In working with organizations committed to adopting our systematic process for engaging and developing relationships with individual donors, we find, repeatedly, that a donor who is deeply engaged in the work of the organization will give more money and will naturally speak well of your group in the community. They will bring their unique resources to the table if you are open with them about your needs and challenges and truly welcome their input and advice. (Note: this does not mean you must follow all of their advice, but you must be open to asking for it and considering their input.) In other words, the more a donor feels they can contribute to your organization, the more engaged they are.
Donor engagement is the key to financial sustainability.
Think of a nonprofit organization you wholeheartedly support. You are a donor. You talk about the organization with your friends. You are passionate about their work. You have been a supporter over many years.
If that organization were to come to you and ask you for input on their newsletter, their new programming, their thoughts about expanding into a new part of the community or developing a new approach to an old problem, wouldn’t you have a response, an opinion, a bit of advice to offer? At a minimum, most of us would be flattered to be asked. And many of us would have opinions or even wisdom and other resources we could share. In short, we could add a great deal to the dialog or the inquiry or the development of the new program.
We see this happening so often with the groups we have been working with for five to ten years now. Donors really rolling up their sleeves and getting involved—but often only when they are asked for advice or input.
How to get started asking your donors for advice:
1. Make a list of the three or four biggest challenges your organization is facing right now—funding cutbacks, less than stellar outcomes in one or more of your programs, needing to decide about a course of action on a capital campaign, or adding a high school to your K-8 charter school. If you had a high-level advisory board of experts in all the fields needed, what would you ask them?
2. Next, look over your list of major donors. If you have been using the Benevon Model for awhile, these would be your Multiple-Year Giving Society Donors, the people who have pledged at least $1,000 a year for each of the next five years.
3. Plan to talk with each of these donors one-on-one or in small focus groups of three to five people.
4. Start the meeting by having your CEO or executive director talk about the particular issue or challenge at hand, including some of the pros and cons your staff and board may have already considered.
5. Then open up for discussion and listen closely to what people are saying or not saying. In addition to getting great ideas about your particular topic of the day, you may pick up on other needs, opinions, or resources that could be valuable in other aspects of your work, now and in the future.
Many of our groups have used this approach with great success. For example, a domestic violence shelter was struggling with a change in state law that was going to eliminate 25% of their funding four months later. They brought their donors together for a meeting. As awkward and embarrassed as the executive director felt in opening up about this topic, she was buoyed by the input and resources her Multiple-Year Giving Society Donors offered. Some had friends in the legislature who they could call. Some had expertise in public affairs and helped her put together a quick public awareness campaign to inform the community of the impact of the funding cuts and how those would impact them. One financial analyst immediately began calculating how much money was needed and how to manage the cash flow while another offered to call the other Multiple-Year Giving Society Donors to tell them about the situation and ask them to join in an emergency campaign to raise the “lost” money for the next year.
The executive director and her board were almost speechless at the level of passion and commitment expressed by these multiple-year donors once they heard the facts. They realized their donors had been waiting to be asked to become more involved. For many of these donors, their five-year pledge of financial support was only the tip of the iceberg of all they could be contributing.
In this case, it took the dire emergency of this funding cutback and a compassionate coach to push this executive director through her guilt and embarrassment about asking for help, to have her host this first meeting where she realized the wealth of resources—well beyond money—waiting to be contributed by her loyal donors. Since then, she has convened small groups of Multiple-Year Giving Society Donors whenever she has a challenge or issue she and the board are seeking input on. It has opened up a wonderful dialog and deepened the level of engagement for all of these donors.
Terry Axelrod is the founder and CEO of Benevon and author of The Benevon Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting it Rightand Missionizing Your Special Events. Benevon is a Seattle-based organization that has trained and coached more than 4,000 nonprofit teams to build sustainable funding from individual donors.