In the world of fundraising—much like anything else in life—relationships and knowing the right people can provide a competitive edge. Look at any large museum, cultural organization or nonprofit and almost inevitably, you will find that a number of large donors or foundation trustees are involved, or sit on the boards of, these institutions. The relationships with these individuals enable the institutions to submit funding requests to the donors or their foundations, even if they do not accept unsolicited proposals.
Though it may not guarantee funding, the relationship usually means that proposals will at least undergo a thorough review. Depending on the donor or foundation, unsolicited proposals submitted by organizations without an existing relationship are typically either tossed in the trash or at best, given a perfunctory review and nothing more.
With an increasing number of donors and foundations not accepting unsolicited proposals or only contributing to pre-selected organizations, the challenge of building donor relationships is a top concern among fund seekers everywhere. Fortunately, for those organizations that do not have advantage of relationships with targeted donors or foundations, there are a number of effective strategies that can be utilized to establish and cultivate these relationships.
Be forewarned though, building relationships with donors takes time and requires commitment, perseverance and patience. Some of these strategies are fairly simple while others are more complex and require the involvement of board members, organizational personnel, volunteers and more. Let’s start with the simple strategies first. The five strategies below can most likely be managed by one or two persons within your organization.
1. Develop a strategic plan. A donor relationship-building strategy that relies on a ‘shotgun’ approach is doomed to failure. Before you even consider approaching a pool of potential donors, you need to develop a plan that focuses on targeting key donors that share your interests. Develop a list of these individuals as well as key areas where your interests are shared. Target only those potential donors or foundations that have funding priorities strongly aligned to your work or efforts.
2. Place a call. If you are seeking to establish a relationship with a foundation and you have a phone number, then use it to gather information and introduce yourself, your organization and the benefits it brings to the community. Be thoroughly prepared before you make the call. If you are able to speak with a program officer or another someone else in a position to make a recommendation, you want to be certain to get it right the first time. Prepare a short list of key points and know exactly what you want to say before you make the call. If you are only able to speak to a secretary, ask for copies of any publications the foundation might produce and ask for the name of a person to whom you can address a letter of inquiry.
3. Send a letter of inquiry. Either after making the call or finding the information online, try writing a brief, one-page letter of inquiry to the donor or foundation. Because the reader may only scan your letter looking for certain information, make your letter brief, easy to read and hone in on key points that demonstrate alignment to the donor’s or foundation’s interests. Tell them approximately how much you would ask for if invited and the shared goals their funds would help you to achieve.
4. Include the donor or foundation on your mailing list. If your organization publishes a newsletter or other materials such as press releases, be sure to include targeted donors on your mailing list. This particularly important if you have a successful program or initiative that may be of interest to your prospective donor. Include photos if possible and a brief, hand-written note that reiterates your shared interests.
5. Be active in the local community. As much as possible, get yourself and your organization out in front of the community. Publicize your work and your successes with press releases and through other channels, including social media. Wherever possible, participate in local boards, coalitions or other networking events that can provide the opportunity for you, your key personnel, board members or volunteers to interact with and engage with potential donors.
In an upcoming post I will talk more about specific steps you can take to build relationships that can boost your fundraising success.