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Connecting with Donors: An Interview with Dr. Thomas Wolf

Thomas Wolf recently spoke with his publisher about the topic of his new book, How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise. 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.

Many in fundraising aren't extroverts. Can they be successful in connecting with donors as you prescribe?

When I started out, I was extremely uncomfortable trying to connect with donors. But it is a skill anyone can learn. Sure there are some people who are just naturally outgoing. But for the rest of us, knowing what to say, how to say it, and when is all part of the confidence-building process. And remember, so much of good fundraising is about listening. I have been in so many situations where donors do almost all the talking and then thank me for such an interesting conversation.

You mention in your book that when seeking a gift sometimes it's best NOT to ask for money? That sounds contradictory.

The old adage is "ask for money, you get advice, ask for advice and often you will get money." People like to think that their ideas and opinions matter. Showing respect for what is in their heads as well as what is in their wallets can be a winning strategy. There is a danger of course. Not all advice is good advice. But often, the advice can lead you to an understanding of where the donor's interests lie and then following up with a request is simply the next logical part of the conversation.

Your book is all about shrinking the distance between yourself and the donor. Can getting too close be counter-productive when it comes to soliciting?

Absolutely. I remember several occasions when I simply felt I could not take advantage of a very close relationship and ask for money. But I had no problem briefing other solicitors and making introductions. In some cases I would joke that since both parties were a lot smarter and more interesting than I was, they would both enjoy the conversation so much more. I am also very clear with friends when I am going to ask them for money. Taking them by surprise is never good—for fundraising results or for the friendship.

You say in How to Connect that the worst mistake you ever made in fundraising was not paying enough attention to the children of your donors. What do you mean?

Wealthy people pass money on to their children. And so philanthropy gets passed on from generation to generation. But affluent young people develop interests and affiliations early in life. By the time their parents pass on, it is often too late to entice their interest. One of my proudest achievements has been to garner funds from three generations of the same family. I was able to do so by ensuring that as the younger generations came of age, they could find something uniquely their own in the organization—something completely independent of what the parents or grandparents were interested in.

Connecting with donors you like is one thing. What do you do when one of your big donors is, to put it impolitely, a jerk?

My rule of thumb is that I am always polite. But I never try to feign friendship if I do not feel it. Donors can often pick up insincerity, especially other donors watching your behavior with someone who is truly objectionable. And, I am not above walking away. Sometimes taking the money simply isn't worth it.

The biggest upside to connecting with donors?

For me, it is building a relationship that goes well beyond fundraising and money. There are donors who have become very close friends.

The biggest downside?

Time and effort. It is much easier to write a letter or send an e-mail. Trouble is, it is not nearly as effective. Connecting with donors is the key to successful fundraising. It leads to repeated gifts and larger gifts. It is worth the investment.

[Wolf mentions an Aunt Cupid in the book.] C'mon, you really had an Aunt Cupid? What did she do on Valentine's Day?

I never knew. She was clearly too busy to be around the house. But she did teach me the importance of writing thank you notes and for that I am eternally grateful. Donors remember them.

© 2011, Emerson & Church, Publishers. Published with permission.

Excerpts from How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise

connecting-with-donors-author-interview_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