As a philanthropy consultant, I have the opportunity to work with foundations and individual philanthropists to shape their giving strategy and research issues they’d like to learn more about. One of my favorite parts of my job is when I get to reach out to nonprofits on behalf of clients to learn about their programs and whether there might be a “fit” with our clients’ interests. Those are great emails to write and phone calls to make because I know that finding new resources for an organization is never-ending.
I know because I spent many years as a grant writer and working in fundraising offices in nonprofits both large and small. There are a lot of organizations competing for the same funds. It can be a challenge to get in front of some funders that may be crucial to your organization’s success. And changes to your organization’s funding landscape through the loss of a big donor or a shift in a funder’s interests can place additional strain on staff.
Most of all, I know that fundraising is time-intensive. It’s one of the toughest messages we have to deliver to nonprofit and philanthropist clients alike. In talking with prospective clients, there is often an urgency to identify new funding. But we know that one of the fundamentals of fundraising is relationship building—and, unfortunately, there’s not a speed-dating app for connecting donors to potential grantees.
However, from my work with a variety of clients at Geneva Global, I have a unique opportunity to hear the pain points of foundations and major donors who are looking for organizations to fund, and of nonprofits that are seeking those funds. Below are seven essential steps for organizations looking to engage donors:
1. Hone your messaging.
Increasingly, nonprofit organizations need to stand out from the crowd. This doesn’t mean that you need to have flashy swag and all kinds of materials to share. The reminder here is to get really clear about why your organization exists, how it is different from its competitors, and what success looks like (or might look like, if you’re just getting started).
And, just as critically, make sure everyone on your team who might engage with donors is clear on those same messages. Every organization will have a different story to tell.
Along those same lines, avoid using jargon at all costs! As experts who are passionate about your organizations, it’s important to look out for overly technical language and dense text. A former colleague at a nonprofit gave me a piece of advice that has stuck: If you dropped your grant proposal/donor newsletter/presentation about your organization in the street and someone picked it up, would they be able to quickly and easily understand what the organization does, why that’s important, and who to contact to learn more? Can you ask someone in your broader network to look at your messaging and have them tell you what they understand from it?
2. Understand your why.
You want to raise money, but why does your organization need it? What will this donation accomplish? Being able to answer that is equally as important as it is to communicate that answer to potential donors. One question that we often field from our foundation and major donor clients is whether we know of any actionable granting opportunities. Having opportunities at-the-ready will allow you to respond quickly to donor interests once you start your outreach.
For example, you might know that a $30 donation to your animal shelter helps you supply a week’s worth of nutritious meals for a new rescue. While that type of menu option might not be a solution for your organization, you should be able to paint a picture for donors about what they are contributing to—whether tangible or intangible. Spend some time with your programs team to map out different investment levels.
My colleague Kasey Oliver wrote a great piece outlining four key questions to ask when thinking about messaging opportunities that can serve as a helpful guide.
3. Do your research.
Maybe you’ve already spent a bit of time on your messaging and gathering input from your staff about potential investment opportunities and now you want to get down to brass tacks—where are the donors?
Landscape studies, prospect research, and network mapping are crucial first steps in identifying your target donors. We know that organizations want to get to the names of donors as quickly as possible, but skipping these research steps can result in wasting precious time and resources on applying to funders or having meetings that aren’t a fit from the outset. I recommend investing in the tools to do this research in-house or outsourcing to a firm that can help you map the landscape.
And, I encourage you to tap your organization’s networks. Tap your CEO and leadership, your board, and even your entire staff (depending on its size) to see who they know. Maybe your senior program expert went to college with a funder’s program officer—you never know until you ask around!
4. Get clear on the numbers.
All of the homework you’re doing is going to reveal one critical piece of information—do your funding needs align with prospective donors? Through your landscape study, you’ll likely be able to narrow those donors that align with your current levels of funding. If your organization’s operating budget is $500,000 and you have donors on your prospect list who are largely giving $1 million grants, there is likely more research that needs to be done—but I would say there’s misalignment with your expectations. Again, I’d ask what has this donor given to recently that would indicate that they would fund an organization of your size?
5. Make a good first impression.
Before reaching out to a donor, there’s even more homework to do! If there’s anything I can instill in you from this blog, it’s that first impressions matter—which is why you need to prepare for them.
You wouldn’t walk into a job interview without doing your homework. Prep for that first donor email, a donor meeting, or a grant submission like you’d prep for a job interview. You should be able to answer some critical questions, like:
- Do your interests align?
- Do your values match?
- Do your strategic approaches fit with those of the donor?
- What’s their staffing structure like?
- Who is making the decisions?
Sometimes that information can be hard to find, so posing a gentle question to your current funders about what they might know could yield intelligence that’s not available online.
6. Nurture the relationship.
Whether you are cultivating a relationship with a new donor, warming up an old relationship, or keeping an existing relationship steady-state, this is again an investment of time. The fundraising wisdom that keeping a current donor happy is better than looking for new donors is true.
Talk with your donors about their interests and how you can (or can’t) guide their learning about this issue—and follow through. I’ve heard from too many clients that they sent an email to someone who took three months to respond—or they never got a final report on their funding. It’s extra legwork to warm up those relationships again.
7. Be honest. Ask for what you need.
A good relationship between a donor and a grantee is truly a partnership. Be clear with deadlines and ask for an extension if you need one—and provide a clear justification as to why.
If you’re facing staffing issues, changes in leadership, or other challenges, let your donors know. You’ll want to have a consistent internal message, but they will likely appreciate and respect your transparency. Plus, it’s better that they hear from you than someone else.
For further advice, contact a philanthropic advisor at Geneva Global. Geneva Global has provided strategic philanthropic consulting for nearly 20 years, and our tools and processes are trusted by philanthropists from around the globe. Whether you’re an individual, foundation, or large-scale non-profit, get in touch to tell us how we can help you achieve your goals.