Do You Kiss on the First Date?

Being presumptive or premature can railroad relations with donor prospects

Money. It’s one of the last remaining untouchable topics in a society where ever fewer subjects are considered taboo. But for nonprofits with goals, objectives and missions to realize, being gun-shy about dollars and cents can be a recipe for stagnation or failure.

According to NonProfitPRO, “[M]any professional fundraisers have an insidious belief that asking people for money is annoying, embarrassing or disrespectful.”

This is a complex conundrum because fundraising and development professionals’ very roles and positions are predicated on mastering “the ask.” However, the emphasis on bringing in cash and pledged commitments can also backfire – overriding the many moving pieces that should be in place before presenting the organization’s financial wish list and needs.

“It’s essential that nonprofit professionals use practices that will lead to more fruitful fundraising efforts,” says Vanessa Wakeman, CEO of New York City-based event planning firm The Wakeman Agency. “Development practitioners, from the novice to the experienced, can benefit from a few practical lessons in human relations.”

Because at the end of the day, effective fundraising comes down to this: relationships. A glance at how this works in real life is instructive. Consider that people learn to trust and depend on each other based on the connections that link them together. Neighbors look out for each other on account of their shared investment and membership in the community. Spouses and significant others deepen their commitment due to promises and vows built on mutual ideals, goals and beliefs. A nonprofits’ relationships with donors is not that different.

“If we focus on the relationship, nonprofits will reduce the risk of making the mistake of ‘kissing on the first date,’” Wakeman says. “That means being too eager or too early in asking prospects for money, or worse, presenting the ask in a wrongheaded fashion altogether.”

Asking for money and being an effective fundraiser is a skill and art based on effective relationships of mutual interest and benefit. The next time your nonprofit meets with a new donor prospect, lapsed donor or even an existing supporter, ask yourself the following questions.

Do you have a relationship, or are you still making an introduction?

Putting in the work to cultivate a real relationship takes time. Building connections and meaningful linkages does not happen overnight, after the first meeting or following the second email exchange. According to philanthropy information hub GuideStar, “Unfortunately, many organizations struggle to find the time to establish relationships with donors. Phone calls, people dropping by, employee issues and emails seem like a giant time-sucking machine . . .” But those are the small action items that, collectively, create a compounding effect – one that creates memories, forges contexts and builds momentum.

What’s in it for them?

Developing an understanding of prospective donors’ needs and interests is an oft-missing piece in the fundraising puzzle. Tune in to get clarity about their priorities or concerns. Grasp the causes that tug on their heartstrings and delve into the catalysts of their passions. According to Wakeman, “Perhaps there are specific aspects of your mission that closely align with their passion.” Broaching their interests – and holding off on putting your own organization front and center in conversations – can help them realize how their skills and experiences intersect with your nonprofit, without a tough sell. As GuideStar shares in “Understanding the Motivations of Major Donors,” “[D]onors need to feel supported by an organization that understands their need for information, involvement, and, in many cases, time.”

Is asking too soon shredding your credibility?

“Asking too quickly appears desperate and can be a huge turnoff to potential donors,” says Wakeman, whose firm has helped dozens of organizations create winning fundraising strategies. But she’s not alone in this view. The Center for Association Leadership (ASAE) says “leaders sometimes misuse [intelligence from research databases] by asking for money far too early, essentially skipping the cultivation process.” Asking for anything – time, money, talent – before the beginnings of a foundation are in place can sidetrack relationships before they start. Relationship-building and soliciting are two separate steps, and the latter should not precede the former.

Do you have a compelling narrative?

Stories move people. If your organization is pummeling your prospects with metrics, data and pie charts, you’re probably not creating a narrative that sustains them. Numbers within a certain context – those that show the severity of a problem, for example – can raise eyebrows and get people thinking. But showcasing how real people have been affected by those issues humanizes the need. Find ways to share the testimonials of clients served by your organizations. Develop opportunities for prospective donors to see and interact with those who will be affected by their contributions.

Timing your ask is just as important as creating a basis for making it in the first place. In a future blog post, we will explore how to calculate your ask and improve the odds for success. In the meantime, join us on The Wakeman Agency’s Facebook community and share with us the common flubs you see in donor cultivation. Have you ever been guilty of “kissing on the first date”? If so, share with us how you redeemed yourself and corrected your blunder.