Major gift officers: how are your donor relationships going?

When fundraisers across the country were suddenly sent back to their homes to work and realized they couldn’t visit with donors, it was a transition most weren’t ready for. We’re a profession built on the concept of building connectivity through visits, and the number of meaningful visits we make is often a factor in how successful we’re perceived to be.

But a perhaps-unexpected development has occurred over the last six months. More and more, I hear from some frontline fundraisers that your donor relationships are strengthening during this time. Donors who are retired have more time on their hands. Prospects are having discussions at home with family members about missions they care about, and they are more willing to discuss those passions with us. Supporters are curious about how the pandemic is impacting our organizations, and they are engaged in those discussions with us. And with COVID, political unrest, wildfires … everyone is more raw right now, and many of us are more isolated.

While the world is presenting us with incredible challenges, within those challenges comes a different longing to connect, to be authentic, and to be heard. And this dynamic is no less true for our donors.

Those fundraisers who are building the most thriving donor relationships today are leaning all the way into this instinct. They’re calling donors to check in and making time to chat, really engage, listen, and talk. And they’re chatting about business sometimes, sure, but they’re also comparing reading lists, talking about isolation hobbies, and just listening to how the person on the other end of the phone is doing today. In this authentic approach, exhibiting a true curiosity and then making a genuine match to the work that we do is allowing us to build deeper connections and providing donor strategies with additional insights.

Advancement staff are sending more frequent emails with stories from the organization, but also including links to fun videos they find online, perhaps related to a shared interest. I know one fundraiser who meets a major donor in a park for a jigsaw puzzle exchange once a month, since they’re both still isolating and have taken up the hobby. And while engaging in a shared hobby, they are discussing the organization’s work and moving discussions forward about generosity in a true and important way. And we are seeing these conversations happening at a faster rate, resulting in a shortened donor cycle.

In other words, fundraisers whose donor relationships are thriving right now are those who are building real relationships — and realizing that they don’t need meetings to do it. It was never really about the meeting, it was about authentic connection and conversations that strengthen our philanthropic relationships.

If you’re a fundraiser who’s struggling to connect with donors without meeting with them, know that you can still be successful. But first, you have to focus on connecting with donors as people, not just funders. Make more time. Be genuinely curious about them and empathetic to their concerns. Call and engage them in meaningful ways. Connection and strategy momentum can happen over the phone, and can be as meaningful, if not more so, than the visits we once relied on.

The opportunity we have right now to connect with people is not just a bright spot to get through the world today. It’s also a lesson: a call to reassess how we understand fundraising relationships, and how we measure them. When fundraisers build more meaningful connections to funders, we’re better at our work. And, we’re more fulfilled by it. By making the most of circumstances around us today, we can create a better and more enjoyable approach to fundraising that will last long past today’s crises.

If this is the experience you’ve been having, please comment and share your tips. We all have so much to learn from each other!

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