4 min Read
July 19, 2017

Building a donor base from the ground up

Big Duck

Nonprofits tend to go for the big money—primarily grants and major gifts—when building their development program at the start. Then, at some point, many find they need to diversify their funding sources by building an individual giving program that targets lower-capacity donors.

The idea of building a donor base from scratch can leave a lot of fundraisers (neophyte or not) feeling overwhelmed. But with reasonable investments and consistent efforts, any nonprofit can get there. Let’s break it down…

Act as if you’ve already got them.

You might think the first step in building a donor base would be asking people for money. But gaining new donors without the infrastructure to keep them engaged would be like opening a hotel before you’ve bought any beds. Just as you would make sure your hotel is clean and fully stocked with all the necessary comforts, at the very least you want to have a strategic donor communications plan up and running before you ask people to begin their relationship with you. Without this, you might be able to inspire donations, but you’re likely to see most of those hard-won new donors lapse after having a lackluster experience over the next year. Of course having a strategic and defined brand, a full set of messaging tools, and materials with a professional look and feel is ideal to have in place, but all in good time, grasshopper. There’s only so much I can cover in one blog post!

Work with what you’ve got.

Tapping into the supporters you already have—whether that means board members, major donors, volunteers, or the executive director’s friends—is a smart way to both generate more donations and build out an infrastructure for bringing new supporters into your community. If any of these contacts are not already giving, they are warm (if not hot) prospects. They are also likely to have access to communities of peers who should know more about you and care about what you do. Reaching out to their broader networks will build an additional layer of your donor base, helping to make it a bit bigger and more stable. It also gives you a group of supporters who may not know you as well, but will feel that they have something of a personal connection to you through the person who brought them in.

But gaining new donors without the infrastructure to keep them engaged would be like opening a hotel before you’ve bought any beds.

Really put them to work.

Now that your core base of supporters did the initial work of appealing to their friends, family, and coworkers, you will have a chance to get more organized in your outreach. With a larger pool of supporters who have a personal connection to you, either through direct interaction or the person who brought them in, a smart next step is to invite donors to start or join committees tasked with helping you reach even more donors. These committees can help you by contributing expertise (e.g. Marketing or Development Committees) or access to specific groups of potential donors and partners (e.g. Young Professionals or Food Industry Committees).

Look deep inside yourself.

You may be able to get your supporters working for you, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to put in some hard work yourself. Okay, I don’t mean you specifically, Mr. or Ms. Reader, I know that managing this kind of infrastructure is hard work. What I mean is, your organization should be set up to make the process of attracting new supporters easier. This could mean having a good set of materials and talking points that respond to a prospect’s interests during in-person meetings or events. It could also mean establishing tools that help prospects connect without too much effort, like a single-field email subscription form on your homepage. It could mean developing tools that will intrigue and engage in and of themselves, like a short quiz that you feature on your website and social media channels. Now, there’s no reason why you have to wait until you have a set of committees before taking this step, though I’d understand if you wanted to develop a healthy funding stream before putting a lot of effort into generally slower moving acquisition tools.

Dig into your pockets.

The adage that you need to spend money to make money isn’t always true…but it almost always is. In addition to their value for strengthening existing relationships, higher-end events that appeal to your audience’s interests or enjoyment of the finer stuff of life are simply more engaging. Further, they present a more professional (read, reliable and established) face that will help to convince attendees to commit to your organization. And you can’t get fancy without shovelling out some dough. Then there is the short-cut—and really the only guaranteed way to significantly increase your supporter base. Paid acquisition. Both offline and online acquisition can require fairly significant investments, and will take at minimum two years to earn back their initial cost. But, if you’ve gotten your communications plan in place it’s definitely the fastest way to build a robust individual giving program.

Oh yea, also, you should think through a plan that works for you! Building a successful development program is harder to do if you’re just thinking about the first, or next, step. Taking the time to plan path for going from 0 to 60 will make the journey more purposeful and do more to set you up for success (even if the plan changes along the way). So, good luck, and remember, you can do it!