At a recent meeting of young professionals (hosted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Cleveland Chapter), the group was eager to discuss donor relations. They felt familiar with the development ideals of creating authentic relationships and establishing donors’ trust, but wanted the real nuts and bolts of how to apply these values in the development shop.
I offered them my take, based on years of fundraising management and grant seeking: that the best advice on donor relationship building could have come straight from the “Self Help” section of the local bookstore. When it comes down to it, donor relations are just people relations, plain and simple, and the most successful development officer is the one who sees—and treats—donors as people.
How do you stack up in your people skills? Following are my five tips for authentic donor (people!) relations:
1. Look inward. You’ve heard the buzz about “emotional intelligence.” It’s more than just hype. Emotional intelligence—or EI—is a measure of your ability to identify, assess, and respond to your emotions and those of others. How well do you understand what you’re feeling? How do you communicate those feelings in subtle and non-subtle ways—and pick up on the feelings of others? Do you make friends easily or take a while to warm up? Are you open to conflict or do you avoid it? Take the time to determine your own EI level. You can take a Myers Briggs personality scan or similar tests offered online. I recommend the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, which includes pre- and post-tests to measure your EI score and exercises to increase it. Once you know your own personality perspective, you can gauge how best to approach and interact with the styles of others, including those of your donors.
2. Identify a relationship model. As the liaison between your organization and your donor, you could say you’re in the service business. Try looking at a parallel service relationship in your own life: perhaps with your hairdresser, babysitter, or lawn care provider. Examine the functions of that relationship. What is the tone of the relationship and who sets it? How much do you seek and trust his or her opinion? How close do you feel—and how was that closeness (or distance) established? I would guess it took a bit of time and repeated conversations (including about that bang disaster) to develop familiarity and trust. In my experience, I tend to open up to people who first show willingness to share personal details with me. If all you talk about with your donor is your organization and their giving, they won’t have a chance to know you. Without that sense of relationship, they may feel unready or uncomfortable sharing personal information or discussing their giving decisions. Think about how you can show your own unique personality. What are ways to convey (and draw out) appropriate levels of personal detail? Consider how you can put your donors at ease and encourage them to open up.
3. Build on your success. Even if you’ve only been at your organization for a short while, there is likely to be one donor with whom you have built a successful rapport. It might be a board member, volunteer, or foundation representative. Think about how your relationship with that person was formed. How much time have you spent together? What was the best conversation you had? Is one of you taking the lead in defining the relationship and if so, how? Now think about trying to expand that pool of positive relationships by adding another person in a similar role. Invite a board or committee member for lunch or offer to meet a foundation program officer for coffee. Your charge is to establish a rapport. There are a multitude of reasons you might request a meeting: to thank them for their last gift, to collect their giving story for your newsletter, or to share an update on a program they care about. Voila! You are now practicing your interpersonal donor relations skills!
4. Speak from experience. Many donors give to organizations that address issues close to their heart. Perhaps a donor’s family member suffered greatly with memory loss and so she supports the Alzheimer’s Association. Or a donor might support art museums because he always wanted to be an artist. Do you know your own story? Why are you moved by your organization’s mission? When was the last time you saw that mission in action? Get as close as possible to your organization’s front line—spend a day onsite or interact with clients. The experience will provide you with first-hand details, and perhaps a revived sense of passion, to share with your donors. Most donors remember first-hand stories—not statistics. Give them something to care about.
5. Face your fears. The fear of rejection is real and shared by everyone to some degree. The personal give-and-take inherent to donor relationship building requires some risk of rejection. Come to terms with your own fears and examine how they impact your donor relations practice. A donor may say no to a meeting request or decline to make a gift, but that does not change your own value of the value of your organization. To practice stretching your comfort zone, try something else that scares you, like riding a roller coaster or singing karaoke. I guarantee when you get back to the office on Monday, picking up the phone to finally call that big donor will not feel so hard!
Following are additional ideas for reading on the topic. What are your suggestions for effective donor relationship building?
Donor Bill of Rights from the Association of Fundraising Professionals
Veritus Group’s blog posts on donor relations
Myers Briggs Foundation website
Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves
Creating A Culture Of Courage; The Courage Challenge Workbook by Cindy Solomon
Securing Your Organization’s Future by Michael Seltzer
How to Treat Your Donors, a great quick video from GrantSpace.
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