“Date Your Donors” and the Rules of Philanthropic Relationships

Aspiring philanthropists and social impact entrepreneurs typically enter the fundraising game with limited guidance. As we’ve mentioned before, there’s a lack of transparent information regarding how funding is distributed and how funding should be managed on a basic level. Once these basics are mastered, however, startup organizations are faced with another challenge: building quality, lasting relationships with their donors.

Believe or not, despite the critical importance of these relationships, many fail to cultivate them. All too often, organizations virtually cease all communication with donors upon receiving funding, only bothering to contact them the next time they need money. As you might guess, This strategy is not conductive to building lasting relationships. Which leads us to Unfunded List Evaluation Committee Member (and expert fundraiser) Jonah Halper’s excellent new book, “Date Your Donors.”

Jonah Halper evaluates proposals for the Unfunded List. We met him a few years ago at a fundraising seminar hosted by Halper’s own organization, NextGen:Charity. Halper has made his reputation providing guidance on how to manage fundraising relationships, and the focus of “Date your Donors” is rather self-explanatory: instead of looking at fund raising relationships as a fiscal exchange, treat them like human relationships with all the attendant phases associated with them: courtship, mutual attraction, and commitment.

Frequently, organizations drop the ball at the commitment stage. Halper provides the metaphor of moving in with your partner. At this stage of the relationship, you have reached a new level of responsibility with your significant other. You are expected to be devoted to them, available to serve their needs, willing to split the housekeeping duties etc. In the fundraising world, however, many organizations reach this equivalent stage of commitment and start acting like a single person with a license to hit the town. They receive their donation and provide little follow-up to the funder as to how their contribution is being managed and implemented.

This issue is more unique to the philanthropic world than it is the business one. Many corporations have account executives to manage relationships with their clients, ala Pete Campbell from Mad Men. Corporate board members receive reports every fiscal quarter and meet frequently with leadership. In the nonprofit world, however, there are development staff, but they frequently only conduct outreach when funding is needed, and for many smaller startup social impact organizations, there are no developmental staff members at all.

As a result, many organizations do not build lasting relationships that result in sustained funding. “Date your Donors” is an excellent guide for individuals looking to improve their donor relations, but we don’t want to give too much away. We recommend that you pick it up and read it. In the meantime, however, we have two quick pieces of advice to improve transparency with donors that do not require a huge allocation of resources:

1. Improve your partner page: don’t just list your donors. What is the expectation of this partnership? What results did you achieve for them? Include these details and turn your partnerships into case studies on your website, and show both your donors and potential donors that you treat their contribution seriously and want to broadcast the results to the greater world.

2. Create web content documenting progress on your projects and distribute it to donors: in the pre-digital world, the high-cost of print publication prevented nonprofits and charitable organizations from producing written content documenting progress and achievements. Most would publish an annual report and call it a day.

In the days of mass Web content, however, there’s no limit to the level of reporting you can do. Create success stories. Interview staff and stakeholders and use this as an excuse to reach out to your donors and show them the great work you are doing.

On the surface, this would seem obvious, but you would be surprised at how often this type of content gets downplayed as “low-hanging fruit” by nonprofit leadership. There’s an assumption that big ideas drive fundraising and growth; events, glossy publications, media coverage etc. while these ambitions are great, however, they only come to fruition once in a while. If you spend all your resources on them and don’t create any kind of narrative momentum during the down times, you won’t build the type of relationships you need with funders.