Development Fundamentals

Your Donors' Wish List

by Larry Johnston

A recent article on BNET ( called “Change everything: Smile & Move,” had a great list of things on “Your Colleagues’ and Customers’ Wish List”:

  • More attentiveness and care
  • More gratitude (less entitlement)
  • More personal connection and authenticity
  • Less complaints and more smiles
  • More positive surprises (less negative ones)
  • More resourcefulness and resilience
  • More commitment to delivering

I really like this list. It packs a lot of punch in just seven succinct bullets. I also like it because it would make a great list for donors to many organizations.

You’ll often hear MJI consultants talk about “the relentless pursuit of donor delight,” and delivering on the above wish list would help lots of organizations in the pursuit of that delight.

If the logic in the list above makes sense to you, let’s get practical. What one step could you take with your donors on each of these bullets? More to the point, if you focused on just one step per month for the next seven months, practically what would that look like?

A popular credit card ad concludes by asking, “What’s in your wallet?” A better question for those of us in development might be, “What’s on your donors’ wish list?”



What's Driving Your Donors?

By Larry Johnston

In seminars I do at conferences, I’ll frequently ask the question, “What is the primary purpose of development?” Answers vary, but they tend to cluster in several areas like raising funds, building relationships, advancing the organization’s mission, and teaching stewardship.

There’s truth in all of these, but I’m doubtful about “teaching” stewardship. That’s a role of some excellent ministries, and certainly the role of churches although most of the latter fail miserably on this front for a host of reasons. If development has a role in stewardship, I think it has to do with providing attractive kingdom investment opportunities and then helping investors to feel, in the immortal words of Mae West, that “Too much of a good thing is marvelous!” That is, when it comes to giving and generosity, moderation is a vastly overrated virtue!

After hearing from the seminar audience, I’ll tell them what the primary purpose of development is from my vantage point: To create and keep the right kinds of donors.

Creating donors entails a host of activities, including branding, marketing and communications. And central in these activities is developing and articulating a distinctive value proposition, something that should be the cornerstone of your organization’s strategy. A value proposition recognizes that increasingly, development departments must be about the business of mutual value creation: proactively creating value for donors and other stakeholders as they go about creating value (gift income, a healthy donor base, visibility, brand equity, etc.) for their organization.

But keeping donors increasingly entails knowing what value is for your donors, and more specifically, what are the key value drivers for your donors. Our research has confirmed that there are a couple dozen drivers of donor satisfaction, engagement, loyalty, and thus donor lifetime value. We know that these drivers vary by organization and that while some of these clearly overlap, each donorbase has a distinctive “personality.” What’s more, our research confirms that key drivers not only vary between organizations, they can vary within organizations by segment. That is, key drivers for major donors can be different than those for medium and “mass” donors.

Now here’s the head-scratcher. It can be forcefully argued that nothing (other than, perhaps, divine favor) is more important to the success of development than consistently delivering on these key drivers, and yet not one in 100 development people can provide empirically based answers to the critical question of what drives their donors’ loyalty.

Abraham Lincoln wisely noted that if he had six hours to chop down a tree, he’d spend four hours sharpening the ax. For those in development, sharpening the ax includes knowing, not merely guessing, what drives donor loyalty and thus, to a great extent, what drives the success – and even the sustainability -- of their organizations.

Do you know what’s driving your donors?


Making Major Donors Your Priority Now

By Larry Johnston

Major donors play such a vital role in funding your organization's priorities, programs and projects you simply can't leave their involvement to chance. It takes a concerted and consistent effort to "do justice" to your major donors. Remember what Abraham Lincoln said: “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend four hours sharpening the ax.” Here are some things good major donor reps, development directors, board members and executive directors (in short, ANYONE who has responsibility for cultivation and solicitation of major donors) pay attention to. The best reps do so consistently:

Pray! – Having great skills and abilities is vitally important but they’re no substitute for wisdom, discernment, and the favor from On High that are the result of concentrated “closet” time. (Major Ian Thomas is reported to have said, “There is nothing more pathetic or nauseating than human flesh trying to glorify God!”) If prayer is indeed the slender nerve that moves the muscles of Omnipotence, the failure to pray is profoundly counterstrategic!
Focus! – knowing what matters most, the best reps refuse to get stuck in the thick of thin things like organizational redtape, fruitless activities and time-wasting antics, and the “grip and grin” rituals that entail endless lathering but never shaving. The best reps are acutely aware of the difference between hunting and mere hiking.
Listen!! – My partner, and the guy I still consider the “Dean of Development” after 33 years of partnership, says there are four keys to success in major gift fundraising: 1) Get involved in the lives of these folks; 2) Discover what their hopes and dreams are; 3) Show them how your organization can be a great vehicle for the realization of those hopes and dreams, and: 4) Challenge them to make those dreams come true now. Discovering the hopes and dreams of donors and prospects can’t be done without asking smart questions and elevating listening to an art form.
Measure – Good reps may take some things by faith, but personal performance isn’t one of them. The best reps don’t wait to have their work measured; they would measure their own work whether or not anyone else did and use these measures in a disciplined way to consistently improve performance against quantifiable targets. They’ll measure lag (efforts or performance drivers) and lead (results) indicators and will strive to focus on the critical few activities that yield the greatest fruit.
Learn – In today’s marketplace, if you’re not getting smarter, the sad truth is you’re getting dumber. (The amount of information on deposit at today’s colleges and universities is doubling every three to four years.) You can rest assured that the competition is raising the bar in terms of their knowledge base, and all you have to do to fall behind is move slower than your competitors (In today’s marketplace, “It’s not the big that eat the small, but the fast that eat the slow.”) The best reps, like the best leaders and managers, are lifelong learners with an insatiable desire to improve their knowledge, skills and performance.
Ask! – It’s tragic but true. Some reps never get around to asking for the gift. Perhaps they feel that “hope” is a strategy and “hinting” a sound tactic. There’s simply no doubt about it: of all the reasons why people give, the most important is that someone asked. The wisest reps don’t ask people to give to the organization, but through the organization to those it serves in Christ’s name.
Persist – Field rep work is clearly not for the feint of heart. The work can be wearying and the temptation at times is to throw in the towel. Many failures in development can be attributed to those who quit not knowing how close they were to success.


Critical Truths in Development

By Larry Johnston

In today’s competitive environment, you and your organization MUST focus on the critical issue of donor retention. Keeping the donors you have can be a significant factor in your ability to not only survive in difficult times, but to thrive in any marketing environment. There are, however a variety of assumptions made about what it takes to satisfy donors that your organization is “doing a good job” with their giving dollars. Some of these assumptions can be downright dangerous, so let’s get back to some basic, bedrock truths:

Truth #1: The primary purpose of development is NOT simply to raise money. It’s to create and keep the right kinds of donors. For example, you might succeed for a while in getting ad hoc gifts, but without a stable, loyal base of givers you’ll never be truly successful in development.

Truth #2: Organizations do not keep dissatisfied donors. When donors become dissatisfied, most simply walk away, taking their checkbooks with them. Most organizations are perpetually hemorrhaging donors and many never even stop to ask why. (Don’t be fooled by “financial hardship” being cited by donors as a reason for discontinuing their giving. In 9 out of 10 cases they’re still giving to other organizations. What they were too kind to say is that your organization didn’t make the cut.)

Truth #3: Some donors are more valuable to the organization than others. Losing a “gold” donor is different than losing a “silver” donor. However, a great many organizations don’t know what their overall donor attrition/ retention rates are, let alone what their major donor attrition rates are.

Truth #4: The longer you keep donors, the more valuable they become.
Even a donor who downgrades her giving from $5,000 to $2,500 annually is still $2,500 more valuable to the organization than she was last year!

Truth #5: Some factors are more important to donor retention than others.
Our research confirms that a single factor can account for more than 50% of donors’ satisfaction with the organization!

Truth #6: Smart development people keep the main thing the main thing. They know which satisfaction “drivers” are most important to lifetime donor value and they concentrate on those factors. Majoring on the minors is a folly they gladly leave to others. They welcome clumsy competition.

Truth #7: Any money you spend to acquire new donors, simply to replace donors lost because of dissatisfaction, can rightfully be considered
waste. Dollars that should be going to impact lives are perennially detoured into “revolving door” donor activities: around and around we go, always in motion but never getting anywhere. (There really is a difference between motion and progress but some people apparently don’t mind the difference as long they’re enjoying the trip!)