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Joanne Oppelt

About Joanne

How to Build Donor Relationships with Individuals

In the first installment of this six-part series, I explain why successful nonprofit fundraising is NOT about the money. Today, in this Part 2, we explore how this applies to individual donors.

Individual Donor Motivations

If you don’t approach individual donors by asking for money, how do you approach them? How do you build strong relationships that will keep them giving year after year?

You start where they are.

People are driven by values, feelings, and beliefs. They want to be acknowledged and validated.

And they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Appeal to the underlying values, feelings, and beliefs in your asks. Acknowledge the values and beliefs. What is the value in fulfillment of your mission? What is the payoff? Answer the implied questions, “How will I contribute to the greater good by giving to you?” “What part of being successful can I be?” “What will I get that is important to me if I give to you?”

I call this the partnership paradigm. I see it as an exchange relationship where each partner gets something out of the deal. Each partner gets their own objectives met through relationship with the other partner. I have a mission. You are interested in mission fulfillment. Take the stance of “let me reinforce your values and beliefs by sharing with you how my organization’s mission fulfills its mission, meets the values that are important to you, and reinforces the beliefs that you hold.”

As a fundraiser, I also know you want to feel good about involvement with my organization. As a donor, you want your behaviors, not only your values and beliefs, to be acknowledged and validated. You want acknowledgement that you have done the right thing, that you matter, that you make a difference. If I as a fundraiser can do that for you, you are more likely to be satisfied with our relationship and more likely to donate again. People tend to continue in satisfying relationships.

So, I need to find out about you first. Donor research is key. Know donor values, needs, and motivations so you can speak to their values and needs. Put yourself in their shoes. Know the donor experience.

Researching Individual Donor Perspectives

Want to know what their shoes are? Research them. Know their general age and look up generational cohort studies. Two good sources are the studies by the Center for Generational Kinetics and “The Next Generation of American Giving: The Charitable Habits of Generation Z, X, Baby Boomers and Matures” by the Blackbaud Institute.

Then ask your donors questions through person-to-person conversations, surveys, or focus groups. Find out what they really think, don’t assume. In addition to checking assumptions, asking donors for their opinions validates them. When asked for their opinions or advice, people feel important, that they matter, that their voice counts. Listen to them and what they have to say. Really listen. What are your donors telling you that is important to them? What are they telling you about the quality of their relationship with you? What is their experience when they interact with your organization? How can you make it easier for them, both in motivation and process, to interact with you so their needs are met and there is organizational mission fulfillment?

Also, report back to them the results of what they did. Give them feedback about their valuable donation of time, talent, or treasure. Let them know they made a difference. Let them know what they did is contributing to what is important to them, that is, mission fulfillment. Do you send acknowledgement letters mentioning the value of the donation to the organization? Do you do it within forty-eight hours, while having made the donation is still fresh in their mind? You should. At the end of the year, do you let donors know how their donation was used and what it accomplished? If you don’t, you need to. People tend to continue in satisfying relationships. Satisfy their desires to be acknowledged. Give them feedback. Demonstrate how they made a difference. That’s what will keep them coming back year after year.

Retaining Individual Donors

Know what else will keep them coming back year after year? Letting them know you know who they are. Make sure the mailing addresses and salutations are correct. If I don’t mean enough to you for you to know the most basic information about me, why should I get to know you and your organization? And, after all, if you can’t manage my name or address right, how in the world will you successfully manage my donation? Or, if I’ve been giving for years, don’t I matter? Did all my efforts on your behalf go unnoticed? Does my relationship with you mean anything? Not the questions you want your donors asking. Lesson: keep up the record keeping. It’s more important than it seems.

You also want to send the message, “I can be trusted.” In your interactions, be authentic. Be honest. Be forthright. Your integrity is your biggest asset. Do what you say you’re going to do. Communicate progress, including delays and failures. Address changes in circumstance, either theirs or yours. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

And, it almost goes without saying, when you interact with donors, always be courteous and respectful. People generally respond to other people in the same way they are approached and responded to. If you have the mindset that a certain donor is a pain in the neck, chances are you’re not going to get a good response. In fact, the donor may see you as a necessary pain the neck. Feelings on each side of a relationship usually mirror one another. If you have a negative mindset or feel that contacting a certain person is a dreaded chore, expect to receive that same reception. Conduct your donor communications when you are in a good mood and you realize what an honor it is to have someone take the time to interact with you and give of their precious, hard-earned money.

In the next installments I will talk about building donor relationships with foundations (Part 3), corporations (Part 4), and government funders (Part 5). Then I'll bring it all together (Part 6).

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