, they weren’t out of the blue, but they weren’t rehearsed or scripted. A fundraiser or someone in development sort of recognized an opportunity for cultivation rather than saying, “Oh, it’s the 15th of the month. We better do a cultivation activity. What are we going to do?” Is that more effective in your mind or should the development or the fundraising people kind of set a schedule and try to stick to it?

Michael: I think that both have their place. I think to make sure that it happens, scheduling it is certainly an effective strategy but always be on the lookout for those opportunities for additional touches that maybe are not going to be communicated to your entire file, maybe to certain key individuals. Again, it’s about relationships and to doing what comes naturally.

But to make sure that it doesn’t get lost in the daily paper shuffle, it is a good idea to schedule some cultivation activities. When you’re doing that, always be thinking what cultivation means to the recipient, not to you as the fundraiser. What’s in it for them? If you’re delivering value in that cultivation, they’re going to enjoy it and it’s going to be meaningful to them.

Steven: Now, you are a fellow proponent, along with me, of phone calls. I love calling donors and I recommend all of our Bloomerang customers that they call donors, say thank you, tell them what’s going on. You told me a story, last week when we were talking on the phone, about, I think it was a higher education institution who called alumni asking them if they’d like to be invited to events. Can you maybe retell that story because I thought it was such an amazing story. I wanted all the listeners to hear it and not just me.

Michael: Absolutely. One of my college clients had a fairly localized alumni constituency and they had great speakers that would come to campus. So, we did a test to see if people would be interested in receiving notification of when these speakers were coming to campus and if they’d like to attend. We tracked the results over a multiyear period to see what would happen when we asked people. In the annual fund calls people were asked, “Would you like to receive a calendar of upcoming speakers coming to campus?” We tracked who said yes and who said no. We then tracked what the results of giving were. People who were interested in receiving the calendar and invitation to the upcoming lectures were far more likely to give and were far more likely to give more.

The interesting thing about the study was, it did not impact attendance at these lectures at all. People who said that they were interested in getting the calendar didn’t go to the lectures. There was perceived value however, in simply being given the option to go to the lecture and then it was their choice whether or not to exercise that option. It had a tremendous impact on their development program.

Steven: That’s amazing. What’s the old saying? If you want money, ask for help and if you want help, ask for money? Kind of applies to that situation I think.

Michael: There are a variety of ways to engage people in the solicitation phase of the development effort. I don’t think we need to look at cultivation and solicitation in silos. I think it certainly can be blended at times. There’s a hospital client that I had, where we tested the message of thanking them for their past support, letting them know where their money went last year, which was to acquire a new MRI unit and then asking them for their gift for this year’s project, which was to enhance the cardiac care unit.

We found that when we did that versus simply thanking people for their support last year and this year, this is what we’re trying to do, and told them where the money went, we had a 68% increase in results. What it’s really about is taking the donors story and making it part of your story.

Steven: Right.

Michael: They supported us, so how can we make sure we close that loop and let them know what that support meant to us. When you do that, people are going to be more likely to not only continue with their support but be even more generous.

Steven: Yeah. Communicating impact is huge.

Michael: It’s one of those things, its common sense.

Steven: Right.

Michael: When it becomes common practice, I’ll stop talking about it.

Steven: Yeah, it’s not caught on widely I would say. Well Michael, before I let you go, what’s one piece of advice you would give to a small non-profit who’s not doing any of this kind of stuff but they want to get started, they’re just not sure where to start. What’s one piece of advice you would give to a budding donor cultivator?

Michael: Don’t overthink it. It doesn’t need to be time consuming, it doesn’t need to be complicated, it doesn’t need to be expensive. What it does need to be, is personal. The simplest thing that someone can do is that shiny usually black box on their desk with flashing lights, that’s a telephone.

Steven: Yes.

Michael: People should pick it up when they receive a donation. They should pick it up, call the donor, thank them for their support and then engage them in a conversation. Learn more about the donor and why the donor is supporting your organization, which aspects of your mission are meaningful to the donor. If you have that conversation and then take good notes, you’ll know better how to continue to work with that donor in the future and you’ll surprise the heck out of them.

Steven: Yeah, you will.

Michael: Another simple last strategy, handwritten thank-you notes. In this electronic age, people expect Word processed letters, they expect computer generated receipts, they expect emails. What they almost never get are handwritten notes. I’ll tell you, my handwriting is so bad that I don’t think people can actually read my notes. They just know they got a note from me and I’ve received thank-you notes for my thank-you notes. Again, if your donor starts thanking you for cultivating them, you’ll know you’re on the right track.

Steven: I love it. Michael, you’re kind of my hero.

Michael: Well shucks, now you’re making me blush.

Steven: This is great. Thank you so much for sharing that advice. Where can people find out more about you? I want people to read your blog, follow you on Twitter and all that.

Michael: Well, my blog is and there they can subscribe to the blog, get a free copy of a plan giving eBook by a Texas Tech researcher Dr. Russell James and also I have my contact information at that blog site. People can follow me on Twitter @MLInnovations as well.

Steven: Very cool. We’ll link all that for sure. Michael, thanks for being here. This is awesome. Thank you for taking time out of your day to join us.

Michael: Steven, it was my pleasure. Thank you for having me and thank you for the work you’re doing there at Bloomerang. I appreciate it.

Steven: It’s fun. Number 50 is a wrap. Thanks for watching. Tune in next week for another great episode. Hope to see you again soon. Go call a donor right now, right after you finish watching this. It will do you some good. Bye now.

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.