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!”

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Kirsten Bullock, Fundraising Coach August 31, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Deep down, I believe each one of us wants to help make the world a better place. Your survey was such a great way to make it easy for donors to do that. And five people a week. I would think even the most swamped Development Director would be able to find a way to do that. Thanks for helping to keep it simple!

Kathy Manweiler August 31, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Pamela, what an incredible story of repolishing diamonds that had been ignored. You are such a great example to the rest of us in the nonprofit world! I learn so much from you. Thanks much, Kathy

Esther James September 1, 2011 at 3:49 am

What a great story! I love the fact that you didn’t ask for a donation, yet some people took the opportunity to give. People really want to be listened to, and a survey can nicely accomplish that. Did you get substantive information from the survey responses that let you identify patterns or strategies to move forward?

Pamela Grow September 1, 2011 at 4:05 am

Great question Esther. The responses that I got helped form my overall case and were used in everything, from the appeal to grant proposals to our website copy.

Sandy Rees September 2, 2011 at 10:58 am

Great ideas Pamela! Listening will ALWAYS serve us well in the nonprofit world. I remember hearing once that we have two ears and one mouth – use them accordingly.

Sandy Rees

Steve January 12, 2012 at 10:18 am

With any relationship, it about communication and connection. We must connect with those that we choose to do business with. In fundraising, creating and maintaining a strong emotional connection is even more important.

In fundraising, donor activity is directly related to how people feel. If they feel great about the organization they are supporting or the cause, they will get involved and support it. But more than that, people like to be heard.

As Pamela found out, when we take the effort to ask what people think, we turn the conversation to what is important to them and away from our own wants and needs. And as a result, she was able to reconnect to people who were once passionate about the cause.

Great article Pamela. Hopefully, things will stay on track.

twitter: @eyebrand

Karen Luttrell February 4, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Great post Pamela! It’s so important to listen, know your supporters, and meet THEIR needs. And of course the best way to know your supporters is to talk with them and ask them about themselves and their needs. With so many free or nearly free digital communications tools like survey monkey and the facebook page questions feature, there are a lot of simple ways to regularly seek feedback from engaged supporters now – in addition to the always useful and important telephone call and coffee meeting or lunch.

Pamela Grow February 4, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Exactly! Surveying needs to become a habit – not a once or twice a year occurrence – if we are to develop truly donor centric development offices. And you’re so right, Karen, there are so many different ways to learn more about our supporters. Thanks for commenting!

Steve Smith February 28, 2012 at 2:09 pm

The fundamental truths can often be found in simplicity, Pamela. The basic of listening to our donors gets us the answers we need to be successful. Thanks for another solid post!

Pamela Grow March 13, 2012 at 8:09 pm

Thank you, as always, for commenting, Steve. I’m a big fan of your work.

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