We love to help nonprofits get major gift programs going. And one of the first things we tell people to do is to pick out of the donor base a manageable number of people that are prospects for major gifts and start trying to build a personal relationship with them.
Often this means taking them out of the direct mail solicitation cycle because you don’t want to send them a request for a small gift when trying to cultivate them for a big one!
As is so often the case, it’s great advice, but not absolute. Donors don’t always respond the way you’d like them to, do they?
Say you have a donor (let’s call her Margaret) who has been giving consistently and loyally through direct mail at increasingly higher amounts. You also know that she’s given larger gifts to other organizations. You’re starting a major gifts effort and you identify Margaret as a prospect. You stop mailing her and start calling her.
What happens if Margaret doesn’t respond?
Unfortunately, in many cases, Margaret continues to sit in the major gifts prospect file. Someone might call her or e-mail her, try to get a personal meeting, invite her to events…but all the while, Margaret just really sits there on the list and doesn’t really take to your efforts.
You’ve had such good intentions! Why doesn’t Margaret respond? And what should you do with Margaret once you determine that she’s not going to respond?
Once a donor has started communicating with you in a certain way, switching channels is challenging. Just think about it. You’ve always had an e-mail relationship with a friend and then they start calling you out of the blue. You’re not really a phone person, so you keep e-mailing them, but for some inexplicable reason, they keep calling you.
It would be puzzling wouldn’t it? So it might be for Margaret who has been very happy giving to your organization through the mail for years. She might not really want to talk on the phone or come see you for coffee or come to your exclusive gala. (And you might not even know how she feels because she just stops communicating with you). She just wants to give by mail – that’s what she’s always done.
This is common for direct mail donors, in particular, but the lesson applies to nearly ever other channel. What if you stopped inviting a special event donor to events and started just mailing them?
So, a couple of suggestions for those of you starting up major gifts efforts (and for those who may have a few people on your major gifts prospect list who you just can’t reach):
1. When you move a prospect to a major gifts list, be very conscious of the communication they have been getting and don’t go cold turkey. Keep the direct mail or online communication going until you get some sort of response.
2. Once you do get some sort of sign that this person wants to hear from you personally, create a transition between the way you used to communicate with them and the way you’d like to in the future. The easiest way to do this is to ask them what they would and would not like to get from you. You can do this in a conversation or through a survey tailored just for them.
3. If they don’t respond to your first attempt, try a different channel. So many times, major gift officers use the phone (because that’s how we’ve been taught), but a lot of people don’t even pick up their phone any more unless the recognize the number. So, try e-mail, a personal note, or even social media to connect.
4. If they don’t respond by making any kind of gift, gently place them back into their old form of communication. Once you’ve taken Margaret out of the direct mail stream, you’ve taken that income away from the organization. Don’t make it permanent! (I say give it no more than 9-12 months). You can still try to build a relationship with them, but allow them to give the way they want to.
You can always send them a personalized piece of mail, right? $10,000 through the mail is as good as it is over coffee, right? (And don’t think that can’t happen. That’s what middle donors programs as good for! See this post about middle donors).
The bottom line is to be flexible and vigilant. Your donors don’t know about your plans to make them a major donor. They don’t get your strategy papers and they aren’t notified when you re-categorize them in a database. They might be up for it, but they might have other plans.
Be sure to keep the lines of communication open – whatever channel they are – so you can adapt to the relationship they want to you with your organization.
Have you taken a look at your major gifts prospect list lately? Try doing it with this post in mind.