How can our nonprofit cultivate donors who can make major gifts?

Debi Hoxter

By Debi Hoxter

If only there were an easy answer to the question of how nonprofits can win big donations. Campaign managers would certainly be able to relax a little.

But while there is no easy way to solicit major donations, the answer is actually quite simple: Relationships. Cultivating big donors is all about developing relationships, and while that takes significant time and energy, it pays off in the long run.

The question then becomes, what is the best way to build relationships? Start by reaching out to your board of directors, and ask for their support and guidance. They’re often well connected and may know people in their network who would be a good match for your cause. Ask your board member to make an introduction, preferably in person, but at least by having their connection take your phone call.

If there is a dearth of leads from the board, start looking at your own network and conducting research. Find out who your competitors’ major donors are and see if you have any common connections. Perhaps you have an old colleague who now works at the same company as a donor, or maybe you share a mutual connection with a prospect on LinkedIn.

Once you’ve identified a target prospect and have made a connection, you can begin the four-step courtship process: Qualify, cultivate, solicit and steward.

  • Qualify: Get to know the prospect and see if your organization is of key interest. Determine if he or she has the proper financial capacity by inquiring about and researching other philanthropic activity.
  • Cultivate: Make the prospect feel a part of the organization. Invite him or her to meet your organization’s leadership, visit its facilities and attend its events. Demonstrate why your organization is different from others.
  • Solicit: The actual ask should not come as a major surprise. Like a marriage engagement, both parties should be expecting and comfortable when the question is popped.
  • Steward: After a donation is made, don’t disappear until the next appeal time. Thank the donor repeatedly, and continue the relationship by inviting your donor to activities that are of interest, from volunteer efforts to cocktail parties. Even better if they can bring a friend to an event who might also be willing to donate.

The key through this process is to take your time. The clock should not be ticking for you to land a major donation; rather, expect that it will take time to court the prospect and ask when the time is right. Although cultivating major donors is time-consuming, it will ultimately pay off and build as your network grows and strengthens.

About the author: Debi Hoxter is Director, Corporate & Foundation Relations at Dunleavy & Associates. Pulling from her prior experience as Executive Director, Corporate Underwriting at WHYY, Debi works with clients to build donor and corporate relationships and create strategies for meeting revenue goals. She began her career in advertising, working first at Ted Bates and Grey advertising agencies in New York before serving as Advertising Sales Manager at Philadelphia Magazine.

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Does a change in nonprofit leadership require a new strategic plan?

Carolyn Rammel

By Carolyn Rammel

There are few things in the nonprofit sector that induce as much anxiety as a change in leadership. Whether it’s an executive director or an influential board member leaving an organization, that individual holds influence that will leave a vacuum after departure.

While the shift may and often should prompt some soul-searching within your organization, there’s no reason a leadership change in and of itself must change your strategic plan.

By design, a good strategic plan will be created through contributions from more than one individual. If created correctly, a plan collaboratively combines the ideas, perspectives and recommendations from various stakeholders. From volunteers to board members, staff members to external constituents, all voices carry the same weight. It is a leader’s responsibility to execute the strategic plan, not to dictate the plan.

However, a change in leadership does present a great opportunity to revisit the strategic plan and ensure it is still functional and in line with the mission and organizational goals. Of particular importance is determining that the plan’s design was not the reason for the prior director’s departure, and that new leadership can still reasonably execute it.

Even if you determine the plan was created with input from stakeholders at all levels and is still executable, it may be time to revise. Strategic plans should be updated every three to five years, regardless of changes in leadership.

If your strategic plan passes review and does not require updating, it can actually be the best tool for weathering the stresses of change. As the plan is intended to be the guiding document of your organization, the individuals leading that strategic direction will be secondary to the plan itself. Even more, a completed strategic plan will offer clarity of direction for any incoming leadership.

About the author: Carolyn Rammel is a seasoned executive and consultant, with 25 years of experience in the financial services, travel management, not-for-profit and consulting services industries. She has executed numerous business, marketing and international joint venture initiatives in the corporate marketplace, and more recently served as the executive director of a Philadelphia nonprofit organization. As a consultant, she specializes in the areas of strategic planning, facilitation and leadership alignment.

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How should a nonprofit talk to potential donors about overhead costs?

Megan Lepore

By Megan Lepore

In a world where everything is scrutinized, administrative costs (also referred to as “overhead”) have almost become dirty words in nonprofit fundraising. Everyone’s heard some version of the following, usually from an uninformed friend or family member: “Can you believe [insert organization here] keeps a third of every dollar? They won’t get a dime from me!

With the budgets of even large, nationally respected organizations being targeted for criticism in recent years, the dilemma for small and mid-sized nonprofits is great. How much financial information should you openly offer to donors and prospects, and how can you best convey it? Is it best not to mention overhead costs at all, or perhaps speak in generalities?

At Dunleavy & Associates, we believe strongly in the importance of honesty and transparency. Leaving donors or prospects in the dark about where their money is going will eventually have negative repercussions, and you can bet they’ll never donate again once their trust is broken.

What donors are really concerned about is not just confirmation of where their dollar is going, but whether or not it’s being wasted. Donors by nature are considerate people, capable of understanding that yes, your staff must earn a salary in order to carry out your nonprofit’s mission. And they (should) recognize that there are real costs involved to doing your work.

So, what is the solution? Use your organization’s communication channels to talk about those costs. It’s okay to talk with prospects about the expenses associated with using current technologies to provide integral services to your constituents, the need to sometimes outsource services (such as graphic design), and the everyday cost of running a successful nonprofit organization.

At the same time, it’s not unreasonable for them to want to know how well you steward their dollars. Be prepared to share what percentage of donations goes to overhead costs. You can share how your organization has worked with vendors to make more cost-efficient decisions (bulk printing, shared resources, in-kind services, etc.) and how the staff and board have resolved to more closely monitor expenses to increase revenue in the new year. This type of information will help to build trust that your organization is careful with every dollar.

And don’t be afraid to spice up your communications. Many organizations report their financials only at the end of the year, often in a large, dense report. Let your donors know how their contributions are making an impact in the community – in both big and small ways.

Send out brief recaps that utilize statistical infographics or photos of your clients and staff. Tell them how the campaign they donated to fed 300 families for a month, or helped 30 pups find forever homes. Highlight your top corporate or individual donors to reward them for their support.

And don’t just wait till the end of the year. Break with tradition and send a brief mid-year synopsis detailing the accomplishments of the first six months, as well as your capital and campaign goals for the next six. Not only will your donors feel more involved in the process, you’ll keep up with your financials and avoid the end-of-year pileup.

Always remember, in a time when donors, prospects and journalists have access to your 990s at the click of a mouse, any effort to cloud your financials is a disaster waiting to happen. Instead, get ahead of the conversation and build trust with transparency through smarter, more engaging communications.

About the author: Megan Lepore is a Senior Project Manager at Dunleavy & Associates and has more than 10 years of development experience in the fields of healthcare, education and human services. She holds a Master of Science in Communication Management from Temple University, where she has also taught undergraduate courses in speech communication, public relations and news writing. Annual appeals, corporate sponsorship, grant writing, foundation relations and event planning round out her professional expertise.

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