Donor Cultivation Practices: To Fish or Farm?

By Jerry Henry

Although I’ve spent a majority of my adult life in small cities and large metropolitan areas, I was born and raised on a small family farm in rural South Carolina. My roots are deep in crop farming – I was even a member of the Future Farmers of American in junior high school!

Earlier this year, an online discussion sponsored by The Chronicle of Philanthropy caught my attention. I was pretty sure someone had just mentioned farming. What does farming have to do with philanthropy, you ask? We’re getting there!

Steve MacLaughlin, Director of the Idea Lab at Blackbaud, emphasized the importance of donor retention in navigating the post-Great Recession economic world.  Essentially, he suggested focusing more on donor retention, and less on donor acquisition.

MacLaughlin addressed current donor acquisition/retention of non-profits by saying that many organizations are moving toward a ratio of eighty percent donor acquisition, and 20 percent donor retention. As MacLaughlin suggests, this 80/20 ratio is unsustainable and expensive.

As he concluded the discussion, MacLaughlin made clear that there needs to be a shift in donor cultivation – from fishing to farming.

Do you fish, or do you farm? At Alexander Haas, we counsel clients to lessen their focus on “suspects” (that’s when you’re fishing) and, instead, spend more time developing strategies for “prospects” (that’s when you’re farming).

Below are some best practices for farming, brought to you by “Farmer” Jerry:

1.     It is important to plan. Real farmers, just like development officers, plan for cultivation, and by extension, where they need to plant which crops. Research and determine in advance your plans for donor cultivation.

2.     Make sure your case for support stays fresh for your prospects by altering the way you talk about your mission. In order to reap the best harvest, farmers must rotate their crops throughout the year.

3.     Reach your prospects by using multiple channels. On farms – even the smallest ones – different enterprises, like crops, livestock, etc., are employed. Variety is important! In the diverse and ever-changing world we live in, it’s important to reach all constituents through multiple avenues of engagement (face-to-face contact, social media, newsletters, etc.).

4.     If you ignore your prospects, they will go elsewhere; so make sure to maintain on-going donor cultivation. Farmers want the best harvest, and they understand the importance of constant care and attention to their crops (watering, fertilizing, tilling, weeding – the work is never done!). There is competition everywhere for your donors’ attention and dollars. Never take them for granted, or another organization will be happy to “farm” them away.

5.     Bring home the gift! Like farmers, development officers must know the right time to harvest (ask for the gift). This should only be done after proper donor cultivation and gentle nurturing of your prospects – don’t over-cultivate! Know when and how to make your case.

Have you noticed the need for a shift from fishing to farming in your development efforts?  If so, this might be the year to use “Farmer” Jerry’s best practices, and ensure your donor cultivation yields its best harvest yet!