Using "Bright Spots" to Build Donor Relationships
What’s the true meaning of relationship building and how can nonprofits leverage that to build better relationships with their donors?
In this video, Amy Eisenstein sits down with Kim Klein, an internationally known nonprofit trainer, speaker and author, to discuss how to build the best relationships with donors and learn from nonprofit Bright Spots.
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Amy: Hi, I’m Amy Eisenstein. I’m absolutely thrilled today to have fundraising legend Kim Klein here with me today and we are going to talk about relationship building and so many other important aspects of fundraising. So hi Kim, welcome.
Kim: Thanks Amy. Thanks for having me.
Amy: I’m so thrilled to be here with you. So tell me, you’ve been in fundraising for a few years now and I saw your session the other day and we were talking about Fundraising Bright Spots. Tell me what is that? We’ll get to relationship building in just a minute but first talk about Fundraising Bright Spots.
Kim: Okay. So Fundraising Bright Spots is a report that my firm and another firm called Compass Point just put out last year and kind of the short of it is we’re all consultants, right? So we get called in all these groups and they have problems and we help them with their problems and we write a lot of books about problems, are very prescriptive, how do you solve your problems. But somebody had read this article about positive deviance. So they had this bright idea that we should look for groups that never called us and we should say to them, “What is your secret?”
And CompassPoint and Klein & Roth Consulting, we work almost entirely with social justice groups. We work with groups that have budgets under two or two and a half million dollars. So we had a very specific niche and we decided to try to figure out, were there a cross section of organizations across race, across geography, across issue areas who had been able to grow their individual donor program significantly and raise a very decent amount of money from it? And so we put out the word. We got about 200 nominations, we picked 16 organizations and we really drilled down to see what they had in common. And that’s our report. People should read it. It’s a great report actually and it was very fun work.
Amy: I love it. What are one or two of the key takeaways from the Bright Spots?
Kim: Well, one, I mean, some aren’t that surprising. So, one, was that your fundraising has to be grounded in a philosophy. You have to kind of think, “If I could raise money in any way I wanted, what would be the most mission fulfilling way for our organization to raise money?” And I do perseverate on this ever so slightly because I feel like organizations have lost track of particularly what’s the role of government. And we’ve privatized a lot of things and we’ve let a lot of things go private.
But the private sector, you know, Emmett Carson and Aaron Dorfman, I don’t know if you saw their session today. But they were sort of like the amount of money that foundations give away is a rounding error in the federal budget.
Kim: So we have to kind of keep that in mind. So that was one philosophy. The second was, fundraising has to be highly distributed. Every single person, janitors, receptionists, social workers, it doesn’t matter. Every single person has to understand it and know what they can do to help. So those were two and then of course, a lot of the stuff that you talk about. Being systematic, being disciplined, using data, you know, so yeah.
Amy: Good, excellent, yes. Everyone should read it. It was a great report.
Kim: Oh well thanks. And it’s not very long either. I would say it’s easy to read.
Amy: Yes, an easy read. So also one of my favorite points that you made yesterday or concepts that you brought up was this fundraising experiment form. Would you share what that is and why we should use it? I love that.
Kim: Oh I love that too. I’m glad you’ve caught on to that. So one of the things that people object to about, you know, okay we’re going to be at Bright Spot and you distribute fundraising everywhere is that your board members and your volunteers and everything will come in with their really bright ideas, or not, and so what are you going to do about it? But every so often somebody does have a bright idea and just because you didn’t think of it or just because it’s not how we’ve always done it, it doesn’t mean it’s not. So this group called Student Action for Farm Workers, it has a lot of young people working in it. I mean, that’s the whole point.
They have this form, it’s called a fundraising experiment form and so if you think, “I think we could raise a lot of money from crowd funding. I think we can raise a lot of money by having a bake sale in front of a marijuana dispensary.” You know, like they do in Colorado, right?
Amy: Yeah, whatever.
Kim: So whatever, right, it’s your thing. You write up, “This is my idea. This is how much I think it’ll raise or this is what I think it will do for us,” because it’s not all money. “This is how much it will cost and then the staff and some I think a cross section of board members reads through it and then they decide, “Yes, this has merit, let’s do it,” or “No.” And then they do it and then it either succeeds or it doesn’t.
But it doesn’t matter because it all adds to knowledge and I think that one’s such an important point of the Bright Spots is they were totally willing to take risks. And if they fell down they were sort of like, “Now we know.” Right? And so their director, especially the development directors weren’t defensive. They weren’t hiding, they weren’t nuancing things the way people . . . not us, but other people far away have been known to do, right?
Amy: Yeah it’s such an important point because I think so many nonprofits are risk averse. They’re very afraid of losing money, of experimenting, of disappointing donors. So they’re really not willing or able to think outside the box and try new things and this fundraising experiment form, I love it. Somebody submits the form, a committee decides, so it’s not just one person’s stupid idea. Everybody either agreed, if they go ahead with it. And then if it’s a flop, right, what did you learn from it? And sometimes it’s going to be a success. I just think that was, I loved that takeaway.
Kim: Well, it’s something we could borrow from really innovative social service agencies. They’re always trying to figure out, “Well, what is the best way to work with homeless people? How do you deal with PTSD or this or that?” And often times in agencies you’ll see that the program side is really fabulous and the fundraising side is stodgy and dusty and boring. And then everybody is like, “How come we don’t have more money?” Oh, I wonder, right?
Amy: Yeah. Well, all right, let’s turn to that. Let’s talk about relationship building. What does relationship building have to do with fundraising and why are we going to talk about it today?
Kim: Oh I think, because I think it’s one of the first things I ever learned. In fact I remember, it’s one of the first things everybody learns, right? Fundraising is about building relationships and I thought it was such a great idea and then I was sort of like, “I don’t really know what that means.” So now 40 years later I’ve kind of figured it out. And I see that organizations are so focused on their bottom line but a very important thing is we don’t want a donation. We want a donor, right? We want somebody who likes us, who keeps giving year after year, who tells their friends.
And so to build that relationship requires looking at, how does a person make their first gift? What would make you say yes the first time? What would make you say yes a second time? A third, a fourth, a fifth time? What would make you say yes to a bigger request? Ultimately what would make you say, “I’ll include you in my will?” And we don’t pay nearly enough attention to that. We’re very focused on, I think, way overly focused on major gifts. Finding the rich person who can give you a big gift and hopefully doesn’t give you too much advice, right? I mean it’s very transactional.
Amy: Well, I don’t know, I’m going to push back. If major gifts are done right it shouldn’t be transactional at all.
Kim: I agree. That’s exactly right.
Amy: Yeah and one of the things that I talk a lot about actually is major gifts and I think the question is, what’s a major gift to your organization? It could be $1,000, it could be $5,000, $10,000. So it doesn’t have to just be those million dollar gifts.
Kim: No, but it’s also possible and I’m sure you’ve seen it where the $1,000 donor is treated like an ATM or they’re treated well, right?
Amy: Well then they won’t come back, right? Yes.
Kim: Right, that’s right. So one of the big things that Roger Craver [SP] and a lot of people look at is this enormous churn we have in our very, very low retention rates and people just falling out all over the place. And I think it’s very expensive.
Amy: Yeah. What would you like those in the fundraising profession to emphasize more? What should we be focused on?
Kim: Well, I think the idea that a donor is a whole person. A donor has whatever money they can give you. They have their network that they can bring in if they want to. They do have advice, it’s not all good advice, but sometimes it is. They have ideas. They can take your message and educate other people. I think if you look at something like Mothers Against Drunk Driving which wasn’t a Bright Spots because it’s too big but it is 97% individual donors. And to me the genius of that group is they realized early on we have one message, “Don’t drink and drive.” You can drink. You can get sauced. We’re not against alcohol. We’re not a substance abuse recovery group. We are, “Don’t drink and drive.” And by building their fundraising program, I think they really built that message out. And there’s other examples. That was kind of a simple one but . . .
Amy: Really smart and strategic. Thoughtful, thought out.
Kim: Exactly. What was the power of the donor besides their money? That was it. I think that was the big question for them. And I think you see that in the Black Lives Matter movement, you see it in Occupy, you see it in any political campaign that’s worth its salt. The donors are also the voters, they’re also the other recruiters of the other donors and the other voters. It’s all part of a piece.
Amy: Right, and that’s what you want all donors to be doing, to be advocates and fans of your nonprofits.
Amy: So hopefully it’s not just for the grassroots and politically active nonprofits but they’re the ones that are better at it I guess right now right?
Kim: Well sometimes, sometimes not. One thing I like about your work because I think you really do focus a lot on this idea of treating the person as a whole person. People fetishize these concepts, like for example cultivation. We should cultivate our donors. Yeah, and I believe in cultivation, right, but it’s so agricultural, right? We’re going to feed them and grow them and water and eventually we’ll harvest them. And it’s like if you were a donor would you really like to be talked about like that? It’s kind of weird.
Amy: Yeah, I guess so. I hadn’t thought about it that way but you’re right. That is weird. Well, let’s bring it home and wrap it up with tips on relationship building, concrete tools or tips or actions that people should take to really build those genuine relationships?
Kim: All right, so well, none of this is going to be earth shattering or original. I always say I’ve never had one original thought about fundraising. Everything I’ve seen I took it from the public domain but a) number one, thank before you bank. Thank, thank, thank. No one ever feels appreciated enough, right?
Kim: And be genuine about it. I see groups that they send out . . . the only thing you know for sure that your donors are going to read is your thank you note. They don’t read your e-newsletter, maybe they do but you don’t know that. But they read the thank you note and people send these crappy formed thank yous. I’m like, “Seriously?” You should change the content of it every couple months, right?
Amy: Right. I actually say, it doesn’t matter if you thanked your donors it only matters if they feel thanked.
Kim: Oh. That’s great. I like that. I’m going to steal it.
Amy: Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t matter if you thank them. If they don’t feel thanked, it’s like you didn’t thank them. So you might as well thank them well so that they feel it.
Kim: Yes, so that they feel appreciated, right?
Kim: So that’s one. Then I think also engaging donors in conversations other than about money.
Kim: Right? And not just always . . . and you talk about this too. Not just always sharing, “This is what we’ve done Mrs. Jones.” But more like, “What do you think? You know, what else are you seeing out there?” Real conversation not so much like, “Enough about me, what do you think about me?”
Amy: I love that. That is so great. Well listen, Kim it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for coming today and being part of this.
Kim: Well, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.