WhyDev recently caught up with Lorea Russell, from Alanna Shaikh’s International Development Careers List, to discuss the effective methods of fostering positive relationships with funders. This article is based on that discussion.
Approaching and forming relationships with donors can often be a very intimidating process. However, it need not be so! Whether they are big structured UN type donors or more foundation-type donors, there are some basic approaches you can take to improve your chances of fostering a strong, productive relationship.
It’s all about people.
First of all, the biggest mistake people make with fundraising is that they forget donors are people before they are donors. Fundraising is more than just making a pitch and getting money, it’s a relationship, and like any relationship it takes time to build. Donors resent just being treated like check books – most want to be partners in the project. So when you dive in with the “this is the gap and we need money” approach without anything else, it’s likely to put a donor off. This is especially the case if you take the “cold email” tactic; that is, sending an email to a donor identified through research with your self-introduction and pitch, without any prior introduction or connection to them.
Finding out a donor’s purpose, goals and restrictions is a cornerstone of a strong donor relationship. Don’t be afraid to hide the weakness of a project – brainstorm a solution together! However, you’re unlikely to get this far if you immediately pitch them for money.
Asking a donor for coffee or for advice (donors loved to asked for advice!) to discuss their priorities, interests, and values isn’t beating around the bush; it’s building a relationship. Donors are looking for relationships built on trust, good communication and mutual benefit. Honest communication is critical in this regard. This starts with asking yourself if you truly are a good fit, and if your relationship will be mutually beneficial.
Another thing to keep in mind is what other information you are including in your initial email with donors. Other than the direct pitch, are you attaching information about the organization itself (annual report, one pager, beneficiary stories, etc.) or already sending concept notes to review? As discussed earlier, without a relationship, or at least the initial foundation of one, sending a concept note right off the bat is unlikely to work as a first communication.
Fundraising, unless you’re in disaster response context, doesn’t happen quickly. It takes months to development relationships and ideas that appeal to both parties. Some of the best fundraising advice I’ve been given is “it’s not about what you want to sell; it’s about what they want to buy”.
Keys to building strong relationships with donors
Building strong and sustainable approaches with donors is time consuming, but four key lessons can be drawn out.
1. Get their attention
Donors usually have lots of people vying for their attention, including business, personal contacts, and other NGOs seeking support. To start a relationship with a new potential donor, first of all your organization needs to get their attention.
The best way to do this is to have someone who knows the donor introduce your NGO. If a board member, another donor, staff member or volunteer at your organization knows the potential donor and is willing to make the introduction and vouch for your NGO, you can kick-start a relationship in a way that few other tactics can.
Other ways to get the attention of prospective donors is to get them to come to an event, by connecting with employees, releasing a major report, launching a campaign in a program area that matches prospective donors interests, and so on … the possibilities are endless! But no matter which approach you choose to take, the most important thing to remember is that you must first get the donor’s attention before they will focus on your organization.
2. Build the relationship
Once you have the donor’s attention, don’t just jump straight to the pitch! You first need to cultivate the donor and build a relationship between him/her and your organization. There really aren’t any ways to effectively circumvent this step.
Get them to attend events. Ask them for advice and suggestions on your programs. Involve them in volunteer work and on committees. Make them feel like part of your team (and this should be authentic).
3. Explain the investment
Prior to making your pitch, first explain the investment you are asking them to make. My choice of words here is intentional… many big donors feel that their charitable giving is really an “investment” in a better community. They want to invest in NGOs that are going to deliver the best outcomes for the largest number of people in the donor’s chosen giving areas.
Through your cultivation process, you should know what program areas are most important to the donor. Explain to them exactly what your plans for the future are, what you are hoping to raise, and why you need the money. What outcomes are you predicting? How many people will you serve? What is the return on their social investment?
As a part of this, understanding how to use the data your organization is already collecting is critical. Data and “proof” is becoming increasingly important to donors. Something that NGOs aren’t as great at is knowing how to present all the data they’re already collecting in a compelling way for an external audience that isn’t just a narrative report.
4. Emotion still trumps
No matter how great an investment your program may seem, most donors still give primarily to organizations they feel an emotional connection with. Therefore, the best way to raise major funds is to present your organization as both an emotionally compelling, mission-driven organization as well as a wise investment.
Tell the donor stories. Get them to go to your program sites if it makes sense, and they have a regional office in your area of operations. The most important thing is to give the donor an emotional connection to your work.
While there isn’t a magic bullet to fundraising, organizations can maximise their chances of securing funding, and moreover, fostering a strong, sustainable relationship with a donor that will ideally lead to a long-term partnership benefiting both entities, but most importantly the beneficiaries you’re striving to help.
Lorea has over a decade of experience working in disaster response and international development, and is now giving social entrepreneurship a try. She has written and supported proposals for domestic and international programming for international NGOs and USG contractors including CARE, International Medical Corps, and DAI. Lorea has lived and worked in Kenya, Somalia, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, Uganda, Indonesia, and Haiti. For more information on Lorea’s work, see Samasource.