Take Us to Your Leader: 8 Successful Donor Cultivation Strategies

For most nonprofits, fund development is a year-long process. As it should be.

But some nonprofits suffer from the routine of annual appeals, special events, and grant writing deadlines. A culture of accountability to seasonal fundraising goals and funding application closing dates can alienate some private foundations and individuals, who have the potential to develop into major funders, if only more time was spent building valuable relationships.

Instead of acting like storm troopers for philanthropy, become ambassadors for a new prime directive: Appreciation.

1. Be strategic – Donor cultivation should be well planned, focusing on two key components: General and specific endeavors.

General cultivation should include regular tours of your site, presentations at civic groups and community collaboration meetings, friendraising events, and informal meetings with local business and foundation leaders.

Specific cultivation efforts are meant for those prospects, who may not attend these events regularly or whose giving programs align well with your nonprofit’s mission, but whose philanthropic path has not crossed yours yet. Sending letters of inquiry and calling to set up a time to speak face to face with foundation representatives are the early stages of these endeavors.

2. Be systematic – Follow-up every cultivation activity in some way: Add prospect names to your mailing list, send thank you emails and letters, or ask a Board member to place a phone call.

3. Be coordinated – Ensure that all interactions with prospective donors are reported to a central person in your organization, such as the Executive Director. This information should be entered into your donor database, so that appropriate follow-up and future interactions are well-informed.

4. Be particular – Go beyond email and newsletter marketing strategies to personalize interactions regularly: Send donors articles on topics they may be interested in, add personal notes to the bottom of any letter or invitation, recall details about the people at the organizations you’re trying to get to know better. Then act on those those remembered experiences (send birthday wishes, well wishes for family having health problems, congratulations after important life events).

5. Be ready – Don’t wait to update your website and social media campaigns until after cultivation is underway. Cultivation is what you have to do to get the donor to recognize your organization as reputable and trustworthy so that you can ease into an eventual solicitation that is pleasant and painless. If you’re still in the process of cultivating your own story, you aren’t ready to cultivate relationships with others outside your organization.

6. Be timely – When favorable press coverage or programming successes come to pass, strike while the proverbial Deathstar is still hot by making contact and then reference to recent accomplishments that have garnered your organization public acclaim. Share the good news while there’s good news to share!

7. Be consistent – Cultivation is what you do to build the loyalty and commitment of prospective donors to your nonprofit. But it is a two-way street. Donor cultivation shouldn’t stop once you learn more about how your organization and theirs can fit together fiscally. This is a process of getting to know the donor, their culture, and vision for the future – not just their checkbook! Keep cultivation efforts going whether funding is foreseeable in the near future or not.

When nonprofits move beyond rote preparation of funding appeals and grant requests toward building relationships, a culture of appreciation, rather than accountability, can manifest.

Adrienne Lewis-Wagner is a freelance fund development consultant living in Michigan. Her blog The Prospect can be found at


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