It’s amazing to Richard and me how many major gift officers we have talked to that have never formed a real relationship with a major donor.
You might be thinking, “How is this possible, Jeff? If you’re a major gift officer, don’t you have to have relationships with major donors?” You would think so, right?
Unfortunately, either because they have never been managed correctly, or they just don’t know what to do, MGOs all over the country are trying to cultivate their portfolios without really getting to know their donors.
This means they don’t understand their donors’ desires and passions, why they give to their organization, what motivates them to give, what their hobbies are, who their family is and what their dreams are for the future.
It’s a shame. What we find when we discover this about an MGO is that they have relied on direct mail, email and a few phone calls to reach out to their caseload, but they rarely ever go any deeper.
The result of this is low retention, and lower gifts than the donors’ potential.
Sometimes this is what gets MGOs off the hook. The donors the MGO is cultivating may continue to give every year, and it gives the MGO and her manager the illusion that the donors are engaged. The reality is that, because the MGO doesn’t have a relationship with her donors, it results in the donors never reaching their full potential with that organization.
This is a key point I hope you understand.
Major donors will give more money to an organization they believe in when they have a great level of trust in that organization, its leadership, and the person cultivating them. Without that trust they will never make a transformational gift to your organization.
If you are struggling with trying to form relationships with your donors, here are some ideas to help you start.

  1. Start with asking yourself this: Do you like people? Do you have a desire to know more about someone? Are you interested in what others do and are involved in? Do you genuinely want to help someone reach his or her greatest potential? I bring this up first and foremost because if you don’t say YES to these four questions, you should not be a major gift officer. You have to love people, you have to be curious about people and you have to want to help them match their desires and dreams with your mission. This has to be inside of you, or all the strategies to deepen a relationship with a donor will do you no good.
  2. Be persistent and patient, but know you have to be face to face with a donor in order to form a relationship with a donor. You can’t successfully cultivate a donor over email. Yes, you may get a donation from them, but you will never get that transformational gift I was talking about without having multiple face-to-face meetings with your donors. This is like asking someone on a first date: start with coffee, then get them to your organization, and ultimately to their office or home. I know MGOs who have such good relationships with their donors that it’s the donor that calls them to invite them over. That shows trust.
  3. Have a servant heart. What I mean is that you want to look for opportunities to help your donor. Perhaps you can make an introduction for them. Or because you know that they love baseball, you can connect them with someone who has great tickets. Or they like gardening, and you go to a garden show with them. Look for things that can help you build trust with a donor. The key, however, is that it’s genuine and real. Not contrived. To do this you have to have a genuine love for people. This is why I put it as #1.
  4. Always let it be about the donor. I’ve seen so many MGOs blow it with their donors because they are so focused on their own organization that they don’t “see” their donor, or they are so concerned about “getting the money” that they lose sight of the fact that major gift fundraising is about relationship; and they lose the donor in the process.
  5. Be real, but know your boundaries. Major donors can usually ferret out a fake person. They have to, because when you have great wealth everyone wants something from you. You want a good relationship with your donor, but always remember you are not their good friend. You are in a sense a trusted advisor, someone that they can tell things that they may not even tell their children, but also someone they cannot be “too close” with. It’s a very fine line, and great MGOs know how to walk it. Most major donors know what your role is. So be real, don’t fake it, and know you are not going to be that donor’s best friend.

As an MGO, forging relationships with donors is your job. It cannot be done without actually getting in front of your donor and knowing what makes your donor tick. You might “get by” for a while by just cultivating them from afar and bringing in that annual donation. However, if you desire that transformational gift that changes both your organization and the donor, you have to deepen your relationships with your donors.
Start now.