The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

Four Keys to Cultivating a Donor


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

A few years ago I was invited to a party where the only person I knew was the host. My wife was away so I was on my own.

After greeting the host and ordering a drink, I steeled myself for what promised to be a long evening. At that moment a young man came up and introduced himself. “You’re Tom Wolf,” he said. “I’ve been waiting to meet you. If you have a minute, I’d love you to come over here and meet some of my friends.”

Later I learned the host had deputized a group of people to act as a welcoming crew and my new friend was simply doing his job. Did I feel manipulated? Not at all. It was a wonderful evening and I met a lot of new and interesting people.

The next year, when the party’s host sent me a fundraising letter, he referred to the evening and said how much his young friend had enjoyed talking with me. I didn’t hesitate before putting a check in the return envelope. I felt connected.

In this vein, let me offer four cultivation tips that I discuss in greater depth in my book, How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise.

Beware of Strangers

“It’s all about turning a name into a relationship.” So said one of my mentors, the late Francis Bosworth, executive director of a settlement house in Philadelphia.

In teaching me the elements of “friendraising,” Boz counseled patience coupled with genuine interest. “The contributions will come in time (or they won’t), but that isn’t the place to begin. Never ask a stranger for a large gift.”

This latter advice was a bit of an exaggeration. We request donations from plenty of people we don’t know and are often successful doing so. But in an age when fundraising books and courses teach the science and metrics of list building, Boz’s emphatic wisdom was an important complement for two reasons.

First, it was built on the idea that prospect lists take on much greater value when the names become flesh-and-blood people and, second, that a major benefit of this approach is that it often results in turning the casual small donor into an intensely loyal and large one.

Impress Your Donors by Listening

Another early mentor, Peter, taught me the importance of using an early fundraising call primarily as an opportunity to form or deepen a relationship. You don’t endlessly talk about yourself or your organization.

“Think about the people you like to spend time with,” says Peter. “Are they the ones who constantly focus the conversation on themselves or those who show interest in you?”

Peter continues: “Would that every fundraiser took a crash course in empathy. Call it the art of good listening. It’s often the difference between success and failure.”

Since it sets the tone and helps to form your prospect’s initial impression, good listening is especially important at the beginning of a fundraising call. Take your cue from the great English novelist, Thomas Hardy, who said: “That man’s silence is wonderful to listen to.” Be like that man.

Remember the Children

After decades of fundraising, I’m sometimes asked, “What’s the worst mistake you’ve made in your career?” It’s a question I can answer without hesitation because the mistake is one I made not just once, but countless times … and at great cost. Simply put, I didn’t pay enough attention to my donors’ children.

Needless to say, donors age and in time leave us. For those with a good deal of money, much of their wealth will live on after them. Where there are children, it’s the younger generation that will ultimately control where the family philanthropic donors are directed.

I’m not suggesting we cultivate friendships with six-year-olds. But youngsters grow into adults quickly and establish their own philanthropic preferences. When their parents’ estates are finally passed on, the kids in many cases have already established loyalties to organizations different from the ones their parents supported. Simply put, befriending the children can help prevent the family philanthropy from straying once the parents are gone.

Move On from Disappointment

A regular donor of ours, Madelyn had recently divorced and remarried and her new husband was quite wealthy. With her first husband, Madelyn had always made a contribution to our organization which, given their economic situation, I considered generous.

She came to many of our activities and professed great interest in our work. With the organization taking on a new project that I knew would interest her, and with Madelyn now having access to greater wealth, I went to see her and asked for $5,000. She said it sounded interesting and she’d discuss it with her husband.

A week later I received a letter explaining that with two children in college, things were a bit tight and they wouldn’t be making a gift. I was surprised and a little disappointed, but let it go. Until I took my car in for service the next week!

I asked the dealer, an old friend, how things were going. He happened to mention Madelyn and her new husband and how in the last year they’d bought two new cars—in cash—one of them a luxury sedan.

I was livid. Here was one of my long-time donors, now affluent and crying poor. I went to the development committee and spewed forth various invectives. Their reaction surprised me. “Tom, you’re no longer rational about this,” they said. “You’re too upset. We’ll take them off your list and give them to someone else.”

It was good advice. In real life when our friends disappoint and anger us, we can move on. But in the world of fundraising we can’t afford to. We need to figure out a way to continue the relationships or our organizations will be seriously impoverished.

Four-Keys-to-Cultivating-a-Donor_Thomas-Wolf.jpgThe preceding is a guest blog post by Thomas Wolf is a principal with the consulting firm WolfBrown. In addition to How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise, he is the author of Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together.

Topics: Fundraising