Two Examples of How to Cultivate Your Donors (Even When They Aren’t Your Donors)

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Zach Shefska is Chief Operating Officer at MarketSmart. Outside of the office, you'll find Zach behind either a pottery wheel or flight controls of a Piper PA-28 airplane.

There’s a theme to major and legacy gift fundraising. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to uncover it. It’s the importance of relationship building.

At the root of every major or legacy gift made there’s an intimate and undoubtedly deep connection between a donor and the organization. Relationships, and a strong sense of connection to your cause are major drivers of philanthropy.

It’s interesting to juxtapose the philosophical reasons why donors give with the quantitative and more mechanical ways organizations approach major gift fundraising. Just last week we teased the release of the 2020 Major Gift Benchmark Study. The report will be released soon (click here to get early access), and within its pages you’ll find insights into how organizations go about raising major gifts.

Processes, wealth screens, leveraging institutional knowledge, and so much more, the report highlights a myriad of ways in which organizations attempt to achieve their major gift fundraising goals. One of the more astounding realizations was that only 43 percent of study participants met their goal in 2019.

And on that note, it’s invigorating to compare the study’s findings with the philosophical, more existential, more meaningful contemplation of major gift giving from the donor perspective.

I am not a major donor. I simply don’t have enough wealth to be considered one (although my $1,000 donation in 2017 to Massachusetts General Hospital was the most I had ever given, and did expose me to the challenges organizations face in stewarding all donors, regardless of donation size), however I have had the recent privilege of being cultivated as if I was a major donor.

The impact of this experience has been awe-inspiring. I’d like to share it with you.

Lung Cancer Research Foundation

I’ve never donated to the Lung Cancer Research Foundation (LCRF).

If you asked Meghan Wood, Director of Development at LCRF, or Sam Rogers, Senior Director of Development, about why I feel a strong connection to their organization, I feel confident both could share my story with ease.

I lost my mom to lung cancer at 21 years old. After two years of enduring the pain, suffering, and occasional joys that cancer brought to my mother’s life, she passed away.

C’est la vie. No one has beaten the odds yet.

It was two years later, in July of 2019 that I received this email, out of the blue, from Sam at LCRF:

Please take a moment to read what Sam sent me.

“Also, I want to apologize because it hit me the other day that you lost your mom to lung cancer and … I have never reached out other than to commandeer your time for help with FRC (Fundraising Report Card). I would love to hear a little more about her journey and her as a person if you had a few minutes at some point and were kind enough to share.”

Sam, who had recently transitioned from leading a different organization to join LCRF, recognized an opportunity to build a relationship with a prospective donor. He approached the situation in a wholesome, authentic, and thoughtful way.

I still vividly remember the first phone call Sam and I had to talk about my mom. It was in the parking lot of the gym I go to after work.

I cried. I shared stories, it felt cathartic. I felt humbled and appreciative that he was listening to me as I babbled on about the stroke, the chemo, the incredible resolve my mom had to keep teaching special ed students in Baltimore City until she simply couldn’t physically do it anymore.

The stewardship didn’t end there. Soon after that call I was invited to join LCRF’s Leadership Council, a group of young professionals tasked with finding ways to further the organization’s work. Look at this brief email exchange with Meghan:

Again, keep in mind, I have never donated to LCRF. At this point, Sam knows my story, Meghan knows my story, and the organization is giving me opportunities to shape its future.

How beautiful is this?

How should you cultivate your major and legacy donors? Just like this.

How do Sam and Meghan know if this is a good investment of their time? They don’t, but they have a hunch.

Last week, while visiting a friend in New York, I had the privilege of meeting with Meghan in person. The conversation was emotional and rewarding, the connection I felt with her and the organization grew deeper. I plan to donate in the near future, and I hope to live out some of my legacy through the organization. I’m 24.

Sam and Meghan have planted seeds that may take decades to grow, however the impact of their work (if I am able to fulfill my personal mission first!), will be far from trivial.

Internet Archive

Although less emotionally draining, Katie Barrett, Development Manager at Internet Archive, has also demonstrated an incredible commitment to relationship building.

Katie and I began working together years ago when she stumbled across MarketSmart’s Fundraising Report Card. Our email threads were familiar and friendly:

Conversations about the Fundraising Report Card eventually delved into how I personally felt connected to the work her organization was doing. Again, if you asked Katie why I feel so passionate about the Internet Archive, I think she could tell you.

However, this is another organization I have never donated to.

That didn’t stop Katie from taking proactive steps to steward a true and authentic relationship with me. After a recent flurry of back and forth emails and voicemails, I received this note from Katie:

Just the other day, I received a small care package from Katie with a thoughtful thank you note and some really awesome Archive.org socks. This is stewardship and cultivation at its finest.

How to apply this at your organization

It’s not possible to treat every donor (or in my case, non-donor) with velvet gloves. There are simply too many names, too many faces, too many stories. This isn’t an excuse not to try and emulate the experience Sam, Meghan, and Katie have displayed, however.

Cultivating donors at scale is one of the key areas MarketSmart supports our clients with. It doesn’t matter what someone’s “wealth score” is, what matters is their true connection to your cause, and how you can help them actualize their life story through your organization. Effective cultivation and stewardship starts with understanding a donor’s why, and then tapping into it with each and every communication.

Sam, Meghan, and Katie have all exemplified going “above and beyond” in terms of cultivating a donor. I hope that learning about their techniques and tactics (from the donor perspective) can prove valuable to you.
Yes, we need to analyze the outcomes from the 2020 Major Gift Benchmark Study and determine which processes and systems provide the best “bang for your buck.” Yet, at the same time, we can benefit from thinking on a human level, and following the ways of Sam, Meghan, and Katie.

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