On Gardens & Donors: Great Relationships Take Work!

I spent last weekend outside in my back yard, toiling in my garden and getting it ready for spring and summer planting. The front of my home is completely xeriscaped and filled with beautiful yet intimidating agave, cacti and succulents. From this vantage point you’d never know that there’s a small but productive vegetable and herb garden out back that helps nourish my family year-round. 

Nothing brings me more joy than the seasonal cycle of cultivating and harvesting the fruits of my own labor. Unlike many home gardeners I know, I plant from seed instead of transplants because I want to be part of every stage of the growing process. I love the way the soil feels in my hands which is why I stubbornly refuse to wear gloves despite owning more pair than I can count. I prefer hand watering because it allows me to conserve by giving the thirstier plants what they need without overwatering the rest. It also gives me time to think, which is the other part of gardening that brings me so much pleasure.

I consider my garden an important part of my personal ecosystem, one that I must work to nurture in order to be rewarded with the food that graces my table. Just because I put seeds in the ground and water them doesn’t mean that the vegetables will magically appear. If I haven’t done my part to prepare the soil and make sure I’m planting my seeds at the appropriate time of year, my results will be spotty at best. If I fail to be attentive to pests and other issues that can arise during the growing process, I could end up with an aphid or beetle infestation that could ruin the whole plot. But when I amend my soil between seasons, rotate crops, and stay attentive to pests, the results amaze me each and every year. 

When I think of all the work that goes into keeping my garden healthy and productive, it’s an easy comparison to the fundraising and donor relations work I’ve done for the past twenty years. Those of us who focus on the philanthropy part of nonprofit businesses understand that more than anything, we are in the relationship business. And, just like the relationship I have with my garden, donor relationships are only as good as the time and effort we put into them. If we don’t do the work to build relationships of care, trust and accountability with our donors, we cannot expect them to reward our organizations with their generosity. If we do a poor job nurturing and managing these relationships, the fundamental missions of our organizations and the client bases we serve will suffer. But when we do our jobs well, the results and impacts are fantastic. 

Cultivating strong donor relationships takes creativity and flexibility. There is no exact formula for doing it right, but a general rule of thumb is that good donor cultivation arises naturally from good nonprofit management. Here are a few fundamentals to illustrate what I mean:  

Engagement. Engaging donors can take a variety of forms, including but not limited to regular communication, special events, face-to-face meetings, etc. Telling your organization’s story is important for its overall brand recognition and visibility, so regular and consistent communication to your surrounding community is just one component of good nonprofit management. This outward-facing communication can take the form of digital newsletters, social media outreach, email campaigns and even special events. Broad community engagement, along with strategic communication and outreach focused on current and potential donors not only builds overall awareness but also helps establish reputation and trust with existing and potential donors. And as I’ve written before, trust is key to creating lasting donor relationships. So, find creative ways to communicate and engage your donors. I know you’re busy with other things, but trust me…this is worth your time. 

Transparency. Another important way to build awareness and trust in your organization is through openness and transparency. Most nonprofit leaders already understand that the IRS mandates at least some level of fiscal transparency to the public. What often gets neglected, however, is the personal touch that nonprofits can offer donors through deeper transparency and focused reporting. Donors give to nonprofits because they believe in the mission and want to make an impact. But if we don’t show and tell our donors how their gifts were used and the impact they have made with their philanthropy, we can’t expect them to continue giving. Transparency is really an offshoot of engagement, as it’s a deeper method for nonprofits to share their stories. Some nonprofits choose to take a formal approach to transparency through the creation of glossy annual reports or impact reports. Other nonprofit leaders take a more informal approach by carving time out each month to call donors and share information with them. I advocate for a solid hybrid of these two approaches, because I’ve found that most donors appreciate both formal and informal communications about their impact. 

Flexibility. Always remember that every donor is different and should be treated as such. Building strong relationships is impossible with a cookie-cutter approach. Not all donors are interested in attending your events. Not every donor wants to read your monthly newsletter. Some donors only want to see your annual audited financial statements. Other donors only want to hear about how their funding helped the organization. I have closed some of the largest gifts of my career by taking the time to truly get to know the donors I work with. By paying attention and getting to know my constituents as human beings, I can be agile in my approach and develop more impactful cultivation plans. And, impactful cultivation leads to impactful gifts. 

The moral of the story….

Don’t get me wrong. Donors are not plants. But just like the relationship I’ve cultivated over the years with my veggie garden, good donor relationships can be so fulfilling and rewarding, year after year. And, like the vegetables that I so joyfully harvest to feed my family, fruitful donor relationships do not happen by accident. Like gardening, donor cultivation is intentional work. We can’t just sit down in front of a donor and immediately ask them to contribute. We must plan, we must engage, communicate, pay attention, and stay flexible. And we must always remember that the best relationships are not one-sided. So, whatever you do and however you approach your work with donors, make sure your donors are just as fulfilled by their relationship with your organization as you are when they give you their money. 

Happy cultivating, friends!