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Demystifying Donor Cultivation: Loving Your Donors

June 11, 2013
by Terry Axelrod
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I was at one of our Benevon workshops this past week, working with about 125 nonprofit leaders who are committed to attaining sustainable funding with an emphasis on major gifts from individual donors. These were smart and dedicated executive directors, CEOs, development directors, finance directors, and program directors. As competent and knowledgeable as they were about their work, when we got to the topic of cultivating individual donors, they regressed to scared little kids.

Reaching back to my ancient behavioral modification "desensitization training" days, I asked them each to find someone else in the room whom they had never met and imagine that they wanted to develop a long-term friendship with this person.

"Just start talking," I instructed them. "Do the things you would normally do when you meet someone new."

I gave them five minutes to talk back and forth. The din in the room got louder.

Now imagine that this person is a donor who has just given your organization $1,000 and has pledged to do so again for each of the next five years. You've never met this person before. You want to understand better what motivated them to do that.

What might you want to ask them? Would you want to know what connection they have to behavioral healthcare? What do they do in life? Perhaps you'd like to know more about their family or their work. What questions does this person have for you? What more would they like to know about you or what motivates you to do the work you do? What got you into the field in the first place?

You've started the dialog.

Now amp that up to realizing that you actually like this person and might want to stay connected, just like when you've met someone with whom you might want to become closer friends. What else might you ask or offer by way of information about yourself? Common interests, common challenges you've experienced like raising teenagers, your recent trip to the Grand Canyon, or what it takes to juggle a hectic schedule. Perhaps you'd even open up about some of the challenges in healthcare today, trying to make sense of all the new regulations, getting the word out into the community on a sensitive topic like mental health or substance abuse.

Before you know it, you've let your hair down, had a darn decent conversation, gotten to know this donor better, and let them know you better.

We say that each personal cultivation contact should leave you knowing and liking your donor better and leave your donor knowing more about your organization and feeling closer to your organization's mission. One of the executive directors we work with put it this way: "I want to leave each donor cultivation visit knowing and loving my donors more and having them know and love our organization more. Now, instead of worrying about that scary thing called ‘cultivating donors,' I just talk to my donors as if I am developing a long-term relationship with a new friend. Now, I just hang out with my donors!"

I bet you've had similar experiences where the donor cultivation process has been completely natural. I'd love to hear about them here.


Terry Axelrod

CEO, Benevon

Terry Axelrod


Terry Axelrod is founder and CEO of Benevon. She has more than thirty years of experience in the...

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