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December 3, 2021
Cultivate the Donors You Already Have
By Terry Axelrod

Terry Axelrod
Terry Axelrod
Most organizations do not need new donors. They already have plenty. Rather than ramping up your organization to start a massive program for inviting new people to get to know you, it is a far wiser investment to get to know the donors you already have.

Over time, systematic effort—actually calling and listening to your donors, and then keeping in touch with them in exactly the way they would like to keep in touch—will bear much fruit.

In these uncertain times, nonprofits are asking, “What do we do now? How do we survive, manage, or even thrive in this economy?” Recent discussions with nearly 50 nonprofit CEOs across the country on how their groups are faring, how their fundraising is going, and what more they might need yielded heartening news.

About 85% of the CEOs said 2008 ended very well for them, as they had met or exceeded their fundraising goals. For 2009, they budgeted no growth and are managing their reserves very conservatively. The other 15% have experienced severe budget cuts (usually due to reduced state funds) that nearly crippled them. Once they talked through their fears, they were able to put a dollar number on the solution and design an emergency campaign to raise those funds.

Call Your Donors

Both groups—those that were doing well and those that were feeling the pain—asked what their next steps should be. The advice in each case boiled down to three words: “call your donors.”

It is easy to pick up the phone, whether your purpose is to thank them personally for their support, to share the challenges your staff and clients are facing, or to ask for their support for an emergency bail-out campaign. This is particularly true if you have been engaging your donors as individuals (especially donors who show long-term support through larger, multi-year pledges). Ask how things are going for them right now, share the real issues you are dealing with, ask for their input, include them in the life of the organization. Treat them like the loyal supporters they are.

Set aside one hour every day this week to call your donors. In one hour you ought to be able to talk to three or four people—15 to 20 people this week. Right now, open your calendar, block out one hour per day, and pick up the phone.

Cultivate Personalized Approaches

Once you’ve established a relationship with a donor, you'll want to cultivate that relationship over time. Develop a personalized approach that meets their individual needs using these strategies:

  • Your time is valuable, and so is your donor's. If you are going to take the time to cultivate donors, do it in the most personal manner possible.
  • Apply the "personal equals special" test. If the contact doesn't make your donor feel special and unique, it's not personal enough. Make every donor feel that you are speaking only to them, even though they will know that is not actually the case all the time.
  • Consider eliminating most of the time-consuming, impersonal "cultivation" you are now doing, such as the hard-copy mailed newsletter, and free up your time to work smarter.
  • Think about yourself as a donor. Notice which cultivation methods get your attention: mail, phone, email, Blackberry, fax, or personal visit. Which phone calls and emails do you return and which ones do you delete? Are you flattered when the right person calls or even sends a note, yet offended when someone else shows up at your door unexpected. Similarly, your donor has communication preferences and habits.
  • When people do get your attention through your preferred method of communication, do they use your time well? Do they use your time when they really need it? Think about those questions in relation to your approach to your donors. Do you use their time well, and do you ask for their time when you truly need it?
  • Notice that you can discriminate between "bulk" group emails and the smaller group ones that feel like a real person actually wrote them and meant them for you. Notice that sometimes you even hit "reply" to those emails and send them a note in return.
  • Notice that you get annoyed when people take too long to respond to you or, conversely, when they bombard you with several responses in a short period of time.
  • Think about how quickly you switch modes of communication. You may reply to an email message with a phone call or reply to a phone call with an email. You may talk with someone via voicemail back and forth for weeks and accomplish quite a bit before you ever speak to them in person. Notice that you have adapted to multi-media communications.
Once you’ve connected to the donor or potential donor, the success of your personalized strategy rests on your ability to truly listen to your donors and follow through by doing exactly what they ask. By doing so, you will be cultivating your base of lifelong donors.

Terry Axelrod is the founder of Benevon, which trains and coaches organizations about sustainable fundraising. Reprinted with permission of Benevon. — 2009 Benevon. Contact her at or call 206#147;709#147;9400.
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