Lessons I’ve Learned: Cultivating Donors

Cultivation is like dating. You are seeking to form or deepen a relationship with this person.  It is similar to dating and many of the same rules apply.  Ask questions rather than make assumptions, don’t make it all about your needs and don’t rush to a conclusion.  Be open to the fact that the result of this “date” may be the realization that it isn’t a good match between the person’s goals and those of your nonprofit.

Have an agenda—and let everyone involved know what it is. Generally, people are not open to setting aside time to meet with you as a general “get to know each other” conversation.  Have a reason that you want to meet with this particular person and share it with them, i.e. “We are putting together a case for our children’s center and as a long-term donor, I would like to run it by you to see which messages are the most compelling.”

Share the agenda with any staff or board member who is accompanying you on the visit. It doesn’t matter if it is your worldly board chair or acclaimed CEO of your organization, you need to thoroughly review your plan for the meeting point by point and highlight their role in it.  Cultivation is a choreographed conversation.

Define success before your meeting. Too often, the only way we tally success is by the gifts we solicit.  Since cultivation is not about asking for a gift, you need other benchmarks.  In advance, determine what you want to get out of the meeting:  answering questions about their interest in a particular project, finding out why they care about your cause, learning who they are connected to in the community.

Do not bait and switch.  Cultivation is an act of building trust.  After you have told them your reason for meeting and how long it will be, stick with it. The follow-through on your promises will have a much greater payoff than throwing in an unexpected “ask.”  If you have done a good job of cultivation, the actual solicitation should be a natural next step, not a surprise.

Capture what you learned and share it with others.   The aim is to build a relationship with your organization, not just you as an individual.  For this reason, it is essential to document your interactions in a database that can be accessed by present and future board and staff members.  Note anything new you learn about the person that would affect their giving, next steps you are planning, and what follow-up you promised to them. Having this data will also allow you to track progress and ensure that each time a staff member leaves, your organization will not have to start anew with the donor.

Originally Posted at The Foundation Center