Fundraising Professionals: Embrace Personal Connections for Success

By Kate McNulty

There are several basic and well-known tenets in fundraising, whether or not one fundraises professionally. Remembering people’s names and ensuring donations designated for specific projects or items are appropriately allocated are two such tenets, along with maintaining meticulous records and ensuring donors receive correct tax letters in a timely manner.

There are a number of other small steps that are required in order to effectively personalize the donor experience. Because these steps can appear insignificant and often consume a great deal of time, it is easy for them to be overlooked or forgotten in the grip of the daily hustle.

However, these the importance of these minuet steps to ensuring a personal and enjoyable philanthropic experience cannot be understated. These small touch points and actions are vital to donor retention and ensuring a donor’s willingness to spread the word about your cause. This latter piece is one to pay particular attention to as a fundraiser, because philanthropists do not want to suggest their friends donate to a charity that may not treat them as well as it should.

One of the simplest ways to ensure personalization of donor experience is to include a handwritten note on the thank you letter you send. Even a short “Thank you for your kindness” is better than sending a typed up note that is signed by the author but contains no other personal element.

Donors who have given to the organization before should be acknowledged personally as well with small gestures that show you are aware of how long they have been donors. Your letters to these constituents should give a specific year when they began their relationship with the organization. If you don’t know the specific year, do not try to guess. If you get it wrong, it can seem incredibly unfeeling and can leave your donor feeling more like a bank than a partner. For those letters where you don’t know the exact date but do know that it has been a long time, it is better to include a line in your personal note that says “Your history of kindness is so meaningful to the staff at XYZ and to the people that we serve. We appreciate the amazing work you have done with us and look forward to many more years of partnership that positively impacts our community.”

It is important to note that a fundraiser should never overstate their connection with a donor during these interactions. If trying to cultivate that particular relationship, it is better to say just that rather than pretending a closeness that isn’t there yet. You might, for instance, say “Thank you for your kindness! We are so glad to hear from you and are hoping to see more of you and your family!”

While a thank you letter with a personal note is one thing, speaking to someone in person and making them feel special and vital to your work is a completely different matter. Many of us struggle to come up with small talk when it comes to conversing with folks we don’t know. If you find yourself in this category, there are some great books out there that speak to the issue. Some notable ones include:

  • “The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation and Keep it Going” by Debra Fine

  • “The Serious Business of Small Talk: Becoming Fluent, Comfortable, and Charming” by Carol A. Fleming, Ph.D.

  • “Effortless Small Talk: Learn How to Talk to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere…Even if You’re Painfully Shy.” By Andy Arnott

The easiest way to make small talk is to be curious: Curious in a general way about the person you’re speaking to, curious in a fairly specific way about why they are in the same place as you, and curious in a very targeted way about why they have selected, in this case, your charity to support. This latter can be a tricky business though if the charity you fundraise for addresses a sensitive issue such as domestic abuse, addiction, suicide, or other sensitive topics that people are often reluctant to discuss with strangers. If you are heading that type of philanthropic endeavor, your job may be a bit trickier in that your focus may be more on learning innocuous personal details about your donor. These are details that you must then remember and be able to employ the next time you see the donor.

The best way to do this is to be genuinely interested and engaged with the donor. If that’s not possible (and let’s face it, sometimes it’s not) then your best bet may be to use the “remind me” device to make small talk. For instance, if you know your donor is someone who is retired and often travels you may say something along the lines of, “Remind me, where is it you were this past winter? I feel like you told me that you and your wife were traveling but, forgive me, I can’t recall the specifics,” and then proceed to ask them questions about their trip. If you don’t know enough about them to go that far, you might ask how their family and offer well wishes, saying something like, “How is your family? I hope they’re well.” This gives your donor a little happy boost before they answer your question which, for some, may lead them to give you the good news they’ve got rather than the bad.

Another more involved way of personalizing the donor experience is to invite increased responsibility from your donor. If you have a Development Council, then invite them to be involved. If you have Corporators ask them to join and assume a leadership role on behalf of the charity. This will allow you to spend more time with your donor and to form a relationship with them that allows you to support the needs of the charity and of the donor at the same time.

If these roles are too much of a commitment for the donor, but you know they are interested in writing the occasional check and attending events, consider highlighting them in a donor newsletter or hosting a donor appreciation event where you showcase that donor’s positive influence. A small newsletter that lets people know what’s going on, sometimes called a Donor Advance, can be a very handy tool. With a Donor Advance, you’re able to reserve a section that highlights various donors. The interview with your targeted donor lets you ask questions that will tell you more about who they are and what is important to them. No matter which form that enhanced activity takes, whether it be a committee assignment or a newsletter interview, it tells the donor that you’re interested not only in their checkbook, but in them as a unique person with gifts to offer your charity that go beyond the dollar sign.

Once you have developed that level of relationship with your donor, you’re at the ultimate stage where you have that donor act as a spokesperson for your charity and help personalize relationships with other donors. Your donor should be writing thank you letters to other donors, thanking them as a committee member or as a fellow, long-time donor who has become more intimately involved with the charity. Ultimately, you may end up with a donor who hosts the donor appreciation luncheon or cocktail hour that you host annually or they may chair your Development Council and pull in other donors of their same caliber. And now here you are, with a great deal of success, because you wrote a handwritten note or made conversation and extended a hand to your donor that was meant just for them. Your charity is better off, you are better off, and your donor is better off too.

So, the next time you’re looking at that stack of printed out thank you notes, take the time to sign them yourself and write a short note on each one.