Major Donors in Hard Times

We can debate the merits of individual economic indicators and whether the much-touted recovery is stalled — or was even truly underway — but there is no longer any doubt that the American economy is challenging and likely to remain so for several years to come. Unemployment is still around 10%, only three U.S. states are operating without a deficit, and foundation income is down about 3.5%. Three-quarters of our economy depends on individual spending, which simply isn’t bouncing back.

You surely don’t need us to tell you that donors are wary. Whether your organization defines a major gift as $500 or $25,000, here are some tips to keep in mind as you continue to work on cultivating your largest donors:

1. Take advantage of this “down” time to define or refine your cultivation system. A development industry standard calls for three conversations or contacts/meetings for every time you actually ask for a gift. Make sure there are times when your best prospects hear from you and you’re not asking for money.

2.  Figure out ways to engage donors like never before. Perhaps the simple days of “pocketbook philanthropy” (where someone simply made a gift when asked) are gone forever. Invite people out for coffee, give them personal tours, ask them to participate on a committee. Set up a standing, monthly open-house tour or briefing at your offices, then use it as a hook for every new and renewed connection you make.

3. What is your data trying to tell you? Look at patterns of gift size, repetition, and geography. To evaluate whether a donor is ready for trading up, remember that repetition and/or consistency over time is more important than the size of a single past gift.

4. A person’s ability or willingness to give is unique, based on what he/she is experiencing in life. Postponing retirement, loss of investment income, grown children relying on parents’ help, or extreme medical issues/expenses all of course can affect philanthropy. This is why you must really know your donors deeply. Start with notes as simple as their birthdays–and send a card.

5.  Personalize, personalize, personalize. Fundraising is a very personal and not antiseptic business. One of the first principles we teach in fundraising is that “people give to other people.” The more you could bring your passion and emotion into the picture, the better.

6.  Cultivate, cultivate, cultivate. Not all donors are hurting in this down economy, so it’s your job to determine who is thriving and willing to make a larger gift than before. Invest your time now in these connections as you deepen their knowledge of your work.

7.  Go back to basics. Revisit your case statement. Your donors want their money to matter: does an outsider or new donor find your argument compelling? More than ever, you must also reinforce that your organization is transparent and accountable for its results.

8.  Look for clues and remember the “millionaire next door” philosophy. Where did your donor go to school, or where do his/her children attend school? What vacations do they take? Does the family attend religious services?

9.  Unlock each donor’s passion on an emotional level. In a future personal conversation, explore such issues as why the donor supports your organization; what other charities they have supported the longest, and why; what organizations they no longer support, and why; what have been the most meaningful gifts for them; and how they prioritize requests for support.

10. For donors over age 70 who are homeowners, engage them in your organization’s success stories and, when the time is right, ask them to consider putting a gift in their will.

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