Back to Basics: How do you Cultivate?

If you read yesterday’s post, you know where you’re trying to go with all of this cultivation stuff, at least in the abstract.  (For extra credit, check out my Friday For You post this week, where I talk about SMART goals…you should be using them for your own development, but they apply beautifully to this specific work as well.)  So HOW do you do it?

For the life of me, I can’t find a set of benchmarks from a reliable source, but you’re looking for a number of “touches,” over a 6 – 24 month period, to go from “prospect” to “major donor.”  (Of course, this is the dream.  The harsh reality is that you should focus your expectations differently…as a fundraiser, you can’t eliminate the need for actual dollars to come in as a result of your work, but when it comes to major giving, success is not fully about converting a prospect to a donor – it’s about getting to a good solicitation, even if the answer is no.)

Here’s an incomplete list of techniques you can use on that journey:

1. Face to Face Meetings

This is the obvious one.  There’s nothing quite like being in the same room with someone.  You can connect better, your conversation will flow more naturally, the person on the other side of the table can see your charming, genuine smile.  But you have to be careful not to overuse these…and if your prospect feels like you’re a nuisance or wasting his/her time, you’ve dug yourself a nasty hole.
Have an agenda.  Think about what you want from a meeting.  Granted, this can be two parallel answers: what you really want is to get in front of that prospect so they remember how much they love you…but that’s not something that’s likely to be valuable to the prospect.  Make sure you have a *real* reason to visit with them.  Getting feedback on something?  Works if you actually want their feedback on your newsletter/program/new strategy/website design/etc.  Will backfire if you don’t really care what they have to say.  Update them on something a little too sensitive to put in writing?  Again – this is delicious if it’s true (finalist for X grant; about to start a search for a new Executive Director and hoping they might be able to recommend some candidates confidentially, etc.), but likely to annoy if you’re overreaching.  How about an introduction to another key player in your organization?  Senior staff, maybe direct program staff or students/clients/participants, if that’s a draw, board members, your founder, etc.
Another tip for face-to-face meetings: it’s OK to be direct when you’re asking for one.  “I want to update you on X” is different than “I’m looking to find enough funding to do X before the end of next month.  Could I sit down with you to talk about that effort?”  One tees up a solicitation in a very different way…but if you’re hoping to actually make an ask, it might make the actual meeting much much easier if you are upfront about your agenda.
2. Phone Calls
In between meetings, it’s nice to stay in touch.  The phone is one way to do that.
Be mindful of how your prospect likes to stay in touch, and always be respectful of their time (“It’s so nice to hear your voice – is this a good time to talk?”)  Same rules about agenda apply, but have a little slack in them.  There’s less commitment to a 10 minute phone conversation, and they have a chance to get off the phone much sooner, so your reasons for calling can be less direct.  Wanting to tell them a particular anecdote from the field, wanting to tell them that you read that book/article they recommended, congratulating them on their child’s graduation/black belt/recital
3. Email
I’m told that only old people are into email these days.  Luckily, almost everyone you’ll be asking for money is “old” – or at least old enough to use email for both business and personal communications…and you’re hoping to be at the edge of overlap with yours.  (I fear I’m dipping a toe into the gentle bubbles of the La Brea Tar Pits as I say that – you’re not looking to be personal friends with your donors.  This is a professional relationship.  Period.  But you’re looking to become the equivalent of a “work friend” – that person that you wouldn’t hang out with if you ever left this job, but you’re genuinely glad to run into them and chat while making copies, and you grab lunch occasionally.)Email doesn’t catch someone at a bad time, like a phone call, but we do generally feel pressure to respond quickly (24-48 hours), which makes it a fairly conversational medium.  It adapts well to expectations – you can be formal or informal as needed.  You get answers to your questions quickly, you can reference the weather or news without worrying that no one will remember what you’re talking about by the time your parchment is delivered by pony express…

“Just thinking of you” emails are great.  Low investment, no need for the other person to respond, but decent impact, if you do it well.  Send links to articles, send videos, recommend a podcast that touches on something you talked about at your last meeting.  Make it personal – it needs to be clear that you wrote this email exclusively to the donor, and didn’t cut and paste an email with a link to the society pages featuring your gala to all 15,000 donors in your database.   Want a response?  Ask an interesting question – one that begs an answer (nothing rhetorical or too open ended…”check this out; any thoughts?” isn’t getting any replies.)

4. Handwritten notes and other postal mail
I get ~200 emails a day, all told.  More when things are busy.  But I can tell you exactly who sent me the last handwritten note I got in the mail.  It was a job applicant, thanking me for my time interviewing her (on behalf of a client.)  She went from being one of three equal candidates in my mind to being someone I felt very warmly about, all things considered – though it can’t be overstated, *what* she wrote certainly helped, by proving she had actively listened to some of my questions and comments during our meeting.  Content counts, obviously.  But a beautiful card and a few short handwritten sentences stand out, inherently.And think creatively – try to remember the joy of getting unexpected notions in the mail.  One of my early fundraising mentors, a 25 year volunteer solicitor, sent Halloween sized candies, randomly, to his annual list of prospects.  Things I learned by experience so you don’t have to: M&Ms; don’t make it to Texas in the summer.  The candy gets shattered and the chocolate forms one big lump with colorful shards.  Also, don’t send Smarties when the post office is on high alert for anthrax.  But in general, this works *very* well to make people think of you fondly…and you can be creative with the principle – any small, delightful little gift.  Nothing expensive, but something charmingly valued as a surprise in the mail.

Check out some of the research done on gifts sent with solicitation…people feel obligated when you send gifts.  Even those stupid labels from the ASPCA and March of Dimes.  There’s a reason direct mail packages are designed like that – the response is worth the extra expense.  The difference here is that you’re not pairing your gift with a solicitation on the spot – you’re simply building good will, towards a future very large ask.

5. Invitations to events
It’s like a face to face meeting, but better.  Invite your donors to non-solicitation events.  Asking for scholarships for tuba players?  How about a seat at your next orchestra or brass band concert?  Looking for capital gifts?  How about a ground-breaking ceremony, or a tour of the construction site?  Be creative – you might even consider events that have nothing to do with you.  Is your prospect a huge baseball fan?  How about an afternoon game with the local farm team?  Great place to talk.
6. Whatever materials small donors are getting, personalized
Don’t take your donors out of the pool for all the direct mail/email/whatever you’re sending to your full base of supporters.  First of all, if you’re trying to make people feel like part of an inner circle at your organization, having them out of the loop on any piece of mail is a great way to kill that.  I remember one case where the development team held back on sending a (pretty cute, musical) video to their major donor prospects because it contained an ask for $45 at the end.  Except it went viral (ish…a bunch of the older donors who were targeted sent it around to each other), and there wound up being a handful of major donors who were seriously hurt and annoyed that they were left out.  Secondly, if you’re cultivating a savvy philanthropist, they want to get a very good sense of your organization and its operations.  They want to know what you’re doing to raise money other than ask them to hand over some serious cash.  Seeing your newsletters and general solicitations adds a lot to their understanding of how you work.  (If you’re afraid of that, the answer is in figuring out why – are you presenting yourself in conflicting ways to different audiences? Are you frustrated by the quality of your communications?  Fix the problem instead of trying to hide it!)BUT…please don’t just send generic solicitations or any communications without comment.  A note on the year-end mailing saying “I wanted you to see what we sent our whole list of supporters; don’t you love the picture on page two?  You were at that event, weren’t you?”  Or simply “You’re obviously not the target demographic for this solicitation, but I wanted you to know what we sent to last year’s donors, asking them to renew their support.”

Personalizing mailings with post-scripts can get tricky, of course, and there’s no good way to handwrite an extra couple of lines on an email or self-mailer…that doesn’t let you off the hook though.  Send a note in advance of the form letter/email they’re about to get, handwritten or via email.  It goes a very long way towards making people feel like you’re paying close attention to them as individuals…because you ARE.

7. Introductions
I bet you have some folks among your supporters – maybe big donors, maybe passionate small donors or volunteers – who are great ambassadors for your organization AND a joy to know.  Maybe you have some supporters who have specific skills or interests that might be unique and very valuable to your prospect.  As you get to know your prospects, think about connecting them to others within your organizational sphere.  Perhaps the college counselor on your board would be a great connection for the woman whose granddaughter has her heart set on college in California.  Perhaps you know a great bridge partner for the gentleman whose usual partner is in Florida for the winter.  Perhaps you just think donor X would have a blast chatting with prospect Y.  When it’s right (this isn’t a technique you can force, only one you can keep on your radar so you see the opportunities), it’s a great way to increase the human connections surrounding your organization.
8. Social Media!
The goal of using mail and email (and phone) in your cultivation strategy is simple: increase the points of contact between you and your prospect so that you strengthen the lines of communication between you.  Social media – everything that exists now, everything that will exist in the future – provides new tools for doing the same thing.  Start a back and forth on twitter with a prospect who loves tweeting.  Make sure your Pinterest or instagram fan sees your latest photos.  Like and comment on some of your Facebook fanatic’s daily status updates.One caution here, though…your institution shouldn’t leap into all of these new channels without understanding how to authentically AND SUSTAINABLY transfer your brand to this new communication tool.  It always makes me tremendously sad when I see organizations who have a Facebook account that last summer’s intern started for them that has been thoroughly dormant since they left.  If you don’t have the manpower (paid or volunteer) to *really* use, say, Twitter in a meaningful way, in a way that shows you “get” the medium…don’t do it poorly.

What are your favorite tips and tricks for connecting with people and strengthening their relationship to your mission and organization?

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