Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had the pleasure of meeting up with a couple of friends, one of whom is a major donor to a number of organizations, while the other manages giving at her company. In both of these conversations the topic of donor stewardship came up and they shared stories about some of their engagements with charities, including how most organizations get it right, but also how some get it very wrong.

There is so much we can learn about how to become better fundraisers as a result of what our donors tell us.  Here are just a few examples of some of the more common scenarios that I have heard over the years.

“They just don’t get back to me”.  This is a response that I’ve heard far too often. One friend was telling me about a time that he wanted to make a significant gift to an organization in memory of a relative, a gift that could have paid for the whole campaign.  He contacted them many times, trying to reach the right person to talk to, but could never get to talk to anyone. Despite leaving messages, he was never called back and in the end he gave up.  The organization lost out on not only the donation, but the opportunity to build a lasting, worthwhile, relationship.

“They didn’t respect my wishes”.  When a donor makes a contribution towards a project, they expect that it will be spent on what they were told it would be spent on, and rightly so.  One donor told me a story about an organization that he had supported for years. He was at a meeting with some of the charity’s representatives, and they began talking about a project that was of great interest to him. By the end of the meeting he decided to provide the funding so that the project could go ahead, feeling confident that this organization could bring about change in an issue that he cared deeply about.

After a year, when he’d heard nothing about the progress of the project, he arranged to meet them to could get an update.  At the meeting he was told, “We decided not to fund that project, we spent it on this other project instead. I think you’ll be pleased.”  Of course, he was far from pleased.  The organization had broken his trust and he never gave to that organization again.

“You were the third door I knocked on”.  We all know what it’s like.  You’ve been running around like crazy in the months leading up to Christmas working on your end of year appeal.  So you decide, along with the rest of the organization, to take that time off between Christmas and New Year. Well, here’s some food for thought.

A fundraiser friend once told me of a time when he alone was covering the office between Christmas and New Year, so that he could be available to support the needs of people who might be scrambling to make their year-end gifts. Then he had an unexpected visitor.  They sat and had a great one-to-one conversation about the work of the organization and its importance to the community, and the donor was clearly moved by what he was hearing.  As he went to leave, he wrote out a cheque for $150,000, and said “I left the house today intending to donate to three organizations and yours was the only one that was open”.  So my friend’s organization became the only beneficiary of his generosity that day.

“They just didn’t ask, so I went somewhere else”.  I once organized a dinner at the House of Lords for some of our major donor prospects. The dinner included some people that were well-known to us, but also some that were hearing about the organization for the first time. One of the guests was someone I had been reading about in the news who had expressed a very strong interest in the kind of work that we did, so I invited him.  I was thrilled when he said he would come.

At the event I had a chance to have a long chat with him. He explained that he was being courted by another organization that was also working in the field, but they just didn’t seem to be clear on what they wanted from him. His frustration with not being asked for help meant that he was already thinking about moving on. Then my invitation came in the mail. Over time, he became one of our biggest and most committed donors.

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“We just didn’t want to inundate them”.  This is a very common response I hear from clients. Often organizations are so concerned about bombarding their donors with information, they end up not contacting them at all, at least not until they want to ask for more money. More often than not, this approach is borne out of good intentions, however, the impact is that donors end up feeling like they are nothing more than a bank account.

Donors typically want a relationship with the organizations that they fund.  They want to be kept up to date and they want to know what their money is being spent on. They also want to feel part of your organization and to know that through you, they are making the world a better place. This means communicating with donors between asks, finding out what inspires them and keeping them motivated and enthused about what you do.

What can we learn from these donors’ stories?

Thank your donors, again and again. If you haven’t at least thanked, informed and engaged your donor, a number of times, you probably haven’t earned the right to ask again.

Be available.  It should never be hard for a donor to communicate with you. Make sure your donors know how to reach you, and that you call them back, promptly, when they leave a message.

Be transparent, and respect your donor’s wishes. Not only is this good relationship management, it is your responsibility as stewards of their money.

Understand your donor’s needs, and act on them. Pay attention to what they are telling you, and if you aren’t sure of what they are looking for from your relationship, ask them.

Give donors the opportunity to get engaged.  By listening, properly, to what your donors are telling you, you can discover what inspires them and how they want to help you.  Then make sure you ask for their support in a way that suits their interests and circumstances.

Ultimately, donor stewardship is about communication. Interact with your donors, regularly, and make it easy for them to get in touch.  Respond to their needs and help them to fully understand how they are making a difference in the world as a result of their support of your cause.  As a result, you can build strong, long-lasting partnerships where together you can change the world.

Related articles:

Top 10 Donor Stewardship “Rules” to Ensure That Your Fundraising Thrives: Part 2

Part 3: Building a donor stewardship plan – the key elements to success

From Galas to Garden Parties: Using events for more effective fundraising

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