Donor cultivation is the most underappreciated and misunderstood part of the fundraising funnel. Of the four primary components of the fundraising lifecycle (prospecting, cultivation, asking, and stewardship), it is cultivation that most often trips up otherwise high performing fundraising programs.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s define what we mean by “donor cultivation.” Cultivation is everything that happens between the time you identify a person as a prospect for your organization until the time you make the first ask. Cultivation is the process of building a relationship with your prospect, communicating with them, and ultimately moving them down the road towards that ask.
The cultivation phase is indispensable for non-profits, because it lays the groundwork not only for a strong ask, but also for a lifelong relationship with your donor that lasts far longer than just one gift.
Unfortunately, many organizations have serious misconceptions about donor cultivation. Some non-profits try to skip this phase entirely (or almost entirely), by moving donors from first introduction to an ask almost immediately. On the other side of the coin, some organizations draw this phase out forever, assuming that if they just cultivate the donor for another month, or quarter, or year, they are sure to give far more money. Both of these situations arise from misunderstanding the primary goals of the cultivation process.
The Two Goals of Your Donor Cultivation Program
Your non-profit’s donor cultivation program has two primary goals:
Goal #1 – Build the Relationship
The first goal is to build a strong and growing relationship with your prospect. If the prospect has the capacity to make a major gift, you’ll want to spend time meeting with him or her to talk about your organization and see where the donor’s interests lie. If the prospect is a mid-level donor, you can build the relationship through small group meetings and other events, plus phone calls and letters.
Either way, your main goal in cultivating the donor is to steadily strengthen the relationship between the prospect and your organization. You should continue this process for as long as it takes for the donor to want to make a first gift to your non-profit, but no longer. Every donor has a different timeframe for making their first gift, but the cultivation phase shouldn’t (and can’t) last forever. You need to be moving your donors towards an ask.
Of course, once the person makes a first gift, you won’t stop building and deepening the relationship… you’ll just being doing it as part of your donor stewardship efforts.
Goal #2 – Determine Affinity & Focus
The second main goal of your donor cultivation program is to determine the donor’s affinity for your non-profit (meaning how interested they are in supporting your work) and their focus (meaning which of your programs resonate most with the donor).
Knowing your donor’s affinity level will help you gauge when the person will be ready for an ask as well as what level gift the donor might be willing to make. Knowing your donor’s focus will help you know which programs to ask the donor to financially support, as well as allow you to tailor your communications towards those areas that most interest the donor.
Keeping these two goals in mind will help you determine which activities to include in your cultivation funnel for each level of donor you are cultivating.
Moving Towards the Ask
It’s important to keep in mind that the penultimate goal for your donor cultivation activities is the ask. Everything you do to build your relationship with the donor should be geared towards moving the person closer to an ask. This fact is so important that whenever you add a new cultivation activity, you should be asking yourself (or your team), “how will this activity help us move donors closer to an ask?”
The Top Five Ways to Cultivate Donors
There are many different ways to cultivate your donors, but of all the varied tactics you can use in your donor cultivation program, these are the five that are the most effective for the greatest number of non-profits:
#1 – Meetings
Nothing beats personal, one-on-one meetings with your donors. While your team likely doesn’t have the bandwidth to do meetings with every single donor in your prospect file, all of your major donor prospects should be invited to personal cultivation meetings. These meetings could be at the donor’s home or office, or at your office, or over breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, etc.
#2 – Phone Calls
Phone calls can be a great way to cultivate donors, particularly as check-ins after a first meeting or as follow-ups from events and tours. Far too many fundraisers are afraid to simply pick up the phone to call a donor and say hello, or to share some good news about the organization, without asking for money.
#3 – Newsletters & Other Communication
All of your non-ask communications help to build the relationship you have with your prospects. The backbone of most non-profits’ donor cultivation systems is an e-mail newsletter, supplemented by other communications such as an annual report, post cards, etc. Remember, in order to truly count as a cultivation communication, your newsletters should have absolutely no asks in them.
#4 – Events
Many non-profits find great success in cultivating donors through non-ask events. These events can be tours of your facility, roundtables with experts in your mission field, social events at a board member’s home or office, conferences, or small group meetings where you invite a few of your prospects to come together to hear more about a particular program.
#5 – Volunteer Opportunities
Getting a prospective donor to volunteer at your non-profit can often help them move closer to making a financial investment in your work. The volunteer opportunities you offer can include traditional volunteer work (such as serving food at your soup kitchen), serving on a committee (such as an event committee or advisory group), or even giving you advice on something they are knowledgeable about.
Volunteering won’t be right for all of your prospects, but some donors like to invest their time and expertise before investing their money in your work.
Building a Donor Cultivation System
If you want to have a robust donor cultivation process at your non-profit… one that effectively and efficiently moves prospects through the fundraising funnel and on to the ask… then you need to build a donor cultivation system at your organization.
Far too many non-profits treat cultivation as a try-anything-once type of operation. Someone on the fundraising team (or on the board, or on the program side) comes up with an idea, and the non-profit implements it. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard Development Directors say something like, “well, it certainly can’t hurt,” and then spend time and money to send out another mailing, or hold an additional event, or mail out notepads with the organization’s logo on them to everyone on the current prospect list.
Don’t make this mistake. Donor cultivation is far too important to treat this way. You need to put a cultivation plan in place that details all of the cultivation strategies you will be using for the coming year to build better relationships with your donors. Your program shouldn’t try to do too much. Don’t write a plan that includes 15 different strategies for cultivating your donors this year. Instead, focus on the 2-4 ways you are going to build amazing relationships with your prospects over the next 12 months, then work on implementing them well.
Remember, too, that it is extremely important to segment your donor cultivation system so that you can efficiently allocate your resources. At the very least, your team should have a system in place for high-dollar donors, mid-level givers, and low-dollar donors. That way, you can give more personal attention to those donors who have the capacity to make a bigger impact for the people that you serve.
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