Donor Relationship Management: the Key to Effective Communication

After finishing a delicious meal with family and friends at a local Chinese restaurant, I was anxiously awaiting the routine passing of the fortune cookies. It’s always entertaining to learn about what my future might hold, or what pearls of wisdom the fortune might share. So I hurriedly opened my fortune to see what I might learn about myself. I had to read it a couple of times, because I just didn’t understand what it was telling me. It read: “It is not your character to give.”

Huh? Who were they talking about? Certainly not me. Not someone who has spent his entire professional career teaching people about philanthropy. I had to read it again:  “It is not your character to give.” Ouch! How could this be? You can imagine all of the different things that were running through my head. Does someone know something that I don’t? Am I just a fraud? 

Still mortified, I decided to pass my fortune around the table to see if anyone else thought this fortune was as insulting as I did. But when I handed the fortune to a friend, I realized that my thumb had been covering up a very important word: “up”. The fortune, in fact, read, “It is not your character to give up.” 

A simple word can dramatically change the meaning of a message.

Reflecting on that experience, I’ve often thought about how important messaging really is—and how a very slight change to that message can have such a dramatic impact on its meaning.

When working with nonprofits, I frequently remark that we live in a soundbite world. Gone are the five- to ten-page case statements we used to see. People just aren’t willing to spend the time to review those documents anymore. Our challenge today is much harder: we need to distill everything we do as an organization into simple, easily understood messages that will not only inform our public about who we are and what we do, but also motivate prospective donors to make significant investments in our work.

So, when developing strong messaging for your organization, I think it is critically important to answer a couple of key questions:

  • What are the soundbites that will powerfully depict your organization’s mission and vision?
  • How can we communicate these soundbites in a clear, concise, and powerful way?

Start by thinking about the issue or issues your organization is trying to solve. Explain why your organization is uniquely positioned to address these issues. And finally, explain how you are going to do it. Sort of a simple: one, two, three punch if you will.

I realize many organizations struggle with this very issue: how to effectively communicate their mission and vision with donors. It can be difficult for organizations to specifically communicate how a philanthropic investment in their organization will make a difference and directly link that contribution to a specific outcome. So, the challenge will be to craft a vision that focuses on where your organization is going and how a philanthropic investment will help you get there. 

At the same time, you need a message that can be used across your organization.

A further challenge—one that’s often overlooked—is creating case messaging that can be used for everything you do—messages that can address your need for current annual support, describe those strategic investments you will need to make in the near term, and ultimately articulate the long-term support your organization will need to sustain itself. Because a well-capitalized non-profit likely has three needs:

  • Current-use dollars
  • Near-term needs (i.e., those funds which might be spent down in the next three to five years for such things as capital investments, launching of a new program, hiring new staff, or enhancing facilities)
  • Long-term needs (some of which might be held in an endowment, others of which might be kept in reserves)

Most programs require all three types of funding to sustain them. So when we talk with a donor about a particular strategy or program we want them to fund, we should really be talking to them about all three.

Through the years, I’ve watched many organizations launch what they referred to as an endowment campaign. They talked about the endowment as if it were a “thing” or a program. But endowments aren’t a “thing”; they are a mechanism to fund something—that is, your work. And often, nonprofits fail to define what that work is. 

For many donors, the concept of an endowment can sound a lot like a pot of money that is just going to sit there rather than a means to fund something that is important to the donor. So rather than separately communicating with your donors about your organization’s annual fund, its capital campaign, and its endowment needs, try to find a way to talk about all three needs simultaneously. Think about expressing it like this:

“To address the issues our community confronts, we need staffing and infrastructure to implement the program that addresses them (annual fund), we need appropriate facilities and capital investments to keep us on the leading edge of these issues (near-term needs), and we need to ensure we will be there in the future to continue to provide this important service (endowment and reserves).” 

Communications that cover all programs will allow your annual fund staff, your major and planned gift officers, and your campaign staff to all be working from the same vision. It also simplifies the messaging you are taking forward to your donors, which results in the effective communication you need to succeed.  I realize this is no simple task to achieve—but, after all, it is not in our character to give up!