Ask any nonprofit what the lifeblood of their organization is and most will tell you it’s the donor. Cultivating an ongoing relationship with the donor is of extreme importance, but it also raises a burning question: Who, exactly, owns the donor? Traditionally, it has been the development staff – or, in some instances, a senior fundraiser.
Talk to development staff at nearly any nonprofit organization and this is what you’ll likely hear: “It’s my job to develop and maintain the key connections that drive gifts. I need to control the interactions. Stay away from my contacts and let me do this my way.”
This “fundraiser owns the donor” model often works for a while, especially when programs are first introduced, but it can also be a double-edged sword. Here’s why.
Fundraising complacency and high turnover of new development staff: When senior fundraisers amass large portfolios of contacts, they are eventually unable to effectively cultivate them. The hoarding of donors results in insufficient portfolios for junior and mid-career fundraisers, causing them to take on additional tasks to justify their positions – ultimately leading to dissatisfaction and high turnover. When experienced fundraisers push back on new ideas for portfolio alignment, executives and board members often abandon plans for rejuvenation, fearful that key fundraisers might walk, and take their donors with them.
Fundraiser poaching: Newer organizations and competing programs find it easier to recruit top performers with incremental pay increases rather than teaching the “art of giving” to new fundraisers. The end result is a lack of institutional knowledge when it comes to fundraising and a constant fear that the senior fundraiser will leave and take all of their loyal VIP donors with them.
Belief that communities have an insufficient culture of philanthropy: With development activity centering around a few major donors, little emphasis is given to cultivating or upgrading donors who give low dollar amounts and they fall through the multiple cracks. This results in a perception that these communities, often young adults and/or minorities, are not philanthropic, causing them to be ignored and an enormous opportunity going untapped.
Inability to adapt: As organizations are pressed to offer more comprehensive services and communicate their mission more broadly, building a staff with particular specialties and differentiated roles is necessary to maintain an open line of communication with supporters. The advent of multichannel communication means no single individual can stay on top of everything. Often leaders lack the will and courage to make the needed investments, resulting in an undersized fundraising force with inadequate capacity and expertise to stay relevant and meet supporter needs.
The issue of who owns donors is really a question of who and what the sources of organizational value are in a given donor’s mind. Nonprofits can better position themselves for long-term success by adapting their community engagement strategy to create layered sources of value in donors’ minds. Some ways to do this include:
Give donors many meaningful connections to the organization. While one executive maintains the donor relationship, specialists -- like a planned gift assistant or a program director -- get called in for specific short-term consultations. All become sources of value to the donor and together strengthen the relationship.
Create tools and activities that add value throughout the cultivation process. Embedded videos, for example, create a more interactive web experience for constituents. Further, by cross-training staff members on trends, services and resources, more staff members can answer donor questions or more effectively lead them to the right place, creating a culture of responsiveness and resourcefulness.
Capture supporter information using a CRM or other system. Empower people throughout the organization, not just one fundraiser or event coordinator, to learn the needs and history of each supporter. This will allow for all interactions to be personal and purposeful. Further, when staff members leave the organization, supporter knowledge is not lost.
Create a team-oriented fund development culture. Hire fundraisers who are team players. Establish systems and processes that encourage teamwork and best-practice sharing, like a documented moves management plan. Reduce short-term incentives and offer bonuses that reward all staff members when they complete tasks associated with long-term sustainability. Track team-based metrics and recognize fundraisers not only for revenue associated with one event or one fiscal year, but also for making lasting contributions.
When you create multiple sources of value, donors will rely more on the organization rather than any one individual within the organization.
Making the transition to an organization that provides multiple touch points to a donor isn’t easy. Organizations are more likely to succeed when they use events that create an expectation of change (new year, new leadership, missed financial goal, etc) as catalysts for enabling the transformation.
By and large, long-term donors engage with a nonprofit because they believe in the mission, are passionate about what the organization is doing and communicate with the nonprofit via various channels. Nonprofits should structure the organization to embrace the donor in a multifaceted way. Ultimately, the results will be a fully engaged donor that is "owned" by the nonprofit versus a moderately engaged donor that is "owned" by one individual.