Calling Your Donors — It’s the Magic

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

I’m beginning to think the old-fashioned phone call is going the way of the hand-written letter: ancient history! With texting, tweeting, and email as the easy, quick alternatives, picking up the phone and having a two-way, voice-to-voice conversation with a real human being feels almost scary.

Yet it is precisely what is needed to develop and maintain donor relationships. That genuine dialog is at the heart of donor cultivation—it’s the magic.

If you plan to use the Benevon Model for its intended purpose—to engage and develop relationships with lifelong individual donors and build towards long-term financial sustainability, then some members of your team will need to have regular telephone contact with your individual donors.

Here’s how I recommend you begin:

Set aside one hour a week, every single week of the year, for the sole purpose of calling your donors.

While most executive directors, development directors, and board members are not uncomfortable speaking with people, when it comes to calling a donor, many people fear the donor will think they are calling to ask for more money. Here are two useful tips for what to say.

First, thank them sincerely for their gifts. “I’m calling today as a _____________ (board member, executive director, volunteer) with the Community Reintegration Program (CRP) just to thank you for your gift. It made a huge difference to us.”

Second, give one specific example, or tell one specific story of the difference their gift meant to your organization. Let them know you really mean it. “Your gift allowed us to work with one recently released inmate named Sal to provide an apartment, a job, and classes at the community college to help him build a new life. Many people don’t appreciate the daunting challenges that prisoners face when they are released back into the community—the temptations of their old lifestyle, the difficulty finding work after serving time. In spite of the state cuts in funding that meant we had to cut three staff in our community re-entry program and serve 200 fewer clients per year, your gift allowed us to continue serving Sal. And for him, it made all the difference. Furthermore, just your awareness and support for our mission here at CRP inspires us and boosts our morale in these challenging times.”

Never say thank you without telling a story of how your organization changed a life (or a community or an issue) thanks to their support.

You may be surprised when the donor wants to talk further. The easiest way to deepen or begin to build your relationship is by asking them a few simple questions. The best question to ask them is, “What is it about our work that interests you? Is there any particular aspect or program?” That way you’ll know how to keep them engaged going forward. Another good question to ask is, “May I ask how you got interested in this issue in the first place?”Before you know it you may find yourself engaged in a real conversation with a passionate donor.

Finally, invite them to any upcoming mission-focused events, such as a “graduation” for your program participants or a father and child birthday party night, etc.

There is absolutely no substitute for talking to your donors. Even if you get an answering machine, leave a message with the same kind of information in it—a heartfelt thank you plus one example of how your gift made a difference, and do leave your phone number for the donor to call you back if they would like to talk further.

Remember that your donors are people who already care about your work. They will be happy to talk with a real person who is working hard to fulfill the organization’s mission.

Do it right now. Pick up the phone and call a donor. Then schedule one hour a week to make those calls and “just do it.” Having that true dialog with your donors is where all the magic happens.

Terry Axelrod is the founder and CEO of Benevon, www.benevon.com, a Seattle-based organization that has trained and coached more than 4,500 nonprofit teams to build sustainable funding from individual donors.

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