Reflecting on new research based on intimate conversations with 14 major donors, Nic Capp looks at how nonprofits should be engaging with their major donors – but often aren’t.

The sustainable engagement of major donors by nonprofit organisations in Australia is under developed. There is plenty of academic and anecdotal evidence to support this. In an attempt to hear feedback directly from the mouths of donors, Relate Partners conducted ‘Conversations with major donors’.

The first part of this research, ‘Major donors tell why they give’ involved asking 14 major donors about their relationships with Australian nonprofits. This was then followed up by a further round of conversations, ‘Major donors tell how to engage them for the long-term’.

Don’t ‘campaign’ me

This new research based on engagement looked into a particularly interesting finding: major donors want to make a positive contribution to society, but very few could recount consistent personal engagement where the nonprofit initiated the discussion and asked ‘How best can we engage you on a long-term basis?’

Donors said that often, interaction was through mail, out of the blue, or only when campaigns to raise money for a building or project were running. One major donor recounted his distaste for continually being approached for a campaign but never hearing from organisations in between campaigns. His simple comment: “Don’t ‘campaign’ me”.

Get up close and personal

There are a number of reasons nonprofits don’t manage sustainable relationships with major donors well. But the overriding message encountered was the importance of speaking to donors personally.

The times, they are a changin’

The nature of the donor landscape as we know it is changing. The movement of the baby boomer generation into retirement means nonprofits will need to reassess not only the services they deliver but also how they interact with their major donors. As the wealthiest and most educated generation, baby boomers will command more of the major donor market. Their requirements for engagement are different to the silent generation that precedes them.

Arts and education sectors perform well

Certain sectors within the nonprofit industry have managed their major donor engagements well for some time. The arts and education sectors seem to understand not only the gap, but the potential of the baby boomer market. They are seeking to employ people with the capacity to effectively engage with major donors.

Meeting current and future needs

There is mounting evidence that organisations that choose to implement processes and structures to meet the needs of both current and future major donors will reap the benefits. This new research indicates that those structures may need to include reassessing how nonprofits view bequests.

Approaches by mail are not appreciated

Only half of respondents had been approached by a nonprofit they support about a bequest. Typically, that approach was done by mail – which previous research shows is not favoured as a consistent means of communication by major donors.

Regardless of whether they have been approached or not, nearly all donors said they had considered leaving a bequest to one or multiple nonprofits. Many said it was they themselves who initiated the process of setting up a bequest.

Bequest in the context of a long-term relationship

Most of the donors taking part in the research said they would be happy to talk with a nonprofit about bequests if approached in the context of a long standing relationship. One major donor said “Bequests confront the issue of mortality, and is best done in the context of a more general conversation based on a personal relationship over time.”

There was a sense that being approached by nonprofits that had ‘earned the right to ask for a bequest’ was important, as was approaching major donors sensitively. The dominant motivations generally fell into two themes – ‘we can’t take it with us’ and wanting to ‘leave a legacy’.

Have a strategy in place (and it needs to involve asking)

Two donors said they had not yet left a bequest in their will to a nonprofit. Neither had ruled it out. The first said they were not convinced the nonprofit had a strategy in place to manage a bequest; the other simply said “No one has asked me”.

A living will

Most of the major donors interviewed were interested in the concept of a living will, where they intend to invest as much as is practically possible with the nonprofit, while they are alive. Some said they wanted to see the fruits of their investments. Others considered it part of their normal giving; they said they would also leave cash in a more conventional bequest arrangement.

The better the relationship, the more likely a bequest

Apart from commitment to a cause, all the major donors said that their relationship with the nonprofits they support had a bearing on their decision to make a bequest. The better they considered the relationship, the greater the likelihood they would decide to leave a bequest. A majority believed bequests to be natural extensions of a long-term relationship with a nonprofit.

What makes a relationship long-term?

There was one quote from a major donor which best summarises how the group felt nonprofits could engage them in long-term relationships: “By keeping in touch and by treating us as individuals, not just names on a mailing list. Beyond that it is between the individual donor and the nonprofit to work out what form and level of contact is appropriate. Nonprofits need to recognise this.”

Personal relationships equal commitment

The major donors said over the years, some nonprofits have changed their engagement approach to major donors; others have stuck to their traditional methods. But the nonprofits with which the donors had the strongest commitment – and to which they contribute the most money and time – are the nonprofits that have established personal relationships with the donors.

Tips for engaging major donors All donors are people. The language you use with and about major donors – even internally – will ultimately impact how an organisation behaves towards them. Find out how major donors want to be engaged. Don’t assume one size fits all – meet with them and ask. Nonprofit leadership needs to be supportive and understanding of the nature of major donor engagement and the benefits it brings. Engaging major donors is not a short-term strategy. Take a long-term view; it’s potentially a life-long relationship. Be intentional about engaging major donors. Think strategically about how best they can be included in helping to expand your mission beyond purely the financial. Implement structures and processes to support engagement of major donors. It doesn’t need to be excessive, but it will more than pay for itself in the mid to long-term. Don’t ‘campaign’ major donors – engage them relationally in the context of seeing your mission grow. Major donors are people first

There are numerous benefits for nonprofits that engage major donors well. It will open the door to a raft of skills, experience and knowledge. From new networks and influencing opportunities, major donors who are well-engaged can become your best advocates. Treat your major donors as people first and foremost, not as another notch towards achieving a fundraising KPI. Get this part right, and the finances will look after themselves.

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