There is a moment of great disappointment all fundraisers have experienced: a donor who is capable of making a significant gift, gives well below the amount you’d hoped for.
The first thing we all do is go back and think through what went wrong. Perhaps the program goals were vague. Perhaps the campaign lacked inspiration. Or maybe you chock it up to a lack of generosity in the donor. There are many factors that contribute to disappointing results.
But all these barriers can be overcome. The foundation for great generosity is the relational connection between fundraiser and donor.
Creating genuine connection is a defining skill of an elite fundraiser. The more authentic the connection with the donor, the greater the opportunity to inspire generosity.
Developing this skill can be difficult – even intimidating – but it may be the most foundational skill a fundraiser can develop.
Here’s the thing: you can’t easily fake genuine connection and even for those master chameleon’s out there, fake connections have low returns. If you think you’ve connected with a donor, ask yourself three questions:
Have you and the donor shared honest stories with one another?
Do you each know an event in each other’s lives that have caused pain or difficulty?
Can you describe a part of the donor’s personality that you appreciate and enjoy?
Have you and the donor demonstrated care for one another?
Examples could be an email checking in on a significant life event, a friendly note in the mail, or a phone call dedicated to checking in on a non-work related issue.
When relational connection occurs, the donor and fundraiser are partners, together, achieving something beyond themselves. Without relationship, the fundraiser is a charitable vendor and the donor is nothing more than a financial asset. In this common scenario, giving is at its lowest, safest level.
Genuine connection requires two qualities: vulnerability and attentiveness.
Vulnerability is emotional exposure. Fundraisers often tell stories of their organization, the projects underway, and maybe their own stories of happiness and hope. Vulnerability calls the fundraiser further – to share and listen to stories of pain and disappointment. It is an act of relational investment and gives permission to the donor to do the same.
Attentiveness is the ability to fully concentrate on someone in a given moment. Fundraisers are taught to prepare an agenda and drive conversation towards specific outcomes for each donor interaction. This level of intentionality is needed, but can distract the fundraiser from the donor. Giving space for active listening is critical for a donor feels emotionally safe, resulting in connectedness.
These qualities produce a profound result: a fundraiser-donor connection that will produce maximum, even sacrificial, levels of generosity.
Vulnerability and attentiveness are both acquired traits, but there are practices to help them become second nature.
First, stop being satisfied with surface-level knowledge of a donor. There are deeper stories to discover and greater generosity to be offered. The goal for the donor is to relationally invest in you, and by extension, the possible impact you represent. When donors tell vulnerable, sensitive stories, relational investment occurs. Stories like childhood difficulties, family relationships, and occupational disappointments are all examples of deeper stories.
Second, take yourself seriously. Develop vulnerability and attentiveness in yourself. Fundraising is a profession that engages the most painful and hopeful feelings of humanity. Many donors act generously because of pains and joys they’ve felt. Fundraisers must be able to interact with donors on emotional levels to effectively inspire generosity. The ability to emotionally interact with a donor takes intentional effort and requires hard, often personal work.
Third, practice riskier conversations with donors. They will get easier over time and certainly more fruitful.
While many professions require hard skills born out of instruction and method, elite fundraisers possess skills acquired only through personal discovery and reflection. The more intentional time a fundraiser spends reflecting on who they are and are becoming, the greater the vulnerability and attentiveness they will possess.
As Simone Weil, the 20th century philosopher once said, “Attentiveness is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” An attentive fundraiser demonstrates generosity with a different currency – presence. The fundraiser’s investment of their time, emotional energy, and attentiveness entrusts them to the donor. Generous giving is a natural result of connectedness and trust. It can be expected, that after a series of truly connective donor visits, a gift proposal will be fully granted.
It’s often said: people give to people. This is true. Fundraisers serve as the human, and very personal, conduit for donors to express their generosity on the world. When donors feel genuinely connected to the fundraiser, trust, honestly, and generosity ensue.
As fundraisers, we experience the peaks and valleys of job satisfaction. We serve missions of great hope and, in the same breath, fail to enjoy the daily grind of revenue expectations, cold calls, and proposals written. Perhaps, we as fundraisers should consider a new metric: relationally connected donors.