How to Jump-Start Individual Giving

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Research shows these supporters account for nearly 80 percent of charitable gifts — and the amount they give grows year after year.

How can your nonprofit build a strong individual-giving program, raise more money, and reduce dependency on grants?

If you want to attract wealthy supporters, it’s smart to start with your board, experts say, because trustees may be able to connect you to people with the interest and capacity to make sizable gifts. But first consider whether your trustees are ready to help with fundraising.

“This is only going to work if you’ve got a board that is philanthropically inclined itself,” says Lindsay Kosnik, vice president for development at the African Wildlife Foundation. If your trustees are not already expected or required to give each year, she says, you may need to focus on fostering a culture of philanthropy before enlisting their help with fundraising. This includes setting up a development committee and working with this group to create a plan to engage the broader board in your outreach.

You’re not going to get the revenue in the same year that you invest in the program. It might take two years to get the revenue back or maybe even three years.

Other organizations may want to start by building a strong base of supporters who give small amounts but provide a vital source of revenue. Such a pool of donors can become a pipeline for major giving, experts say, so it is not necessary to seek big donors at the outset. For example, if your nonprofit has a mission that is easy to sell in direct-mail and email appeals, such as animal welfare, it may make sense to take this approach, Kosnik says. But she cautions that it may be more expensive to start with direct mail because you’ll need to create an acquisition program — and you’ll likely take a financial loss before seeing a positive return on that investment. “So partly it depends on what your organization’s appetite is,” she says.

No matter how you delve into individual giving, you should dedicate a staff member to focus on this work at the start if you can afford it, says Christal Cherry, head of the Board Pro, a consulting firm that helps nonprofits build strong boards. Don’t expect immediate returns. “Know that the ramp-up time is going to be a minute,” she says. “You need to give your new director or development person some grace.”

The Chronicle spoke with several veteran fundraisers who shared steps to create a pool of loyal donors, find and cultivate those who can make bigger gifts, and hold onto your contributors over time. Here’s their advice.

Start small. If you’re getting started with annual giving, create a plan that fits your organization’s budget and capacity, says Brittini Lasseigne, director of philanthropy at the YWCA Clark County in Vancouver. If you don’t have the budget to send several mailings throughout the year, begin with just one strong appeal at year’s end, she says, since that’s when you’re likely to get the best return on your investment. (For guidance on crafting effective appeals, she recommends subscribing to the online training resource Work Less, Raise More.)

When you’re ready to take another step, Lasseigne suggests developing a newsletter for donors that reports the impact of your work through stories and includes a call to action and a donation envelope.

Use social media to broaden your reach. Develop a peer-to-peer campaign, Cherry suggests, and ask people who are close to your organization, such as trustees, volunteers, or alumni, to help share it. Develop messages and materials people will want to share with their networks, she says, like a compelling video, infographic, or story.

Make your stories short, succinct, and emotional, Cherry says — and provide hope. “Individuals want to solve problems right now,” she says, so show how your group can do that.

Take a targeted approach. Use your donor data to understand what drives people’s giving, and group supporters together with similar traits so you can tailor your outreach and start to build relationships, says Dominique Calixte, associate director of annual giving and special events at the YW Boston. “You can’t tackle the entire list, and you can’t tackle it the exact same way for everyone,” she says.

Be transparent about your organization’s needs. “People want to be superheroes — they want to make a change,” Cherry says. If your nonprofit is struggling because of the Covid-19 crisis, be honest about that and explain how donors can help make a difference.

And be specific, she says. For example, if you need money rather than donations of products, say that and explain what the money will help you do.

Meet donors where they are. If a supporter tells you she can’t give right now but wants to stay up-to-date and involved, keep engaging her. “As long as people can hear from you and keep seeing the good work that you’re doing, they will eventually come back,” Cherry says.

Test new tactics for engaging donors online. “Now is the time to really take a chance and try something new because everything is different,” Calixte says. “People don’t know what to expect and are open to a lot more. And you never know what results you can get.”

Tap into your trustees’ networks. Organize a small series of “friendraisers,” Kosnik suggests — intimate gatherings that board members can attend and invite their friends or colleagues who they think may support your cause. “The key to doing those types of events and engaging your volunteers is follow-up,” Kosnik says. If you’re going to ask your trustees to invite their contacts, you should work with them to create a tailored follow-up strategy that they’re comfortable with.

Thank your new prospective donors immediately after the event, she says, and create a smart communications plan to keep them updated on your work.

Mine your database for potential big donors. Make a list of people you think could give more based on their behavior with your nonprofit, Cherry says, such as those who have been giving, volunteering, or attending events consistently. Take these names to your supervisor or team and discuss strategies to cultivate them for larger gifts over the next two to five years.

You don’t have to keep your goal a secret from these donors, Cherry says. “You can let these people know, ‘Listen, I have really enjoyed the relationship that we’ve had over the last year — we are so grateful for your passion for our mission. And we would like to find additional ways to increase your engagement and involvement with us.'”

Manage your leaders’ expectations. “Major gifts is a slow boil,” says Sue Swan, chief development officer at the American Lung Association. “You’re not going to get the revenue in the same year that you invest in the program. It might take two years to get the revenue back or maybe even three years.”

Staff up as you expand your program. But make sure you’re financially ready to take this step, Lasseigne cautions. Before hiring a fundraiser to focus on boosting giving from individuals, she says, your organization should be raising from annual gifts the equivalent of three times the total compensation for this position. For example, if the staff member were to earn $50,000 in annual wages and benefits, your nonprofit should be able to generate $150,000 a year from individual gifts at a minimum.

If you’re focusing on midlevel and major donors, begin with a team that is small enough for you to manage and show some results before you ask to expand, Swan says. When starting to build these programs at the American Lung Association, first she identified donors in the organization’s database who had given above a specific threshold. That helped her determine the number of staffers needed to cultivate these supporters for bigger gifts. “You have to kind of do that math and back into a number that makes sense,” she says.

Cultivate relationships with prospective donors. Start by introducing them to your organization, Cherry says. You could invite them to come see your work in action, meet with one of your leaders, or attend a virtual event.

Learn as much as you can about each individual. Listen more than you talk during meetings with potential supporters, Cherry says. Take lots of notes on what they say, and use that information to advance your relationship. For instance, if you find out that your supporter’s daughter is getting married, she says, you could follow up by sending a congratulatory card.

Send birthday and anniversary cards, too, she suggests, to show you care about the donor as a person. “People will be really surprised if you remember,” she adds.

Be patient. Expect that it could take eight to 18 months to secure a big gift, Cherry says, because wealthy individuals want to trust you, have confidence in your organization’s leaders, and understand the impact of giving before making a contribution. Sharing informative materials like annual reports or videos or infographics that show the impact of your work can help move these supporters along, she says.

Learn what motivates the donor to give and speak to that when asking for a gift, Swan says. For example, if the donor is passionate about a specific aspect of your mission, develop a targeted pitch that reflects that interest.

Give donors the recognition they want. If a supporter wants to remain anonymous, Cherry says, respect his wishes. If he is open to being thanked publicly, do so in an appropriate way — and stay in touch over time so he’ll give more.

Show donors you want to help them make a difference — even if that means giving to other organizations, Cherry says. For instance, if you know that a donor’s spouse is interested in a cause and you know someone at a nonprofit with that mission, you could offer to make an introduction. Supporters will appreciate that you’re genuinely helping them leave a meaningful legacy, Cherry says.

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