What We Can Learn About Fundraising From a College Tour With My Teen
Recently I spent a week on a college tour with one of my 16-year-olds, where we looked at schools in the New York and Boston areas. I thought that we’d mostly learn about the schools by being introduced to their facilities, programs, and environments, but it turned out I might have been missing the point. The insight and learning — and decision on applying or not — came from the interactions with the students. I don’t mean individual interactions about our particular questions and needs, but rather how the tour guides (all students) interacted with us as a group.
The tour guides were, for the time when we were there, our only “live” link to the institution. We had all looked at the website, received mailings, and got input from guidance counselors, but the interaction with people who the college had selected and hired to represent them to prospective students had an outsized impact on our evaluations and decisions regarding the school.
So when the tour guide at what was our first choice school seemed uninterested in any of us in the group and sipped her drink as if it was all that was keeping her awake (read: totally bored and indifferent), we imagined that this person was indicative of the student body at that University. How could we not think that? Here was the front and center representative, selected by the institution specifically to tour prospective families. Is it possible that the university thought that we would look beyond her because the facilities were so impressive? When, at another school, the tour guide said “this is the library, and it’s just like any other library”, wouldn’t anyone listening think “so what’s so special about this place?”
When we realized that the schools we loved prior to the tour were not at all compelling, and the schools we felt “meh” about were fantastic, and that our decisions were based almost completely on the feeling we got from the tour guides, I couldn’t help but relate the experience to my relationships and interactions with nonprofit development staff.
When I’m approached by a fundraiser, I want to know not only about the organization (which I often already know from their website and my own research), but I want to know about the people involved. At the beginning of a relationship, my only point of reference to understand the “people part” is my interaction with the person or people who I first meet or observe. We judged the universities by “sizing up” the tour guide, just as donors give to nonprofits by “sizing up” the staff they interact with. First impressions matter — in dating, but also in interacting with people who are considering supporting you and your institution. A poor first impression can turn off a donor for good.
But isn’t it enough to just tell the donor of the organization’s mission and impact? No. For both the tour guides and fundraisers — any type of forward-facing staff that represents your organization — the person an organization chooses to meet and interact with prospects matters. They must not only be knowledgeable, but they must also have social intelligence, a strong sense of gratitude and generosity, and be passionate about your organization and its cause. That person must be a “relationship person”. Here’s why:
Personal interactions create and enable authentic connection and an authentic relationship
Authentic relationships create and enable trust
Trust creates and enables long-term relationships
Long-term relationships create and enable long-term support — both financial and otherwise
With donor retention continuing to drop, it’s even more critical to realize that authentic relationships between fundraisers and donors are absolutely essential.
This is the part that institutions often ignore or underestimate — it’s the personal relationship between the donor and representative(s) of the nonprofit. For some people, the mission of the organization and the work they do is enough reason to give — and continue giving — to them. For many others, though (maybe most!), the mission and work aren’t enough.
In this wonderful and important research paper about major donor fundraising relationships in US higher education, writer Genevieve G. Shaker relates that “In contrast to the vast research on donor motivations, there are few examinations of fundraisers or fundraising relationships.” For her study, Ms. Shaker examined the characteristics of successful fundraisers from the perspective of major donors who have given gifts to universities of between $10,000 and $40 million.
The research showed that the characteristics of successful fundraisers emphasize “field expertise and interpersonal acumen, attention to donor concerns and institutional interests, patience with the gift-making process and ability to facilitate its progression, and attention to ethical practice and empathetic interactions.”
It’s well worth the read.
In sum, authentic relationships are the key to sustaining our nonprofit organizations. Relationships aren’t the only thing that promotes success, but they’re the one thing that’s often absent on many people’s “top 5” lists of how to increase your revenue from individual donations. Let’s change that before that donor retention number gets any worse.
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