Building Sustaining Donor Relationships

Many of us who have the honor of working in philanthropy profess that we want to see our business elevated in professionalism, while we unconsciously continue patterns that create the exact opposite. One example of this tendency to sabotage our larger vision is when we focus our donor strategy on the next solicitation, rather than on building a relationship that grows affinity and philanthropy year after year, even decade after decade.

The reality is that we need both. In taking this two-prong approach, we will develop the relationships that ultimately lead to greater generosity over time, and that demonstrate the very best of our philanthropic industry.

For example – during my tenure at a university, I joined a meeting about the strategy to solicit an alum. This alum, only in his 30s, was already a multimillionaire. In all the discussion of what the solicitation should be – how much, for what, asked for by whom – no one mentioned that the alum easily had 50 more years of giving ahead of him. That to focus just on this next gift rather than a lifetime of giving would both reinforce the worst stereotypes about fundraisers and fail to maximize the opportunity.

So how do we do a better job of thinking about our donors’ long-term relationships with our institutions? Here are some ideas:

  • Ask probing questions about your donors’ values, goals and experiences, and then listen, allowing for true dialogue.
  • Expand the relationship circle by involving institutional colleagues, leaders and others. The more touch-points between a donor and your cause, the more the larger institutional relationship has meaningful opportunities to grow and can weather staff transitions. Then develop ways to measure, recognize and celebrate this type of activity among your team.
  • Introduce your prospects to a variety of areas across your organization, not just the one you want to solicit for next. A greater exposure to, and understanding of, our work will allow for a broader and deeper relationship. Measure and celebrate this work as well.
  • Recognize loyalty giving by celebrating first gifts, anniversary gifts (time), milestone gifts (amount) and completed pledges.
  • Ensure every individual strategy includes not just what you hope to accomplish now, but also goals for two, four and more years out. Use these goals to inform donor stewardship.

And while we’re talking strategy, make sure you build time into your calendar to be thoughtful in how you build those strategies. Written strategies almost always guarantee a win-win relationship for your institution and the donor.

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