Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mid-level donors — Looking beyond the data

This post was written as a guest post for Blackbaud's blog an can also be seen here:

As I travel across the country as a speaker and consultant, helping people assess their stewardship programs and build a mid-level giving strategy, I often ask for a pile of data ahead of my visit. Inevitably in the package from every organization I visit, large and small, are the ubiquitous LYBUNT and SYBUNT reports. These reports are often the bedrock of an organization’s data mining and data collection and every time I see them I smirk and shake my head. When I finally arrive on site, one of the first questions I ask is, “What do these reports tell us about our constituencies?” I often get blank stares and then inevitably someone attempts to tell me and define what a LYBUNT or SYBUNT is. I know what they are, and I know why these reports were once deemed important and useful, but what these reports fail to allow us to see is any connection or depth about the constituent except for their ability to write a check or enter credit card numbers.

We have to stop thinking about our donors transactionally and start thinking of them as round, dynamic and diverse populations of people who are engaged with our organizations. This is especially true for the mid-level donors. We know they give solidly year after year at more than a token level, and we know they haven’t yet made their first major gift, but what else do we know? Because our staff is often focused at the top or bottom of the giving pyramid, these loyal and engaged donors are often left in the gap. In addition, how many organizations have stewardship plans, cultivation strategies and solicitation staff dedicate to this group? I would argue not many.

But before we build plans, strategies and invest human resources, we must learn more about them. Do they attend our events, open our emails, or engage with us on social media? How do they identify themselves and their affiliation with our organizations? And, how do we find out this information? These mid-level donors will help us build our strategy if we engage them in meaningful ways and compile data that is more robust and deep than just giving history and wealth. We give the donors the opportunity to engage, interact, and make choices; then we analyze those who are most identified by the traits of a mid-level donor — loyalty, engagement, interaction, targeted meaningful philanthropy — and THEN we implement based on their needs. Much like we already do with our major donors, and look at the success! After all these are major donors in training, no?

What are the rewards? Our ROI increases exponentially as these are fiercely loyal donors, once treated properly, and we build a cadre of constituent profiles that are rich, deep, and fruitful. So the next time you think about your mid-level donors, I hope that you will see them in a different lens than before. I welcome your questions, comments and thoughts.

Cheers, Lynne

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How to Know What Your Donors Want

I am constantly being asked to help people come up with ideas and plans to help steward their donors. Last week alone, I fielded requests for designing a high end gift society to creating a stewardship plan in detail from scratch. Each time I receive a blanket request like this or read an obtusely vague question on one of the listservs, the first question that pops into my mind is always, "Have you asked your donors what they want?"

In reality, I can give you some generalizations based on trends, some emerging ideas and other ideas that I have proven successful over time at different institutions. However what I cannot produce, without time and research is exactly what will work for your donor base and population. I have found that far too often, we as donor relations professionals spend too much time planning for what we think donors will want, without even asking them first! Every time I go to a consulting job, one of the most important meetings for me as I do my analysis is to have dinner with a group of highly engaged donors and volunteers. I learn so much from them and while generally their needs are similar, most times, they vary widely. This brings me to a hot topic I've been dealing with lately, surveying. How many of you survey your donors, formally or informally? Why? Why NOT? It is a wonderful, cost effective way to receive feedback from your target audience, it also allows for wonderful substantiation of your work to leadership and key decision makers. It also will greatly aid your strategic planning efforts. So here are a few examples of surveying your donors, followed by some links to actual surveys from organizations.

1. Survey monkey/online surveying following an event or new initiative, not just to those who participated, but also to those that didn't- what motivated them not to?
2. A survey included with your endowment or annual reports- asking them if the information was clear, if there is more they need from you, who else should receive this in the future and also if you can send it digitally in PDF from now on!
3. A small focus group of donors and volunteers -perhaps over lunch to talk about how they feel your organization treats them after they give-- make sure this group includes a sample of your donors, not just major givers, and all ages too!!
4. Phone calls to spot check how things are going, informal yet informative!

If you have comments or questions please email me, comment here or find me on Twitter @donorguru
Also, send me your samples and I will share them too!

Links to Forms:
Rollins College
George Washington
Arizona State

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The High Needs Donor

My friend Paige Eubanks-Barrow, one of the wizards of donor relations at Carnegie Mellon University posted this article on her Facebook page yesterday. The article made my brain spin with implications and commentary, below are some of my thoughts. For more, you can come see Paige, myself, and others discuss this issue, among others at the CASE Donor Relations Conference in Austin, TX June 1-3.

As we enter a new era of philanthropy in the 21st century, particularly in post-recession times, donors giving habits and expectations are changing dramatically. They often expect greater levels of transparency and accountability, which is a boon for donor relations professionals as we help to educate fundraisers and other administrators of the importance of stewardship. However, this assertiveness by donors crosses into many grey areas, much like in the story about the billionaire and the endowed chair. The place where this tendency is most evident is that of scholarships. Weekly, donor relations professionals on countless discussion boards, listservs, and emails face the tried, true, and tricky question, "Donor A wants to select or help select their scholarship student. Is this ok?" My answer is always a resounding "NO" citing IRS regulations that then this is no longer a gift anymore.

Despite all advice about how to handle a conversation like this with a donor, I know it is difficult. Having had a great deal of exposure to "high needs" donors over time has taught me that once properly explained, most philanthropists understand, at least after the 2nd or 3rd try... A donor can always put criteria restrictions in the gift agreement, however the most savvy fundraisers know that the more restrictions, the less likely the fund is able to easily be distributed. This applies not only to scholarships and chairs but also to things like research funds, and directed use funds. I believe that this is where good relationship building and donor relations is most key, allowing donors and fundraisers the room to have the "Crucial Conversations" necessary to make both sides happy and feel good about the gift. How do you feel about the article and the new expectations of philanthropists? Please comment below...

Also please don't forget to add your letters to the over 200 submissions in the Great Acknowledgment Swap of 2011 by emailing them to me at
Cheers, Lynne

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Donor Relations and development training at its finest, from Mom!

As I sat on the train this morning, I was working on my next blog post and also wondering simultaneously if my mom would receive her mother’s Day card today. And then it hit me, I am a donor relations professional because of my mother. Put the non-applicable degrees aside and the years of experience, Donor Relations and development fundamentals I learned from a great source, Mom. I will go through the essentials and then you can comment and tell me if I am wrong…

1. The ability to write custom, personal hand written thank you notes, that is a direct result of not being able to play with my birthday or Christmas presents until my notes were written. This is the core of what I do, giving gratitude and my mom is an expert with note card and ink, she even made me practice extra in my big chief notebooks to make sure my script was legible and dignified, something that to this day I take great pride in. I have built many a relationship and strengthened others with a simple four sentence note of appreciation.
2. Ahh, how to have great table manners and etiquette, including her three big ones, never ordering off of the kids menu, never being a difficult orderer (no sauce on the side here)- can we say hello to those people who RSVP to your events wanting a “South Beach Diet” entrĂ©e? And the importance of always deferring to the person “hosting you” to order the wine, and if we want to share appetizers, mimicking their ordering to make sure I was in line. And this is why now, when I hire someone I always try to have at least one interview involving food!!
3. The importance of ALWAYS RSVPing. Making sure that the hostess never had to follow up with me and we always made the deadline!! How I wish everyone else felt this way!
4. The priceless etiquette of great gift giving making sure it is personal, custom, and purposeful, while still remembering her mantra- “Buy them something they wouldn’t buy themselves” This eliminates the need for embarrassing dust collecting tchotckes in my work career and has allowed me to really wow some donors with great gifts!
5. The importance of relationship building, things like remembering names, knowing if someone is left handed for seating purposes, knowing favorite works of art and flowers, all of the little details that make people know you value their relationship. When a family would come over to visit, my mother would have a little something for each child (and to keep them occupied) and we NEVER went to someone’s home empty handed.
6. Being the consummate hostess, my mother hosted many corporate parties and that meant that she always attended to others needs first and was the last one to eat or drink at an event, a rule I still have for my team. I get to eat at the tastings, not at the events! You too should be consumed with making sure everyone else’s glasses and plates are full and never have anyone ask you where the trash can is because from across the room you glide over and clear their plate or take away their empties, people notice this and love it!
7. Falling on the “guest grenade” and having an inane in depth conversation about whatever minutiae (like whether oaks or elms give better shade) is most important to them so that the most important person in the room can schmooze the way they need to. I’ve done this countless times in my career and the VP or President is always grateful.
8. When dealing with sticky situations, sometimes it’s just better to beg forgiveness than ask permission. Do I need to explain?
9. There is no job too big or too small. I have seen her do everything from host a CEO and his family to cleaning cigarette butts out of her potted plants. This is essential for us to remember in donor relations.
10. Can you remember this one when you attend meetings about meetings? “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!”
11. Finally, the one I work on constantly… Patience, many things happen more slowly than we want them to, so we have to remember that sometimes, that’s ok. And sometimes it may be a blessing, like I said- work in progress for those of you who know me personally…
Without these simple essentials that my mother taught me, I would not be the donor relations professional I am. I think of how blessed I was that all along, mom was right (of course) and was preparing me for a future. So be thankful if you learned these growing up as I did. And for those of you still learning them all, we all still have something to learn.

I would love to hear your comments and feedback. Thank you so much for reading.