How often should I contact my potential donor during the cultivation phase?

There is no hesitation in my answer to this question – it is a minimum of monthly.   To make this easier let’s call the donor Harry to bring this point into focus.  If you have had no contact with Harry for over a month, he has already moved on to other things.  In fact that can happen in one hour.   It is therefore vital to keep the relationship flow going…………….

I can hear you saying but if I bother Harry too much will he reject my approaches?  Yes, perhaps if you “bother” him.   That is not the same as tuning in to how Harry wants this relationship to develop and listening to his preferred ways of working.

In your first meeting listen actively to every signal and every word that Harry says.   Implicit in this is that you ask questions and don’t talk too much.  In the first meeting, yes you have to enthuse about your mission and be convincing, but more importantly you have to keep reversing back from speaking and ask questions to listen and carefully note Harry’s responses.  A general rule of 1/3, 2/3 is good to remember – speak for 1/3 and listen for 2/3.

How do you do this?  A simple answer is to use the question why often?  An example is:

Harry:  So, your organisation works with emergencies – what is happening right now?

You could take off enthusiastically to answer this question about what your organisation is doing admirably for the emergency.   Yes this is great but after a few minutes, reverse back and focus on Harry by perhaps saying “That is great that you are asking me, do you have a particular interest in emergencies?   Is there a reason for that (why)?”

If you ask Harry questions, he undoubtedly will answer.   If you don’t, the meeting will be over and you haven’t learned anymore about Harry’s passions, interests and more importantly will not be equipped to continue the relationship flow.

I am not saying this is easy to do, however the best Major Gifts Executive’s (MGE) have learned how to do this skilfully.   The role of the MGE is to a degree one of sales demonstrating your passion for the charity’s mission but it is mainly one of active listener and detailed attention to observing Harry and understanding how he is reacting to you.

If you ask Harry about himself it is probable that he will tell you.   People love talking about themselves.   I also read years ago that people mostly remember what they said to you and not what you have said to them and I have never forgotten that!   So Harry’s positive memory of the conversation will be about what he said to you.

So ask lots of questions – do you have family?  Do you have to commute far into work?   Do you play golf?  (any clues in his office as you look around?)  You can tactfully and gradually learn a lot about Harry.   This is so crucial to your whole future philanthropic relationship.  Before going to the meeting make a long list of potential questions to ask Harry and own them and use your sales ability to assess which questions will work best while you are with him.

Watch his reaction.  Is he leaning forward, or sitting back in the chair?  Are his eyes darting around or are they focused on you?  Is he responding to what you are saying by nodding or asking questions?  Is his body language open?

Another point here is that you need to be genuinely interested in Harry and his life, his loves and hates, his hobbies, his work, his children, his pets, his interests, his music.   If you are not then you will struggle with this job.  Liking people, being genuine and wanting to go on a journey with them at their pace is critical to being a successful MGE.   It requires patience.

You may still wonder at how you achieve monthly contact.   This becomes a natural weave of the relationship.   Before leaving the appointment or speaking on the phone, determine what the next point of contact will be.  There is therefore a natural flow to the relationship:

“Thanks so much Harry for our conversation today. I’ll send you through those photos (or what has been agreed?) and would be really interested in your feedback………   I’ll give you a call ………..  oh and would love to meet your wife………..also to hear how your dog got on at the vet………..” and so on.

Just let it flow.   If you have listened well there will be lots of potential touch points for you to suggest.

In conclusion, every philanthropist is different and this is what keeps you on your toes!   Not every person will be interested in your mission.  Find the ones that are, qualify them on to your caseload and work with them.  The important part is a natural relationship flow.

Do make comments on your experiences or ask a question.

Ruth is the principal and founder of Ascent Philanthropy, author of two books and passionate about helping non-profits with their major gift programmes by offering advice for introducing a new major gift programme or enhancing the productivity of the philanthropy team