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Top 10 Tips for Cultivating Potential Donors

Does Your Charity Have a Welcome Sign for New Donors?


Cultivation is what makes solicitation possible. Done well, it sets the stage for easy and successful "asks."

Cultivation covers all the communication and contact you have with prospective donors from the newsletters and annual reports you send, to special events and presentations, to personal visits.

Cultivation is not haphazard...but carefully planned and strategic.

Kay Sprinkel Grace in her book, Over Goal!: What You Must Know To Excel at Fundraising Today, makes the following points about cultivation:

1. It's everybody's job.

Chris Minerva/Photodisc/Getty Images
Develop a cultivation culture, where everyone from staff to board to volunteers can get involved in welcoming prospective donors. For instance, staff sets up and participates in opportunities for board members and other volunteers to meet and talk with prospective donors. It is a cooperative project but is dependent on your volunteers making themselves available for cultivation events. Be sure to include current donors as well. They are excellent advocates for your cause.

2. It is strategic.

Parties and events mean nothing if there is not good follow-up based on a good cultivation plan. Cultivation planning has two parts: general and specific. General cultivation is all about regularly scheduled events (think tours, coffees, presentations). Specific cultivation activities are those meant for special prospects, those who may or may not also attend regularly scheduled activities and events.

3. It is systematic.

Every event or activity should have a follow-up plan. Good ways to follow up are adding prospect names to your mailing list and sending thank-you letters. Follow-up can be an email or personal phone call from a board member or event committee member to patrons of the event. At an event, do assign a board member to each table and provide them with confidential lists and short bios of those at their table. If large donors or prospects attend, make sure a board member looks after them.

4. It is coordinated.

All interaction with prospective or current donors should be reported to a central person (development director, executive director, or board chair). Set up forms that staff or volunteers can fill out and fax to the coordinator. If you have a donor database, enter this information. Such "intel" can be crucial to good follow-up and future cultivation.

5. It's equal opportunity.

Cultivation is for all donors, small dollar donors as well as major donors. Someone who gives a small amount can become a major donor at any time. Major donors are not always obvious. Many a charity has been surprised by a large bequest from someone unexpected.

6. It's not just personal interaction.

Cultivation occurs anytime you communicate with prospects. Your regular newsletter can be very effective as a cultivation tool, but be sure it is communicating the message you most want your readers to receive:
  • Does it communicate the impact and results of your programs, or does it focus on your needs?
  • Does it portray-in words and photos-the kinds of people you serve in your programs?
  • Does it balance volunteer information, donor recognition, and program impact? Or does it overemphasize your special events?

7. It can be unexpected.

For instance, you might receive favorable press coverage that brings prospective donors to you. Board members and other volunteers, who are enthusiastic about your cause, might arouse interest through their own social gatherings or professional contacts.

8. It leads to an ask.

The purpose of cultivation is to ease and ensure the success of your eventual solicitation. Learn the signs that a prospect is open to being asked for a gift. Because cultivation is pleasant and painless, it can easily become all consuming and stave off the inevitable: asking for a gift.

9. Corporations, foundations and individuals are similar.

With corporations and foundations, you usually know what the deadline is for a funding request, and what the process is for closing the gift. It is easier to sequence your activities. With individuals, there isn't such a calendar. But the same rules apply: cultivation must be systematic, coordinated, and strategic.

10. Cultivation must have a budget.

Cultivation does not have a predictable or immediate return. Consequently, it may be hard to to make the case that these activities are necessary for eventual gifts. Have at hand a few anecdotes about prospects who became donors as a result of good cultivation.

As Kay Sprinkel Grace points out in her book, Over Goal!, cultivation is a process and a tool. It provides opportunities for the donor to learn about your organization, requires coordination, strategic thinking, and great follow-up.

Resource: Over Goal!: What You Must Know To Excel at Fundraising Today, 2nd Edition, Kay Sprinkel Grace, Emerson & Church, 2006.

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