Major Donors: Cultivating Relationships & Forging Strong Ties

Published: April 16, 2024

Making Time for Major Donors

We´ve all been there: a full inbox, back-to-back meetings, using Sunday evenings to get a jump start on the work week, the never-ending to-do list. Often this pace of meetings and admin starts to impact the work you were hired to do (and, most likely, that you do quite well): connect with prospects and donors and raise funds.

As development professionals, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking you don't have time to build relationships with donors or connect regularly with your funders. However, this work is essential for the sustainability and success of your organization. These activities go beyond just securing financial support; they open doors to collaboration, provide connections to other potential supporters, inspire a deeper understanding of your mission, and drive long-term engagement that can propel your organization forward. So, while it may seem like there's never enough time, investing in these relationships is exactly what you need to do to set your nonprofit up for success.

Develop your list and define your message 

If you’re ready to shift your donor and prospect engagement to the next level, start with your list. Who are your best prospects to increase giving this year? Look for donors who have been giving consistently for a few years, are engaged with your programs, and/or attending events. Also, consider contacts who are just getting to know your organization who may have the capacity to give more. 

Next, determine what you can share that will interest these donors and prospects. If you’ve created an annual development plan, you’ll have already defined some areas of focus that you can highlight (program shifts, new ideas in the works, upcoming events and activities, etc.). If you don’t have that, meet with senior leadership and program/services staff to listen to what’s coming and add that to the list of accomplishments you already have from grant reports and other communication. At the start of each month, sketch out a few stories/plans to share in your outreach. Knowing what you have to email or call about will make connecting that much easier. 

Set your communication cadence

If your funders are used to hearing from you only twice per year, don’t shift immediately to monthly touchpoints. Rather, start with more regular outreach such as emails every other month, or asking a donor you just saw at an event to grab coffee. Shifting your communication slowly will feel organic, and it’ll let you have some time to connect in a variety of ways - by email, text, phone (yes, phone!) and even mail. Whatever timing you decide, add a reminder on your calendar or database to reach out so you don’t forget. And, when the reminder comes up, don’t just hit “dismiss!” That’s the time to use one of the methods you came up with for the month and connect.

Listen to your donors

As you’re expanding your engagement efforts, make sure to ask -- and listen -- to your prospects and donors about how much they want to be in touch. Some will welcome calls, while others won’t call you back but will respond to emails. In that action, they are saying something about their preferences. Note that and add it to your database. Each time a donor or prospect feels heard, it helps build their confidence and connection with your organization.

Create opportunities

Often, we hear fundraisers say they just don’t have anything to discuss or events to share with donors or prospects. This is exactly why development planning is so essential to a successful fundraising program: you must plan for activities that align with your mission and programs that can be used as a springboard for donor and prospect engagement. So, if your organization has a report coming out in October, you should be planning some sort of activity (virtual or live panel discussion; small gathering with the study authors; a dinner to celebrate the achievement) that serves both your programmatic goals and your fundraising needs. Because these activities can be a challenge to plan and execute with a small staff, consider cultivating volunteers who may not be able to make big gifts but have time to help you with these outreach efforts or a contract hire to provide targeted support.

Gauge your progress

There’s almost nothing better than a quarterly check-in. (Well, okay, there are a few things -- but looking back to see how you’ve done is pretty great). Make a point to schedule time to review your data and identify progress and any challenges that have come up. A few data points to start with include the number of donors/prospects whom you’ve connected with each month; the number of RSVPs and attendees to programs/events from your list; the number and amount of gifts received by donors who you’ve been cultivating and stewarding; and the number of lapsed donors who have once again supported your organization. 

Identify new major donor prospects

While building and maintaining your donors and prospect list is key, you also need to continually focus on expanding your pipeline of major donors. We recommend regularly reviewing your list of annual fund donors and identifying those with capacity or connection to your mission through wealth screens or by sharing names with your organizational leadership or board members; attending events of like-organizations in your area to meet donors and funders who are supporting a similar mission; and reviewing your lapsed donor list to identify those to re-engage.

As you consider how to incorporate these recommendations into your day-to-day and quarter-by-quarter plan, stay focused on doing what you can, and trying to do just a bit more than you have been. What is one thing you can do tomorrow? Who are the three people you can contact this week? What is one engaging activity you can add over the next few months? I’d love to hear more about how you’ve shifted your cultivation efforts and what the results were! Share your comments to with me here

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