Why Donor Cultivation is the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

In the world of fundraising, donor cultivation is king. People get sweaty palms over doing the ask, but if you’ve done cultivation right, the gift is like ripe fruit falling from the tree. Too often organizations skimp on donor cultivation.


Why spend time on donor cultivation?

Not only can you cultivate affordably, it’s also infinitely cheaper to keep a donor than to acquire a new one. Cultivation is a revenue center, so stop thinking about it as a cost center. Remember that information sharing is not the same as building a relationship. Sending a donor your unsolicited monthly e-news is not the same as cultivating them; that’s information sharing. Cultivating a donor is the pursuit of intimacy: You’re learning more about them and they’re learning more about you. It’s an exchange.

On top of higher gift values and increased donor loyalty, cultivation done right reveals:  

  1. Your donor’s passions, which determines what project you invite them to support.  
  2. What they need to know about you and experience before they’re ready to make their gift.
  3. Who should ask them for the gift, how they make philanthropic decisions and how they’d like to be asked (e.g. with their spouse, partner, financial advisor, child etc.).
  4. What their communication preferences are, for example email, calls or personal visits.  This tells you how to steward them properly after they make the gift.
  5. If a donor wants to receive something in return for their gift, such as special recognition.


We get great cultivation from our favorite brands. You experience it at a high-end restaurant when they send you a complimentary appetizer because your entrée is late, or when the agent you’re on the phone with at Zappos doesn’t have your shoe and they find another retailer who does. If there’s anything Americans aren’t ambivalent about it’s great customer service. The same is true for your donors. According to Penelope Burk, donors don’t define oversolicitiation as too many appeals, but instead by being asked to give another gift before being told how their original gift made an impact.


How should I cultivate?

Start with a baseline plan to make every donor feel special and heroic. Your plan is made up of simple business rules, such as making sure your donors are both properly thanked and that they receive thoughtful touches, invites and updates. Your baseline plan should include meaningful thank-you notes, thank-you phone calls from staff and board members, personal updates, program update, and special invitations. On top of these fundamentals, practice random acts of thankfulness like calling or writing the donor to share your appreciation on Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day and the anniversary of their first gift. Remember, 75 percent of first-time donors admit they are under-giving with their first gift, and your donors don’t know what kind of special love and attention is waiting for them at higher gift levels. Even if your donors never come to any of the events you invite them to, the invitation is the cultivation. Don’t just plan one-off communications; plan a donor journey.  


How can cultivation result in a big gift?

Every donor visit is a discovery visit. Make every second count. Every moment with them is an opportunity to do discovery. Ask strategic questions. I provide custom training for nonprofits to help them fundraise better, and I see too many fundraisers wasting time trying to mindread. You don’t have to guess. Asking your donors shows respect for the donor and builds donors’ trust and satisfaction. Satisfaction is the number one driver of donor loyalty. My advice? Read less minds, ask more questions.


Here are 13 of my favorite discovery questions to ask a donor:  

  1. What motivated you to make your first gift to us?
  2. What is the most satisfying philanthropic gift you ever made and why?
  3. Which of the agencies you support do the best job of keeping you involved in their mission? How?
  4. If you could change the world, what would you do?
  5. Tell me about your life.
  6. What legacy do you want to have?
  7. How do you want to be invited to make a gift?
  8. What causes are you most passionate about?
  9. What do you hope to achieve with your philanthropy?
  10. Why does your cause matter to you?
  11. What do you love about what you do?
  12. Is there any way we can make your experience more positive?
  13. How can we get you more involved? Can I show you _______? Can I introduce you to _____?


Approach the visit extremely conscious of what you want to learn about the donor, not just what you want them to know about your organization. Finally, always have a next step. Whether it’s inviting them to an event, submitting a proposal, giving them a private tour or setting up a visit with the CEO or board chair, close with the next step.  


Rachel Muir is a guest contributor for Nonprofit Hub Magazine. When she was just 26, Rachel launched Girlstart, a nonprofit to empower girls in math, science, engineering and technology in the living room of her apartment with $500 and a credit card. Several years later she had raised over $10 million and was featured on Oprah, CNN and The Today Show. Her career spans running successful nonprofits, leading an online fundraising consulting practice at Convio (later Blackbaud) and managing major gift portfolios for some of the country’s largest and most successful nonprofits.

Today she is as Vice President of Training at Pursuant where she leads custom trainings to transform people into confident, successful fundraisers. Find Rachel on Twitter at @RachelMuir and @Pursuant.


This article was originally published in the Nonprofit Hub Magazine.

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Donor cultivation

September 8, 2016

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