Every non-profit needs new donors to fill its funding pipeline. While there are lots of ways to find new prospects, few are as powerful having your current supporters introduce you to their social and business networks.
The process of asking current donors, volunteers, board members and other supporters to introduce their friends and colleagues to your non-profit is called “seeking referrals.” It’s a potent strategy… one that many organizations talk about, but few actually implement. In this guide, you’ll learn how to build a successful donor referral system for your non-profit.
Why Donor Referrals are Important
We all know how hard it can be finding new donors for a non-profit organization. Cold prospecting (where you identify new prospective donors, approach them, and attempt to cultivate them, without a pre-existing relationship) is a long process.
Many major donors and corporate leaders are so busy with work and other responsibilities that they don’t have time to research or respond to the multitude of new organizations that contact them. Even mid-level donors can be so busy that your non-profit’s message gets lost in the shuffle.
The best way to break through the clutter and ensure that a prospective donor hears your message is for someone they know and trust to introduce your non-profit to them. This trusted person could be a family member, friend, business partner, co-worker, neighbor, vendor, client, or other acquaintance.
When someone introduces your non-profit to a friend, it not only helps your message penetrate the marketing clutter and catch the attention of a prospective donor, it gives your organization instant credibility. The person thinks, “my friend Sue is involved with this non-profit… they must be a good organization.”
Getting your current donors and supporters to refer their friends shortens the process of meeting and cultivating new donors and moving them to an ask. But referrals don’t just happen. Most non-profits have tried to harass their boards into making referrals at one point or another, and found out that it only leads to resentment and frustration. In order to harness the power of referrals, you need to build a donor referral system for your organization.
The 3 Rules of Successful Donor Referral Systems
When building your donor referral system, it is important to keep the following three rules in mind:
#1 – People Won’t Make Referrals Unless You Ask
Very few of your supporters and donors will introduce you to their network without you specifically asking them to do so. Many Executive Directors think, “oh, Jim and Siobhan always bring some people to our fundraising gala, and Claire always helps us sign up her friends as volunteers… see, people will make referrals if they can! That must mean none of our other donors have the capacity to do so.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, some people naturally make referrals, but the vast majority of your supporters who could make referrals don’t. The reason they don’t is because they haven’t been asked… they are busy, they support you, but the thought hasn’t really crossed their mind.
If you want people to introduce you to their networks, you have to ask them to do so. Sit down across the table from your donors (or call them on the phone) and ask them, “Who else do you know who might be interested in our work?”
#2 – Most Supporters Won’t Make Referrals
The second rule for building a successful donor referrals system is this: most of your supporters won’t make referrals, even when you ask them to… and that’s ok!
Nearly every one of your donors, board members, volunteers, and other supporters has the capacity to make referrals for you. Nearly everyone in your orbit knows a couple of people who might want to get involved with your non-profit. But not everyone feels comfortable making these types of introductions.
This means that when you sit down across the table from a donor to ask them to introduce you to their friends, most of the people you ask will either say, “no,” or (more likely) some variation of, “I have to think about it” (said in a way that really means, “no”). That’s ok. Donor referrals are so powerful that even if 90% of the people you ask to make referrals decline to do so, it is still worth your time to ask for referrals.
When you ask for referrals, make it a natural part of the conversation. Don’t put people on the spot. And if they say no, make it clear that there are no hard feelings and you appreciate them and all that they continue to do for your non-profit.
#3 – You Need to Make Referrals Easy for Your Donors
The third and final rule for building a successful donor referral system is that you should make it as easy as possible for your donors, volunteers, and other supporters to make referrals to you.
One great way to make referrals easy is by setting up regular non-ask events and asking your supporters to invite their friends and colleagues to attend. If one of your donors comes to a non-ask event and brings along three friends, it’s an easy, low-pressure (and dare we say fun?) way for that donor to make three referrals in one night!
Another way you can make it easy for people to make referrals to your non-profit is by offering to attend events with them. For example, if one of your donors is on the board of a local business association, and wants to introduce you to some of his or her business contacts, offer to go to a local chamber of commerce lunch with them. Make it easy for your donor to introduce you to a number of their contacts at once. The easier you make it for your supporters to make referrals, the more they will do so.
What to Do When Someone Makes a Referral
One of the most important parts of a successful referral system is the follow-up. It’s great when someone makes an introduction on behalf of your non-profit… but it doesn’t do you much good if you never follow up with the new prospect to build the relationship.
When someone is referred to your organization, do your best to set up a meeting or call as soon as possible. This meeting or call is your opportunity to introduce your non-profit and its work. Your job during these conversations isn’t to ask for money… that will come later, in a future meeting or call. Your job during that first conversation is to cast a big vision, lay the foundation for a long-term relationship, and to ask them person what they think about your work and programs.
Again, resist the urge to ask for money during this first conversation. Your goal here is a lifelong relationship with your new donor – not a small, one-time gift. Also remember that if your supporters hear that you are making asks the first time you meet their contacts, they are far less likely to make referrals to you in the future.
Setting Up a Donor Referral System at Your Non-Profit
If you want to use referrals as an ongoing source of new donors for your non-profit, you’ll need to set up a donor referral system at your organization. This means:
– Building donor referrals into your development plan and asking each of your major donors for referrals at least once every year, unless they explicitly decline to provide referrals
– Seeking ways to ask your mid-level donors for referrals, either in-person, on the phone, or through a mass communications medium at least once per year
– Holding non-ask events on a regular basis and offering these events to your donors as an opportunity for referrals
– Measuring the success of your efforts by counting the number of referrals made by each donor and through each ask strategy
– Recognizing and thanking those supporters that do successfully refer new donors to your non-profit
Photo Credit: Greentech Media