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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Spending Time with Your Donors

by Andrea Kihlstedt

Again and again I ask development directors, “How much time do you spend getting to know your donors?” And again and again, the answer is “Not enough.”  If I probe a little more, it usually turns out that most donors get a personal visit only when it’s time to ask for his or her gift. 

“There’s simply not enough time in the day,” one development director told me, pointing to the piles of paper on her desk and showing me her calendar crammed with staff meetings. “And when I do call to set up a meeting, I often feel like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. People just don’t want to see me.” No surprise there. If the meeting is just about money, is there any wonder that it’s tough to get?

And when I ask development directors to review what they know about their top 50 donors, I’m no longer surprised at the scant, dry information. The responses often include more information about assets and real estate than about the things that make the donors tick.

How to Raise $1 Million

Andrea Kihlstedt's new book, "How to Raise $1 Million (or More!) in 10 Bite-Sized Steps, has just been published by Emerson & Church. For more information about the book, click here.

They may know that the Williams’ house is worth $3.2 million dollars and that Todd made $423,000 last year, but not that his wife is a cancer survivor or that his daughter is interested in journalism, or that Jim has always wanted to learn Spanish.

But it is these human, flesh and blood things that lead us to understand why Todd might make a significant gift.

Even if you didn’t know Jim Bunting well, it would be easy enough to discover that he was successful advertising executive. But you wouldn’t know that he had struggled his way through school. You wouldn’t know that his determination and energy were fueled by years of frustration and problems.

If you hadn’t spent time with Sol Wank and asked him specifically about his interests, you wouldn’t know of his abiding concern for people who are intractably homeless. 

If you hadn’t taken the time to know me, you wouldn’t know my parents married in 1940 because my father’s immigration papers had expired. Nor would you know that my parents were amateur musicians who played string quartets in their living room every week without fail!

You might not know that Julie Jones had gone with her church group to spend two weeks to help the people in a poor rural village in Central America.

If you made time to spend with these people and were curious about their lives, you’d gradually find out what makes them tick. You might learn about their interests and hobbies, about their children and their parents and grandparents. You might even learn about their beliefs and their hopes.

And if you were paying close attention, you might find the places where their life paths intersect with the work of your organization. It’s those points of intersection that create the basis for real fundraising.

Talk to me about the plight of immigrants or chamber music and I might be interested.  Talk with Julie Jones about providing help and healthcare for the people with malaria in Belize and she might just be interested. Talk with Sol Wank about homelessness and I’m pretty sure he’d want to help. Talk with Jim Bunting about experiential education and watch him come your way!

Curiosity about people is the underpinning of great fundraising. It also doesn’t work when your curiosity is limited to people’s assets and home values and salaries. Curiosity works when it sparks you to get to know about the lives and history and interests of your donors.

More often than not, if you take the time to get to know people in a real way, they will also become interested in you, whether or not your organization directly touches their passions. And their interest may well grow into something you never anticipated.

They may be looking to expand their horizons in new directions and you may provide the ideal opportunity. They may have friends they’d like to introduce you to or there may be other surprising doors they might open for you. At the very least, your donors will remember a great conversation with someone who actually had the curiosity to be interested in them.

Make the time to get to know your donors. It’s quite simple to do.

Set aside time every month to call and make appointments. When you call, tell them you’re getting to know your donors, to learn more about them and their interests, so that you have a better sense of your supporters. 

Make dates for breakfast, lunch, tea or dinner. Out of 10 calls, you’ll be likely to get five appointments. And once you’ve made the appointments, the rest is easy, because you really will be using those meetings to learn about each donor.

Over the course of a year, you’ll have deepened your relationship with many people who might make a difference to your organization in ways you can’t yet imagine.

It’s more fun and more valuable than staff meetings. In fact, it may be worth its weight in gold.

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