How long does it take…

on in Fundraising

…before you give up on a prospect?

That was the question a board member posed in a fundraising training we conducted last week.

We were talking about the importance of cultivation, and how you have to read the signals of what a potential donor is interested in and try to respond in kind. In other words, that it’s not about putting what you think is your best foot forward – but about divining the prospect’s intentions and passions and pursing a dialogue about those.

We were discussing the merits of touring a community garden versus visiting the senior crafts hour (which one better conveyed a sense of community need? which was pleasant – good news – but not so lite that prospects would forget the social service underneath the activity’s design?) when a voice popped up from the back of the room. “How long does it take?” asked a middle-aged man sitting near the refreshment table.

Did he mean how long did the entire cultivation process take and why was it so long before you saw any results?

Did he mean what was the formula for success and what effort did he have to put in to be guaranteed to hit the slot machine jackpot?

Or did he mean how long did you have to work at fundraising before you gave up altogether (and what was the alternative, then)?

When we got down to brass tacks, what he was actually asking was how to read the signals. How many times do you get a “can’t this week” before you give up trying to get someone to come to the Sunday afternoon sing-along with seniors? How many demurrals do you bear before you stop asking someone to join you at the annual weed-a-thon? How long do you keep trudging along casting out your net, and hoping that this time you’ll sense a spark of interest?

The answer we had to give him, as folks will guess who know us well, was…it depends.

It depends on the signals you’re getting back.

There are, certainly, people who are trying hard to give you the “not now, not ever” message. But there are others for whom it just doesn’t register high enough on their radar screen – until serendipity comes into play. And of course, for those of us putting the chess pieces of the donor cultivation process together – we know how to make serendipity happen.

It’s kind of like dating – except you’re trying to make a match, light a spark, between the mission and effect of the charity – and the prospect’s viewpoint of the world. What he or she considers is the way things “ought to be.” And sometimes you have to keep trudging along till you hit the right combination of attention, circumstances, and interest.

And sometimes you read the message in the tea leaves and move on.

There’s too little time, and too many potential prospects, to chase forever after someone because they “have money.”

Potential donors are everywhere, if you know how to uncover them.



(Originally published 1/25/10)

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