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Questions I'm Most Often Asked about Cultivating Donors

For years I've taught fundraising. I've presented scores of fundraising seminars and workshops and taught a class on the subject at Harvard. My students have included both beginners and people who have been in the field for several years. I've been asked many of the same questions over my career. The ones I answer below are also explored more thoroughly in my book, How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise.

There's an individual we'd love to involve, but no one on the staff or board has an entrée to her. How would you suggest we start the process of cultivation?

When I was in college, I was extremely attracted to a girl I didn't know. So I sought out those who knew her and asked them to put us together in situations that would be fun for her and show me in a flattering light. It seems to have worked. I've been married to that woman for 46 years now. Finding people to match me up with prospective donors is a never-ending goal of mine.

What would you say is the single most effective cultivation activity many overlook?

People ask me this all the time and it drives me batty. One size doesn't fit all. The most effective cultivation techniques for one prospect aren't the same for another. There's no magic bullet or formula that works with everyone. As those with any experience know, fundraising is all about the personal, and shaping relationships on the basis of what makes people unique. So, if pressed, I'd say the single most important cultivation activity—some overlook it, some don't—is searching for those unique qualities and predilections.

We're all familiar with the conventional ways of cultivating donors, such as sending birthday cards, relevant news clippings, and event invitations. Share some of the more unconventional ones you've used or heard of others using.

Recently, I received a card from England from someone whose organization I support. More than two years before we'd been talking about the English pre-Raphaelite William Morris, a man whose work I've always admired. In our conversation, I mentioned Morris's beautiful home in the rural town of Kelmscott and said it was worth a visit. The card I received after such a long interval of time read as follows: "Dear Tom. Just visited Kelmscott. Wow! You made my day, month, and year. Thanks." This is the kind of personal messaging that means so much more to me as a donor than a birthday card that I know was prompted by someone's electronic calendar.

What are some of the differences between cultivating younger donors and older donors?

One of the things I notice about my own giving and that of my son is that he and his wife spend a lot more time at charity events with friends. They seem to enjoy the social aspects of their philanthropy that frankly my wife and I now try to avoid. There's also the difference in technology. I don't think my son ever responds to a request—even a personal one—that comes via the U.S. Postal Service. Come to think of it, I doubt whether he receives many. Yet for me, the computer isn't philanthropy friendly and I do look at and respond to snail mail.

What are some specific ways to measure the effectiveness of a cultivation program?

While many things have changed in the world of philanthropy, some have not. Effectiveness is all about looking at the numbers. How many people were solicited? How many responded? What was the average contribution? What was the mean? How does it compare with last year? I also like to use a control group. That is, I divide my prospects into two groups that are matched as closely as possible. One group receives a new cultivation approach, the other doesn't. Assuming that the new cultivation techniques bring in more money, is the difference sufficient to justify the effort and cost?

How many cultivating activities would you recommend in a given year?

I used to believe in the old adage "the more often you connect and the more often you ask, the more you will receive." But I was once stung by the words of a donor who said, "If you don't leave me alone, I'm going to stop giving to you." As a donor myself, I understand the irritation. On the other hand, while I may not like to be asked for money more than once a year, I do enjoy being contacted more often if there's something of genuine interest. When an organization is in touch with me and they're not asking for money, they're often laying important groundwork for the "ask" that'll come later.

What's a sure sign we're overdoing cultivation?

I had a board member who used to joke, "I love this organization, but when my friends see me coming down the street, they cross to the other side." I knew what she meant (she had the nickname "The Jackhammer"). My general rule of thumb is that on an annual basis you'll only get one ask for general support and a second for a fundraising event. Cultivation needs to be geared to this schedule. Of course, special asks will come up from time to time—think capital campaign—and they're in addition to the regular flow. But the trick in your cultivation is to be sure it's clear these special asks don't cannibalize the regular flow of funds.

What is the most glaring misunderstanding executive directors and development officers have about donor cultivation?

That effective cultivation always means trying to be friends with your donors. That can happen, but it's neither the goal nor the most frequent outcome. Cultivation is about building strong relationships … and there are all kinds. Over the years, some of my donors have been like mentors and teachers, and I've treated them respectfully in that way. Others have been people who needed something from me that I could provide, but they had no interest in being close.

The single most important thing readers can take away from How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise is ...?

How simple it is to be a good fundraiser. Yes, there are technicalities that can be mastered—especially in areas like capital campaigns and planned giving. But for the most part, it's about relationship building, and most of us know how to do that, whether or not we've ever asked for a dime. It pleases me so much when I see people who never thought they could raise money turn out to be masters of the art because they realize that being genuine and being themselves is the most important aspect of the process.

© 2014, Emerson & Church Publishers

Questions-Im-Most-Often-Asked-about-Cultivating-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.


Topics: Fundraising