Welcome to the Family Reunion!

Last weekend, my husband and I flew three-quarters of the way across the country for a partial family reunion. My mom was one of 10 kids, so “partial” is about all we can hope for with a family as large and spread out as we’ve become. On Saturday, we joined two cousins and their spouses to visit with the only two surviving siblings — my uncles — and their spouses.

Most nonprofit organizations consider their donors “family.” That means that every time you talk to a donor, send a letter or email, or see a donor face to face, it’s much like a family reunion. And what happens in those few minutes or hours of engagement impacts the relationship for months, even years, to come.

A successful donor connection is built on many of the same things as a successful family get-together. Here are some tips from my weekend to help make your next “donor family reunion” one that strengthens relationships and leaves the donors longing for more get-togethers with your organization.

We talked about the past. The cousins and uncles have all known each other for more than 50 years. We found points of connection in sharing memories of one another and of family members who have since passed away. We told stories about the old family home in a small, rural community, and about the folks there who have long since passed away.

The place we often connected best was in the memories of those “old days,” so those were an important part of the conversation. We didn’t go into every detail but focused on what resonated best with the others.

Don’t neglect the past when you talk to your donors (face to face or in print/electronically). It shouldn’t be all you focus on, but a story or two that helps them build a bridge between their memories and what you are doing today can be very helpful for encouraging engagement. This is especially essential if you have made programmatic, name, logo or key staff changes in recent years. Don’t be afraid to harken back once in a while to “the good old days,” especially if that helps your donors catch up to where you are today.
We talked about the present. Because, like your donors, our family group doesn’t get together often, much of our “conversation” takes place through annual Christmas cards and Facebook posts.

It’s been said that “a letter is a conversation in print.” That applies to any written communication you have with your donors, online or offline. It’s important that they know what you are doing right now — what excites you, what are the challenges you face, what have been the big changes since you last “talked.”

My personal beef — we send out fundraising appeals saying that we need to raise $X to do Y. But then, we often don’t tell the donors if we achieved that goal. We may report on it in our newsletter in a year or two, but donors who responded to our request deserve to know if we “made it.” I know that people give to need, not to accomplishments, so I’m not suggesting you muddle your ask by reporting on another project. Rather, close the loop through a newsletter or update so the people who helped you meet a specific challenge know quickly if you succeeded so they can celebrate that, too.

We talked about the future. Our personal lives aren’t stagnant, and neither is the life of your nonprofit. What are you seeing on the horizon that will give your donors a sense of the progress you — and they through their donations — are making?

Great turnarounds because of your work should not just be delegated to the statistics page of an annual report. Make sure your donors know that “when we accomplish this in the next X months, this will happen …” Show how you are moving forward to meet new challenges, not just doing the same thing over and over. (You may have a great program that doesn’t change much, and that’s OK — just find ways to talk about it that bring out a fresh angle.)

We listened. A lot was said in our 24 hours together, and a lot was heard — things we didn’t know and things long forgotten. We laughed often; got misty-eyed a few times; and congratulated each other on an upcoming graduation, retirement, wedding or other life event.

Donors often “talk” to us through the hard-to-read notes they enclose with gifts, through day-interrupting calls and, sadly, through their silence. It’s easy, in a busy day, to ignore these messages or write them off as “uninformed.” But when we genuinely listen to our family of donors, we can get new ideas about what they want to hear from us and what excites them.

Force yourself (if need be) to take the time to listen to your donors. Even if you have people who do this full time, answer calls once in a while to hear for yourself what the donor thinks. Otherwise, you risk only talking to yourself when you send out the next email or letter, write the next newsletter, post the next update on social media, or host the next event.

We shared photos. Pictures are truly powerful in communication. So why is getting good, useable photos such a difficulty for some nonprofits? It’s understandable if your work requires confidentiality (stock photos are the best choice, then), but these days you can stick a fairly decent digital camera in your pocket or purse and take photos whenever possible.

Don’t feel bad if you take 500 photos to get one good one for your next e-news or printed newsletter. You’ve wasted nothing but a few minutes of time — and that great shot may be what helps a donor connect more deeply with your organization.

A few tips from a nonprofessional: Try to get photos of people looking at you (eyes can be very powerful), capture activity whenever possible (for example, a photo of students working at desks is much more impactful than an empty classroom) and look for bright colors (red, especially) in clothing or key focal points that will attract attention. Sure, there’s a lot more to photography than that, but your goal as a fundraiser is to have a few useable photos that highlight your work — and carry you over until you get the “perfect” shots when the professional photographer comes later to refill your photography coffers.
We discussed getting together again. It’s hard sometimes, given busy lives, to make time for family. And for donors, it can be hard to make time to read all your tweets, posts, letters, emails, blogs, newsletters, reports, etc. — not to mention keep up with the videos you post on YouTube.

Let your donors know that you’ll be back in touch to answer the questions they asked. Remind them that the next issue of your e-news will include a report on the project they supported. If there’s a specific offer they respond to every time you mail it, let them know to watch for that letter in a few weeks.

In other words, don’t treat encounters like one-offs. Make sure your “family” of donors knows that you enjoy being with each member and you look forward to staying in touch. Make your communications sound interesting and important, not just routine. If you’re looking forward to sharing something with a donor, he or she is more likely to look forward to receiving it.

Way back in 1979, Sister Sledge sang “We Are Family.” One of the verses says,

Here’s what we call our golden rule

Have faith in you and the things you do

You won’t go wrong

This is our family Jewel

This old dog suggests that’s good advice for fundraisers — believe in what your organization is doing and the work you do to promote it, and treat your donors like family members who matter to you and to the organization. You won’t go wrong.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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