What Development Teams Get Wrong about Donor Relations

illustration of a news article

Most would agree that there is no fund development without donor relations. Consider this article a personal perspective—informed by more than a decade of donor relations and stewardship experience—about the missed collaborative opportunities between development and donor relations teams. There is no time like now to create partnerships to address the divide.

As an industry, we have segmented out donor relations and stewardship as separate efforts that take place after we have established relationships with our donors. We pass new donors along with the signed buck slip to those who have been trained to maintain the warmth of the donor’s relationship with the institution until pledges have been paid or until it seems like the right time to make the next big ask.

Some Crucial Rethinking

I would like to challenge the development officers out there to think about the role that you play with a new prospect.

You are introduced to someone who may be interested in your cause. You may request research to identify this individual’s home value, past event attendance, known associates or interests. You check into a past charitable giving history to your organization and anything else that may pop up in a Google search. In short, you put a lot of effort into getting to know that prospect before making the phone call.

Then you secure a meeting, and armed with the information that you have gleaned, you make a visit to get to know even more about this prospect’s passions, experiences and inclination to give. You shake hands and take your newfound knowledge back to the office; you record a quick note in the database; and you stew over the next best engagement step.

Consider, at this stage, bringing a donor relations expert into the mix to share in the engagement process.

You communicate your knowledge about the prospect up-front with a trusted colleague whose expertise lies in relationships. Brainstorming takes place. Events, interesting research articles, and similar donor conversations begin surfacing. Together, you and your donor relations colleague begin developing a strategy that enhances the communication and engagement of your new prospect.

Remember that up until now, you have been solely responsible for sending timely birthday wishes and for adding your prospect to event invites and annual appeal lists. Now, you have a partner to help make sure this prospect gets the attention that you would like them to have, despite the fact that they are not yet donors.

You continue conversations with your other donors, delivering fund stewardship reports and making solicitation visits. In the meantime, your donor relations partner circles back with communications to determine what sort of follow-up piece you could incorporate into your next visit to make it both personal and thought-provoking for that new prospect. Perhaps your donor relations partner sends something on your behalf, and you take the opportunity to follow-up with a phone call discussion about the critical needs that your organization is helping to alleviate.

Development Officers Needn’t Fly Solo

The point is simple:

You do not have to take strides alone until the first gift comes through the door.

Your donor relations team can help you move a prospect forward along their own, personal giving path. As a result, the prospect’s relationship is established firmly with the institution — and while you as a development officer are critically important to that relationship, so is the knowledge that your donor relations and stewardship team has back at the office.

So, use them!

And use them earlier in the process to help you organize thoughts, approaches, data, and communication opportunities.

A Personal Perspective, From Both Roles

In my time as a donor relations professional, I lost track of the number of times that I have been asked to write a gift agreement, impact report or personal acknowledgement letter to an individual that I have never met, on behalf of someone that I rarely interact with, on a subject that I may know very little about.

Donor relations professionals deliver because it’s part of their responsibility to keep prospects, donors and development officers satisfied with the turnaround of personalized communications.

But these personalized communications will remain an inefficient, time-consuming, surface-scraping effort unless the organization takes the initiative to help get donor relations and stewardship teams out of the reactive environment that tends to develop in the absence of proactive communication.

Now, in my role as a development officer, I find myself engaging in far deeper and more meaningful donor relations and stewardship efforts than ever before, because I have become part of the donor conversation. I no longer have to build relationships from call reports and gift agreements. My donor relations strategies are grounded in first-hand knowledge about what makes each donor tick.

Key Takeaways for Other Shops

I am currently part of a very small development team, but I have no doubt that partnerships between development and donor relations professionals can be instituted across a variety of shops:

  • Where marketing and public relations teams may develop communication beats, so should donor relations professionals to create awareness and deeper understanding of the prospect and donor interests that they represent.
  • Tie a donor relations team member to your annual fund program or dedicate one to the engineering department on campus or the cancer institute at the hospital.
  • Take strides to engage donor relations sooner and as a result go deeper with your donor communications.

By doing this, you will create more meaningful prospect and donor relationships, with lasting ties to your institution, and the divide between development and donor relations efforts will diminish in time with increased trust, understanding and shared commitment to the cause.