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Befriending Your Donors: Interview with Fundraiser Thomas Wolf

Thomas Wolf, author of How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise, recently spoke with his publisher about donor relations. GuideStar has published two excerpts from the book (see the links on the right), and we're pleased to be able to share Dr. Wolf's additional thoughts with you.

Your book is about relating to donors, at times befriending them. A cynical person might say that's a manipulative ploy to snare money.

That's an attitude I've never understood. I like people. I like getting to know them whether they have money or turn out to be donors. Invariably, our relating makes them feel good and makes me feel good—especially when we strike a bond or find common interests. Why should there be an invisible barrier just because someone is a potential supporter?

You have a would-be donor on your radar: he has money and community influence. Problem is you detest the fellow. What's your strategy?

This is a great challenge. I find it difficult to build a relationship with someone I don't respect. And I'm loath to fake it. On the other hand, I've been wrong about people who I didn't think I'd like and who turned out to be genuinely interesting and kind. So everyone gets a chance in my book. But if it's not a good match, I'll look for another fundraising volunteer. Interestingly, there's almost always someone who will take up the challenge.

You say that if you were to choose one potential donor you'd like to make friends with, it would be the wealthy individual who says (or implies) that he or she doesn't want to talk about money and doesn't want to be solicited. That sounds counter-intuitive.

There are many wealthy people who don't want to talk about money and others who tell you they don't want to be solicited. It's a challenge, certainly, but it can be overcome. One of my mentors was just such a person. He didn't like talking about his personal giving but he did love to talk about what was going on with the organization. And more than anything, he liked to give advice. I asked for it frequently. Sometimes he would become especially interested in an idea and would ask, "How much would it take to do that?" And that would usually lead to a nice check.

Can you be too close to someone to ask them for money? And, if so, what's Plan B?

Absolutely. There are people I won't solicit because the relationship is too close. But I will help others develop a plan of action and I don't mind opening the door for other fundraisers, making the introduction. One of my boyhood friends—a man with quite a lot of money—is someone I finally decided I could solicit. But I asked him first if he'd mind or would he rather be solicited by someone else. We had a good laugh, went off for a beer, and I came away with a contribution.

Your book makes it clear that connecting with donors can take a while. When all the good work and time invested fails, it must be awfully frustrating, is it not?

Ted Williams was one of my heroes—he was a great hitter for the Boston Red Sox and practiced hard to get better and better. But when he stood at the plate, even with his remarkable hand-eye coordination, he realized he'd fail more often than not. One season he batted .406—an amazing average. That means, the greatest hitter perhaps of all time struck out, grounded out, and popped up more often than he got a hit. Fundraising is like that. You work hard but you don't expect 100 percent success. You just try to improve your average and hit for extra bases when you can.

You're a huge proponent of thank you letters, aren't you?

I write "thank you" letters obsessively—they're one of the secrets of truly effective fundraising. Sometimes people ask me: "What should I say in my letters?" That's a completely wrong-headed question. The whole point is that there is no formula. The letters must be personal, often citing some wonderful thing a donor or a member of the organizational family has done recently. Sometimes I send an article that I know will be of interest or share something humorous. And often the best letters are those I send for no reason at all—a note or a card that says I'm thinking of them.

You claim in your book that you can predict "with a fair degree of accuracy who's going to be an effective fundraiser and who isn't." Tell me the clues you pick up.

Self-confidence combined with interest in other people. These are individuals willing to look me in the eye, offer a firm handshake, and show curiosity. They're willing to engage, and, most important, they show a talent for listening. On the other side, I've rarely met a good fundraiser who scowls a lot or looks depressed. The first three letters of fundraising are "f-u-n," after all.

Many have the impression that fundraisers have to be gregarious. Need introverts apply?

It's funny—some gregarious people are terrible fundraisers. Everything's about them. On the other hand, skillful fundraisers can be modest and quiet—and great at listening. They draw out the donor and find topics he or she wants to talk about. But it is true, if you lack self-confidence, you probably won't be good at raising money. You have to be able to make others feel comfortable.

What's the worst mistake a fundraiser can make?

If there's one mistake I've made all too often, it's not paying attention to donors' children. They're the ones, after all, who will someday come into the family wealth. And once they do, it's too late to cultivate a relationship. Because kids like to strike out on their own and usually don't want to mimic their parents' philanthropy, I try to find activities and programs for them that are completely different from the ones their mothers and fathers are supporting.


© 2013, Emerson & Church, Publishers.

befriending-your-donors_Thomas-Wolf.jpgDr. Thomas Wolf's career encompasses the fields of philanthropy, nonprofit management, education, and the arts. After serving as the founding director of the New England Foundation for the Arts for seven years, he established a consulting firm in 1983 (now called WolfBrown) to assist nonprofit organizations and the philanthropic sector and assisted 10 of the 50 largest U.S. foundations and various government agencies with their grants programs. The author of numerous books and articles, Wolf is also a professional flutist listed in the International Who's Who of Music.

Topics: Fundraising