Could you borrow the smartest thing I ever did?

August 31, 2011

Back in 2000, I quit my job with one of the region’s largest grantmaking foundations to take on a development position with a mid-sized community health agency (annual budget $3M).  My task?  To create a development department from the ground up.

I don’t need to tell you that it was challenging!

Thanks to a successful local businessman, this particular organization had run a hugely successful capital campaign just five years prior, raising over $5 million for a new facility. And what had they done since?

Nothing. Not a thing.

Major donors were ignored. Not a single foundation grant proposal had been written in those five years. The organization had memberships with a number of key community organizations, yet hadn’t had any contact. The businessman who had spearheaded the capital campaign had died and none of the records from that campaign were available to me.

The organization’s individual appeal was on a five-year decline. Because it had been outsourced to a number of different mail-houses, it had also angered a number of locals due to duplications and the perceived cost.

The more I dug, the worse things looked.

The closest I’d come to fundraising experience was reviewing the grant proposals at my old job.

Frankly, I thought that I’d taken on more – much more – than I could handle.

But I mapped out a strategy.  A plan for grants, a plan for public relations, a plan for a website (the organization didn’t have one), a plan for growing individual donors.

And then I did one of the smartest things I’ve ever done and something that I continue to do to this day.

I queried our database for 20 donors who had given every year without fail during the past five years. Imagine it if you will. These were donors who had given despite the lack of anything remotely resembling stewardship or impact reporting. I then wrote a letter of introduction asking why they had supported the organization.  I sent it out, along with a brief survey and a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

You see, I knew that the heart and soul of my fundraising plan would be to learn what our donors’ motivations were.

Eighteen responded.  Several sent in checks, although I hadn’t asked for money.  Three eventually became major donors.

Their responses were illuminating. They were poignant and sometimes humorous. They shaped my strategy going forward and many of their comments played a permanent role in the agency’s marketing materials.

It's not about your mission! It's about your donor's passions and dreams and vision for the future. #donorlove #fundraising Click To Tweet

Surveying your supporters doesn’t have to be the complex task you may think it is. I put together my packet in a matter of a few hours and sent it out in one morning.

Use both direct mail and online tools to survey your supporters. Survey Monkey is the most widely known online surveying company, offering both free and paid tools. Think in terms of segmenting your database and surveying batches of 20-100 donors frequently.

Later as I become more exposed to the traditional fundraising training available in our sector I was disappointed to see all the focus on the money — and none (none!) on the donor and their reasons for giving. There are so many things you can do habitually to understand your donor’s “why,” starting by simply phoning new donors and asking what prompted their gift.

As Dale Carnegie noted so many years ago: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

Start by reaching out to just five donors a week, whether by mail or by phone or by email, and listen, really listen.  It could be the smartest thing you’ll ever do. Need more? Download your free Survey Letter Template and modify it to make it your own!


Simple Development Systems has even more great tips…that you won’t find in a typical nonprofit development course. Learn why one reviewer said “I wish I would have found it 5 years ago when I took this job. It’s wonderful!”

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