Moving Prospects to Donors


Most fundraisers are familiar with the four phases of what is referred to as the fundraising cycle:

Identification - finding potential donors (prospects) and researching their giving potential,

Cultivation - building relationships and engaging prospects in preparation for the ask,

Solicitation - making the ask,

Stewardship - acknowledging, recognizing and engaging donors.

The first thing to note about the fundraising cycle is the word cycle. It is a continuous process. The arrows in figure 1 represent the loop formed by the interrelated stages of the fund raising cycle.

Having years of experience as a fundraiser and donor relations professional, I suggest that key to successful fundraising is effective cultivation and stewardship. Advancement professionals will tell you that they spend the majority of their time romancing and recognizing prospects and donors, as seen in figure 2 above.

Cultivation follows the identification phase of the fundraising cycle and seeks to engage and develop a positive relationship with prospects. During this phase, potential donors are wooed in preparation of “the ask.” In “The 60 Smartest Things You’ll Ever Hear About Fundraising,” author Jerold Panas discusses cultivation as fulfilling the donor's dreams. With that in mind, your message to prospects should be “join us in doing amazing things.” Engage prospective donors in a way that makes them feel they have a vested interest in the institution’s distinctive mission and continuing success. Cultivation requires patience. It takes time to draw the potential donor closer to the institution, develop trust and build a propensity to give.

Stewardship begins once a donor makes their first gift. This phase is all about evolving long-term relationships with your donors to ensure their continuing financial support. At this stage, your job is to engage your donors through efficient gift acknowledgement, reporting, and proportionate recognition. Stewardship covers all levels of giving. No matter the amount, make sure each donor knows that their financial investment is appreciated and beneficial to the institution. Don’t ever feel that you are doing too much in this area.

The Relationship Circle

Donor engagement begins with cultivation and is sustained through stewardship. Then, good stewardship feeds back into cultivating the donor for their next gift. It’s a continuous process, with the goal of increasing donor retention and giving. Notice in the figure below, once the donor makes their first gift, the acquisition or identification phase of the fundraising cycle moves outside of the circle.

Part art and part science, donor cultivation and stewardship focus on engaging donors and building a lasting relationship with the institution. Both involve a wide range of similar activities, including –

Personalized Communications – the best way to connected with your prospects and donors is by staying in touch with them on a regular basis. Meaningful communication is a great way to cultivate and steward your donors,

Consistent Interaction – keep prospects and donors involved in the life of the institution through systematic touch points,

Strategic Engagement – having a stewardship plan to guide the progression of new donors and current donors from entry level giving through mid-level giving to ultimate giving.

(Please refer to my previous blog for detailed descriptions of the above activities).

In considering the many, many ways to engage prospects and donors, ask yourself this question “Is this activity drawing them closer to the institution.” When they feel connected to the institution and supportive of its mission, the time is right, make “the ask.” Then cultivate some more through good stewardship, and ask again, and the circle continues.

Stewarding after a contribution is like cultivating before a contribution. It takes far fewer resources (time, money and effort) to renew or upgrade a current donor than it does to identify, cultivate, and solicit a new prospect. As you well know, donor attrition is your enemy. You will certainly not retain your donors or move then toward major giving if you do not properly steward them. And you will not have donors to steward unless they have been properly cultivated. Keep in mind that donors may forget what you said, and what you did, but donors will never forget how you made them feel."

No matter if you are fundraising for an educational institution, charitable organization or faith-based institution, I urge you to consider the fundraising cycle, specifically the value of effective cultivation and stewardship. These two processes feed donor retention and philanthropy, ultimately growing your overall pool of donors and boosting your fundraising income. You should have a plan in place for cultivating potential donors, stewarding current donors, and again cultivating donors for the next, and hopefully increased gift (the relationship circle). It’s important to make donor engagement central to everything that you do. Are you building a culture where your donors see themselves as an integral part of your institution? If not, begin treating them like they are, and they will stay loyal to your institution. Remember, well-developed cultivation and stewardship move donors to increase their financial investment and helps the sustainability and growth of your institution.


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