Re-cultivating the Donors We’ve Lost

Several of my clients are in the midst of the feasibility phase of a campaign. Although they’re receiving a broad range of feedback, a theme has surfaced that would inhibit future giving from past donors: poor stewardship.

We all know how this happens. Fundraiser turnover leads to inconsistent or dropped stewardship plans. The emphasis from leadership to raising more money pulls focus from past donors. And these real and significant challenges are compounded when they meet another factor: fundraiser discomfort in recovering donor relationships.

But there’s more we can all do to serve our donors, and our institutions, better. First, we must focus on systems. Stewardship strategies should be included in all fundraiser transition plans. We often ensure cultivation and solicitation strategies are shared, but neglect the post-gift relationships. We need to elevate stewardship with the same sense of urgency. For shops that have a dedicated donor relations team, they should conduct exit interviews with fundraisers to institutionalize this process and ensure necessary details are entered into the database.

Then, all fundraisers must be prepared for relationship recovery – as every fundraiser will be required to rebuild a donor relationship (or many) through their careers, and recovered donors can make the best prospects.

  • When we hear that a donor is not happy with how we have stewarded them, we need to outreach personally and quickly. An apology note card will not cut it, and neither will only trying once. Polite persistence is not just a tool for cold calling and initial outreach; these are critical stakeholders and they deserve more than one contact.
  • Ask for permission to rebuild the relationship. Clarity of intent helps to rebuild the trust that has been lost, and following up and being true to our word is critical. Some of my strongest donor relationships started with initial calls where I listened to stories of past missteps, but my commitment to service recovery moved relationships from dissatisfaction to engagement, and resulted in meaningful gifts.
  • Re-education is also a tool in rebuilding relationships. Often donors are dissatisfied based on misalignment between their expectations for being involved and what the institution can accommodate. For example, you may inherit a donor who established a scholarship years ago and was allowed to participate in student selection, and who is now displeased that policies around this process have changed. If the institution has not properly educated the donor on this change, they could easily become dissatisfied and feel pushed out. Recognize the opportunity for a candid conversation that provides background and current information, coupled with gratitude, and that this conversation will provide the opportunity to re-educate, rebuild, and re-energize that donor relationship.

These conversations may not be easy, but we need to have them if we are truly committed to creating life-long relationships. We’ve been hired to build relationships on behalf of our institutions and to move those relationships towards a gift. Recognizing that gratitude builds relationships is an important anchor to our work – even when we must lead with gratitude through damaged relationships.

If you or your team needs assistance in building this toolbox, KDD Philanthropy is available for both individual coaching as well as team training on this topic. Contact us today.