Dating Your Donors – 5 Steps to Prepare Your Donors for Multi-Figure Asks

When I first started my business, I began as a designer/developer and it never occurred to me that I would have to sell anything until a year later when my business partner left. I was not comfortable talking about money. It made me feel yucky. I hear those same words from nonprofit volunteers, executive directors and development professionals. So I was really excited when Danielle Locke of Lock Step Partners agreed to share how to ask donors for multi figure donations. She calls it dating...

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Hosted By
Monica Maye Pitts
Monica Maye Pitts Chief Creative Officer

Dating Your Donors – 5 Steps to Prepare Your Donors for Multi-Figure Asks

When I first started my business, I began as a designer/developer and it never occurred to me that I would have to sell anything until a year later when my business partner left.

I was not comfortable talking about money. It made me feel yucky. I hear those same words from nonprofit volunteers, executive directors and development professionals.

So I was really excited when Danielle Locke of Lock Step Partners agreed to share how to ask donors for multi figure donations.  She calls it dating… 

Podcast Summary Notes:

Monica:  When you call asking for donations “dating”, what do you mean by that?

Danielle: In my work as a consultant, I’ve worked one on one with nonprofit directors to help them grow their unrestricted income from individual donors. 

And, for me, I feel like I’ve never actually been a salesperson. I’ve been in fundraising for 20 years; I feel like I’ve never asked someone to do something that they didn’t already want to do, that we are in the dating process already and know where that’s headed. You know, I would never try to convince somebody to do something that they didn’t want to do. I always feel like I’m giving them an opportunity to support a mission that they already care about. And so for me, because I look at it that way and I’m so very focused on that donor, the relationship and making sure that it’s a mutual, beneficial relationship, I’m never trying to have them buy a used car or something. It’s a great thing. So it brings joy to me and I know that’s brought joy to many of my donors.

Monica:  Tell everyone about you, what you do and how you got to be an expert in the multi-figure ask.

Danielle: In my work as a consultant, I’ve worked one on one with nonprofit directors to help them grow their unrestricted income from individual donors. 

I have an undergraduate degree in psychology, which actually is pretty handy. I went into PR and communications. And then when I graduated, I got a job at a nonprofit. When you first start, you do everything–the website, the newsletter, the reports, the applications… I fell in love with the whole thing. 

Fast forward 20 years, I’ve been in lots of different nonprofits. I’ve been a nonprofit so small where I had to literally build my own desk. I’ve been in nonprofits where I napped on the floor. And you know, we’ve all we’ve all been there. I worked for a large hospital system, where I had lots of resources, but I kind of ran my own nonprofit within the organization. But navigating that bureaucracy and the levels and all those steps was really hard and a great experience. I learned a lot there.

But I love all of it. I love missions, I fall in love with every mission for every organization I’ve ever worked for. 

The people are just so amazing. Your donors, the people that you’re in the trenches with along the way. I’ve been really blessed to have very diverse experiences, and hopefully be able to share that with others at this point.

Monica:  What are the five steps you walk through with donors to prepare them for multi-figure asks?

Danielle: Before you start, dig into the data and get to know your donors, see the trends, know your organization and what you need, what you’re asking for–these things build your confidence. You’re not just going in cold, even for the first date; you’ve done your homework.  

I always start by doing a quick development assessment. 

Take a snapshot of where you’re at and what you’re doing. Pull your donor list and take a look at it, start sorting it. Sort it by individuals and foundations, corporations and whatever else you might have. Because individuals, foundations, and corporations give for very different reasons. 

Get a sense of how many individual donors you have? Do you have 10? Do you have 1000? Hopefully you’ve got some history there. You can see how long they’ve been giving help. How much they give. 

So I tell clients to take the top 10 largest donors–those are going to be your first people that you’re going to try to cultivate a relationship with. 

And the people that have given the longest, because even if someone’s giving you 20 bucks every year, for 10 years, they’ve made that decision and they probably have more capacity. So pull that list, take a look at it. That’s a big number one. You get to see the names and the history and it really inspires you to want to connect with them. 

Step two is your stewardship. 

Big word for saying “thank you” and being appreciative. What is your process? Did they get a thank you letter? How quickly did they get that thank you letter after they made a donation? Is there a personal component; did someone personally sign that letter? Do they get a follow up? 

A little trick is to send something personal, like a handwritten thank you note or call, but if someone does that with the second or third donation, it’s mind blowing. Donors are just so impressed by the fact that you noticed that they gave a second or third time. That sincere appreciation is where the relationship starts.

Take opportunities for real connection, for real meaning, to connect your donors, to connect with the mission, whether it’s video or a photo, or anything that ties it back together–so donors don’t think that their money went out into the universe and didn’t do something.  

When it comes back to them like that it’s so powerful. They will renew again and again. 

And the goal of the donor journey is to get from that first gift to get additional gifts and grow the gifts so that over time you build that relationship where someone is giving more and more and more and they’re feeling good about it, you’re feeling great about it. It’s a mutual relationship. So the stewardship piece is so important to getting started with that relationship. 

The third step that I have clients do is break down your services. 

So this is really about getting to know your organization. I have a client that does senior programming, senior meal delivery, senior enrichment, Senior Center, they also do a daycare center and they have a variety of other children’s programming. Instead of breaking this down as seniors and children and homeless, there’s all these little sub layers that are potential matches with donor interests. There’s the kitchen that serves the food. There’s the craft corner at the daycare center, etc. When you start breaking your organization down to all of its components, and you have that in your head, when you start getting to know donors you have more ways to make a potential connection.

You’re not trying to sell them on buying something or donate something they don’t care about; 

somebody is going to be interested in the senior program, someone’s going to be interested in the homeless, someone’s going to be interested in children, and specifically children with mental difficulties or physical disabilities.You need to know your mission and your services so well that when you’re having coffee with somebody and they talk about the things that they care about, or the things that they already support, you’re finding a match. Later, that match is what you’re going to ask them to support and they’re going to be grateful to you for having had that opportunity. 

The fourth step is the cultivation. 

It is picking up the phone, sending a thank you note, engaging with them, inviting them to a special event, a meet and greet or open house, a breakfast with the CEO, it’s having coffee with them… It’s those touch points. And it is the dating period, as I talked about. So it’s that period of getting to know them, having them get to know you and the organization. It’s that cultivation piece that is really effective when you are looking for opportunities to connect with them, when you’re looking for ways to connect them to the mission–like videos and, and thank you notes and our pictures drawn by the kids that you support, things like that. 

There are other ways to do this, too. If, for example, you follow them on LinkedIn and they get a promotion, send them a little note or an email saying congratulations, you’re thinking about them.

You do that when you’re dating, right? You send them a little text randomly in the middle of the afternoon, like, “Hey, I had a great time at dinner last night”. 

It’s about looking for those opportunities. I had a gentleman donor whose son was a football player at the local high school. He would often score the winning touchdown, or they would publish his name in the paper, and I would get a Google Alert for that. So then I would send them the link and I would say, “Congratulations! Doug did amazing on Friday night!” And the proud Papa would be like, “Thanks! Let’s have lunch!” 

One thing I will say is that it can feel very overwhelming. You’re an executive director and you’ve got to wear 1000 hats. You’re always putting out fires. I say run that donor list. And then you take five or 10. And these are the five that you’re going to concentrate on right now. These are the ones you’re going to set Google alerts for–the ones you’re going to contact every three weeks. 

Don’t think you have to develop personal relationships with 100 donors at a time. 

One little piece; that’s where you get started. And then something will happen. Work on those five people at a time. If one isn’t available, put someone else on the list. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming, as long as you take it in bite sized pieces. 

The fifth step is to Qualify and Research. 

That’s getting to know your donor, researching them. I always give my clients a donor profile sheet, and it’s a couple of pages, but it’s really taking all that information that you learned and putting it into a structure to develop a full picture. It’s their dating profile, honestly. It’s who they are, where they work, what they do, how they spend their time. It includes their children’s names, their mom was a teacher, her dad was an engineer, they used to live in Missouri, and now they live in Cleveland, you know, all those pieces. Then if you’re going to honestly connect yourself, if you’re going to have an authentic relationship and you’re eventually going to match them with a funding program they’re passionate about, you’ve got to get all that out of your head and put it into something. 

And also, so you can share that with board members, or volunteers or your leadership to say, this is this person that I have gotten to know and here’s their profile, so that you can have a thoughtful conversation with them in the next stage about, “Hey, let me tell you about the new daycare center that I know you care about, and you support it. This is what we want to do, this is why it’s important. And we would like you to make a gift of at least $10,000”. 

You know, coming to that point isn’t out of nowhere, right? Putting the ring in front of somebody doesn’t happen overnight. It’s about the relationship and getting to know them and making that qualified match and doing a little research to know what their capacity is. 

Are they someone that has a million dollar home and is a VP and can make a $10,000 gift? Or are they more of the donor who’s going to put you in their automatic payroll deduction for 30 bucks every paycheck? You need to know what someone’s coming from. 

In summary, 

  1. It’s the development assessment, 
  2. it’s the stewardship and saying thank you, 
  3. it’s breaking your organization into services you can match with somebody, 
  4. it’s the relationship, building that cultivation, 
  5. and then ultimately building that profile. 

This is all so you’re ready to have a conversation with them. They’re ready and waiting for it. And it bolsters your confidence to have that much information and be ready.

Monica:  During the 18 month donation lifecycle, can you describe benchmarks to expect along the way?

Danielle: We talk about the donor lifecycle, the donor journey, there are a lot of fancy terms for it. Ultimately, it really is the point at which they’re aware of the organization.  

It’s a point of entry. Point of entry is really important for me. I think a lot of nonprofits are looking for new donors, but there has to be a point at which they come to you. They attend an event, they download something–whatever it is, they come to you. 

Acquisition is when they become a donor, they cut that first check. Stewardship is the saying “thank you.” Cultivation is relationship building. Then you’re going to solicit, you’re going to ask them. Then you’re going to steward some more, say thank you–and you’re gonna be honestly genuine, appreciative. Then you’re going to cultivate that relationship. 

So that’s all fancy for saying, you’re gonna date that donor for 18 months.

You’re going to say, “This is a person who might be interested in donating, I’m going to send them some materials”, or “I’m going to ask a board member to introduce me, we’re going to go to coffee. If that goes well, we might go to lunch”. Then you know, we’re gonna find ways to connect them to the mission. 

And that’s the really critical piece; that connection. Educating and inspiring them. People want to know what’s going on, they want to know how you’re developing, they want to know the latest research. If they care about your mission, they want to be on the inside. You’re gonna engage them. 

Eventually, when you’re at the point where you know them and they know you, and you have a really good sense of what that match is–and there’s a need at that time for the right organization–that’s when you’re going to make the ask. 

For that 18 month cycle, the benchmarks really are identification, cultivation, stewardship, and then saying thank you, and then do it all over again. But dating is one way to describe it. 

From just these Inklings where they kind of know you–you met at a party–to where they become more involved, and they get to know you. Then they volunteer, maybe they’re a board member. They’ve attended some events to the point where you’ve met with them several times. And then they’re ready and you’re ready for a financial conversation. 

It’s an evolution. And so you always want to be thinking about, are you moving that relationship forward? Are you stagnant? Are you just having coffee for the sake of having coffee? Or with every interaction are you moving that person forward to the goal, eventually having that financial conversation?

A tip I’ll give you is that I never go to a donor meeting without some agenda in my head. 

Now, I don’t know where that conversation is going to evolve. But I always have a goal at the end. My goal is to get them to the next event. My goal is to invite them to breakfast with the CEO, or to have them visit a site. If I think maybe they’re interested in the daycare program, the next step is to get them on a tour of that daycare. Always be thinking about what the next step is and whether your interaction is leading to the next step.

Along that path, 18 months is a fairly long time to build that relationship. Sometimes it could be really quick; you might fall in love right away and ask me to marry you. Or, on the other hand, I had a million dollar donor and it took 20 years of cultivation off and on to have that conversation. 

Be introspective. At some point step back and say, “Okay, are we moving along? How is this person feeling? How am I feeling? Is this working?” And you can ask them too. You can say, “Hey, how are you feeling about the organization? Are there things that you would like to know more about or things you would like to see or anything that’s confusing to you? How are you feeling?” They’ll tell you. People love to give their opinions.  

Monica:  If you’re not getting a response from someone, do you say “we’ll take a step back and try again later” or do you just let it go?

Danielle: It depends on the person, but the more you know about your donor, the better your position to check in with them. 

If you know the person, you can say, “Look, I know that you are heading to retirement and you’re getting ready to sell your business”, or “your kids are going off to college”, or “I know it’s tax season, I’ll check in with you after April 15” to acknowledge the fact that you know where they are in their life. “Hey, I haven’t heard back from you in a while. That’s cool. You know, let’s get through your busy season, and then I’ll follow up with you in a couple of months”. 

Maybe this is my naivete, but I always lean towards the glass half full. There’s a reason. People are not ignoring you because they don’t like you or because they’re done with your organization. Life gets in the way, we all have lots of responsibilities to our aging parents, to our children, to our spouses, to our jobs, to our neighborhood, to our community, to our other volunteer roles. Be understanding of where people are at and say, “That’s okay, this might not be the right time. I’ll check back with you in a little bit”. It means a lot to them. When you speak to where they’re at, it’s very meaningful.

Monica:  What advice would you give to nonprofits who may feel apprehensive about asking someone for a more major gift?

Danielle: I would say people want to be asked. People want to be supportive. 

As I said, I’ve never asked someone for something that they didn’t already want to do. I’m giving them an opportunity to support something that they already care about. Speaking from my personal experience, and from the clients that I work with, my advice would be to do your homework so that you feel competent. 

Build a relationship, speak with passion.

People will respond so much to that. When you’re passionate about your mission and the work that you’re doing, you have no idea how that will speak to somebody. Don’t be afraid to share that and know that it’s always about timing. It might not be right now, but it’s never in vain building a relationship and speaking your truth. 

Be donor-centric, be focused on that match. 

What is it that they care about and they want to do? You don’t have to look to them for guidance or let them lead the charge. You’re never going to offend them because they want to be there. You’re not selling anything, you’re giving them an opportunity to make a meaningful impact on a mission and organizations they already care about. 

So if they’re already in your cycle, this is just the next step. If you follow their process, if you are building that relationship, it’s not coming out of left field when you ask for that large gift; they really should have a sense of it’s already coming. And then you just work out the details.

Monica:  What advice would you give to nonprofits to encourage volunteers to help with this dating process?

Danielle: It’s simple things like who signs your thank you letters. 

A donation comes in–Is there an automatic electronic signature that goes out, or is there an opportunity for some personalization there, whether it’s your CEO or board members? I have a client who brings thank you notes to every monthly board meeting, and then just passes them around so board members can sign the letters with little notes. 

And they give them names of not just the most recent donors, but donors in general. So some donor randomly gets a thank you note from a board member and it’s like, “Wow, I donated like six months ago, and I got this handwritten thank you note from a board member!” That’s pretty impressive. 

Have board members review your donor lists for folks that they know do meet and greets. Invite them to meetings with donors. If you’re going to have lunch with a donor, who could you bring? Maybe it’s a staff person or program person, maybe it’s a board member, right? If that person is an engineer, then who on your board is in science or math or lives in the same community?

You recruit a board member for a reason, because they live in a certain community or have a certain skill set. 

They know people in a particular circle. Do a board member donor profile–think about them as your largest prospect; they have already committed to being an ambassador, so make sure you get to know them for all of those special connections and then utilize them. You have to get used to looking for opportunities to involve people and then not being afraid to say, “Hey, Joe, I’m going to meet with this donor, would you like to come?” or “I’m putting together this document; you’re a financial advisor–Would you take a look at it?” or “Would you write a guest article for our blog?” 

It’s the same thing with your volunteers. If they are an office volunteer, or they put together a walk team, why are they doing that? And how do you support them? And what are the things that they’re connected to? I did a walk, and we had a family put together a walk team. And I met the mom at the walk and she was a pretty impressive lady. She was an attorney at a law firm. And so I was like, “Hey, let’s have a conversation”. And that led to a much bigger walk team and a corporate sponsorship from her firm. She eventually became a board member and her daughter became like the walk hero. Her whole family became involved. The firm became involved.

It just started with that one spark to say, “Hey, let’s talk about how you might want to get more involved.” 

At that point, she had been on the outside. She was just coming because she cared about the mission and she wanted to empower the family. But once I gave her a way to do more and be more engaged, she just ran with it. 

Monica:  How can people get in contact with you for your help?

Danielle: My website is Locke Step dot com. I’m also on Facebook at Locke Step Partners.

I’m not super unsociable with Facebook. I put a lot of good tips out there and I send out a great email–you can go to our website and sign up for it. I give more tips on a regular basis. When I work with a client, we dig in and we do the assessment and we figure out what they’re looking for. They’re always in shock and awe at the gems that are within their own data. And that’s my soapbox; Much like a business, nonprofits are always seeking new donors, they’re always seeking new audiences.

But a current customer is so much more valuable–and it’s five times more expensive to acquire a new customer (or a new donor) than to build a relationship with the ones you already have. 

It’s so easy to let those amazing people get lost in the shuffle. So my speech, as always, is to find those diamonds in the rough, pull them back out, build a relationship, use data and tools to strengthen and to build your confidence. Then just go have fun, right? Have some lunches, have breakfast, eat with people, you know, have conversations, be genuinely interested in them. The sky’s the limit for where you will go and and they will introduce you to other people and they will be grateful for the opportunity that you have given them to have a greater impact on something that they care about.

Monica:  Thank you so much for everything that you’ve shared with us today. I really appreciate it.

Danielle: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.


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