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Making the Most of Each Holiday Connection

There you are, standing over the punch bowl at the holiday party, chatting with a former board member or a volunteer you haven’t seen for a while. She’s just walked through your new offices, recalled the early days, inquired about how various programs are going now. She’s reconnected.

Would you be prepared, right there in that moment, to delicately suggest some ways she could be of help to your organization?

Maybe she’s not ready to jump back in to a major volunteer role, but she could host a little Point of Entry or dessert gathering in her home after the holidays—just to help you spread the word. No fundraising, of course!

Or those dear friends of hers you’d just love to meet—could she arrange that lunch for all of you to get acquainted?

The foundation board she sits on—can she help you arrange a meeting with the grants officer?

Her firm’s volunteer department—don’t they look for volunteer opportunities for the employees all year round?

Will you be arriving at the holiday party informed about the guests and armed with your mental list of opportunities for involvement?

If not, get to work!

You may need to brainstorm with your team to be sure your list is broad enough. If you know the guests who’ll be coming to the holiday events, you may be able to get very specific: someone to chair the big event next year, someone to help you launch the computer program, or that new young professionals group you’ve been wanting to start.

Play a game to see how connected or reconnected you can become in each conversation you have over the holidays.

It’s the time for reconnecting and then planting a seed that can be nurtured and grown next year and in the years to come.

Your goal with each holiday interaction is to connect enough in each conversation so that your last sentence can very naturally be: “I’ll call you after the holidays to talk more about it.”

Happy Holidays!

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The Lifelong Donor

What do we mean by lifelong donor? Does it mean we have to wait a whole lifetime before they make their first gift? Does it mean they take a lot of extra care and maintenance that your organization may not be prepared to give?

Let’s start with the word “lifelong.” That sounds like a long time! Think of other lifelong relationships you have—with friends and family, perhaps with work colleagues. You’ve been through a lot together—good times and bad times. You’ve had moments when you wondered why you stayed connected to this person. Yet something has endured. There’s something about these lifelong relationships that makes them worth it. They add tremendous richness and breadth to our lives.

Now imagine that your donors put your organization in that category. The people and the work are important enough to them that they want to stay connected long-term. We each have organizations like this. I will always have a fondness for the hospital where our two children were born. I consider myself a lifelong supporter of the quality healthcare they provide. The same goes for my alma mater, my faith organization, the search-and-rescue organization that airlifted my sister out of a terrifying wilderness experience, and the schools that have done such a terrific job of educating our kids.

There is very little they need to do to keep me as a donor. I already consider myself to be a lifelong supporter of their work, and in most cases, they don’t even know that. They certainly don’t fawn over me and make me feel as if I could become one of their special major donors.

My story is typical. We each have a handful of organizations like this in our lives—organizations we truly love and to which we are lifelong donors.

Who are those donors for your organization? Who is already out there that cares about your work that much? With them, you have deep permission—permission that you are most likely not even using. I say that to the extent to which you are not fully “taking advantage of” the deep permission you have with these donors, you are not serving them.

We had a woman in one of our workshops who was the director of a major American art museum. She had done a brilliant job of cultivating her donors over the years. She proudly told me that she had at least 20 donors who were ready to give her a minimum of $1 million each. Yet she was afraid to ask them.

As we were meeting in her beautiful office one day, her assistant came in to tell her the sad news that one of these wonderful donors had just passed away—never having been given the opportunity to make a major gift to this institution that she had loved her entire life. Instead, an additional million or ten went to her heirs or to taxes. What pleasure that gift could have brought that woman, to know the lasting impact she would have made on the museum.

Perhaps this story sounds familiar. Whether your donors are ready to give you millions or thousands or hundreds, every organization has donors with whom you have this deep permission—donors who consider themselves to be lifelong supporters of your work.

Your job is to find out who they are, nurture the process, and then ask them to give to whatever it is that most moves them. Furthermore, your job is to develop a pipeline of donors in this category so that the person who comes along after you will have inherited all those well-cultivated potential donors. You are on a scouting mission for lifelong donors, donors who truly get it about your mission and are giving for the right reasons. Then you’ve left a real legacy for your organization.

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Holiday Wish List Tune-Up

What Size Tables for the Ask Event?

Q: We always feel so overwhelmed with people’s generosity at holiday time. Do you have any suggestions to help us feel more prepared?

 Stewart in New Jersey

 A: Maybe it’s time to take out the old Wish List and give it a tune-up. After all, these are your holidays too! What do you really want for your organization? What are you wishing for?

Ask each department, staff subgroup, or staff member to list their top five needs. Have them be as specific as possible, from soup to nuts: band aids, diapers, computers or office equipment, gas for the van, a new music instructor or counselor, playground equipment, or even a new gym.

Then compile them all into a single Wish List. You might consider listing them by area or department: “The nursery is wishing for X, the maintenance staff is wishing for Y.” It will let people know that you really need these items.

Print them up on pretty holiday paper. Make enough copies so that you can distribute them generously throughout the season. Have them at your front door. Insert them in your newsletter. Have a little basket of them at your holiday parties and other events. In other words, let people know what you want and need so that they can fulfill your wish.

Get started now. This is the helping season.

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Is One-on-One the Only Way to Ask?

Ask Benevon: The Ask Event is Not a First Date

Q: If someone has attended our Point of Entry and gotten involved but can’t come to our Ask Event, is one-on-one the only way to ask them to join our Multiple-Year Giving Society? What about our year-end annual appeal or other special mailings?

 Amber in California

 A: Yes, asking one-on-one is the only way. Do not send a letter asking people to join your Multiple-Year Giving Society for $1,000+ a year for five years.

If you blend in the higher Multiple-Year Giving Society giving levels into your normal annual appeal letter, it will confuse people who have been accustomed to being asked for smaller gifts in the annual letter.

Once someone joins your Multiple-Year Giving Society, you should take them off your direct mail list and cultivate them personally as a major donor.

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Five Tips for Cultivating “Expiring” Donors

It happens. Five years ticks by quickly. Before you know it, the wonderful donors who made those generous five-year pledges (of $1,000 or more per year) to join your Multiple-Year Giving Society have just made their third year’s pledge payments and no one from your organization has gotten to know them yet. In fact, they are still complete strangers to you.

Take this as a serious wake-up call and get to work. Set up your donor cultivation plan now, starting with the donors who are nearest to the end of their five-year pledge payoff cycle. If you don’t get to know them and cultivate them systematically now, you will lose most of them at the end of the five years, if not before.

I’m always surprised when people tell us they don’t want to “bother” these loyal Multiple-Year Giving Society Donors. They think they should invoice them dutifully each year, call them at the start of the sixth year, and ask them to re-up on their pledge. That is precisely the opposite of what is needed.

The whole purpose of having donors who make five-year pledges at this level is not for your organization’s financial security. After all, if a donor does not pay their annual pledge, you are not going to take legal action against them. Rather, the purpose of the giving society is to identify those donors who want to be closer to the organization. These donors did not have to make a five-year pledge. They could have opted to give the same amount of money one year at a time. By joining your giving society they are communicating something critical: they want to give to your organization, they want to stay connected to you over the next five years, and they expect you to give them updates, ask for their advice, and include them in major milestones in the life of your organization.

In other words, you should interpret their five-year pledge as their permission to stay connected with them.

We say you should have two personal contacts per year with each donor in your giving society, plus attendance at one Free Feel-Good Cultivation Event. If you have fifty donors, that would be 100 personal contacts. A telephone conversation (not just leaving a message) counts as a contact. But the best contacts are one-on-one and in person, focusing on the donor’s particular area of interest.

Even if your donors are in their third year of their pledge cycle and you have never reached out to them to talk with them or meet them in person, it is not too late. But you need to get going quickly. Here’s how:

  1. Invite a small group of five to seven Multiple-Year Giving Society Donors to a special, private “CEO Golden Hour” with your CEO and board chair in the CEO’s office. Offer a full one-hour Point of Entry Event either before or afterwards. This is a mission-focused event (not merely a nice social event), like a group of five donors having a light lunch.
    • Start the hour by having the board member and CEO thank them for their gifts and give specific examples of what their gifts have made possible.
    • Have a testimonial speaker from one of the programs that benefited from their gifts talk about how your organization changed their life for the better.
    • Resist the temptation to share only the positives. Have your CEO and board members share some of the actual challenges they are facing as well. These donors need to hear your needs and know that their money is making a difference—and will continue to be needed after their first pledge is paid off.
  2. Follow up within two to three days to get their feedback and ask if they would like to serve as an Ambassador by hosting a private Point of Entry for ten or more of their friends or colleagues in your offices, their home or workplace. Tell them you can bring the Point of Entry to their home or workplace if needed. If they prefer not to be an Ambassador, how else might they like to become involved?
  3. After they serve as a successful Ambassador, invite them to host a table at your upcoming Ask Event and fill their table with the same friends and colleagues they invited to the Point of Entry.
  4. If they are not able to come to one of your private lunch events, find another way to meet with them in person, ideally at your offices or program site where they can see your work in action.
    • Offer to meet with them one-on-one or arrange a private meeting with your CEO if appropriate.
    • At the very least, talk with them on the phone and ask them what interested them in giving to your organization.
    • Establish enough of a personal connection so that you will have something to refer back to in future contacts.
    • Set a date for a subsequent contact after each contact.
    • Do not close out their record—always schedule a next step.
  5. Before your next Ask Event, you can approach a small group of these donors to ask them to increase or extend their pledges. For example, you could tell them you are looking for five donors who will each extend their pledges for five more years or increase from $1,000 a year to $5,000 a year as a leadership gift to inspire other donors to do the same thing next year (either at your Ask Event or in a follow-up phone campaign to “expiring” donors who do not attend the Ask Event).

Above all, reach out to these donors now, by telephone. Do not wait until the next event, the next “right time.” Include them in your organization’s family right away. Make sure they know how much you value them. And vow, in the future, to cultivate your five-year pledge donors starting the day after they make their pledge, rather than waiting until their pledge is close to “expiring” before you get to know them.

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The CEO Golden Hour—Option 3: One-on-One Meetings with Donors

This is the third and final feature in our three-part series entitled the CEO Golden Hour, highlighting the top three things your busy CEO can do to impact donor cultivation and major gifts if they are willing to dedicate merely one hour a week to this critical process.

I’ve also included here some general thoughts about how to integrate this CEO Golden Hour process into the life of your nonprofit organization.

What does it mean to “cultivate” a donor and how would a busy CEO find the time to do that even if they knew what to do?

This is a question we are asked regularly by the groups in our Sustainable Funding Program, now that they have an ever-increasing number of donors in their Multiple-Year Giving Society.

Rather than merely invoicing donors and expecting them to dutifully make their pledge payment for each of the next five years, these wise CEOs and development directors have discovered that with a high-touch system of personalized contacts, even the busiest of CEOs can begin—and even enjoy—the donor cultivation process!

Option 3: Personal lunches, dinners or visits with the sub-list of donors that have expressed further interest during the CEO personal phone calls or small group lunches. CEO may make donor visits one-on-one or accompanied by a board member or your major gifts person.

Purpose: To get to know each donor better and to feel more connected to them.  Likewise, each donor should feel more knowledgeable about and more connected to the organization.


  • CEO’s assistant, major gifts person, or development director:
    • Phones the donor and invites them to lunch with the CEO. “Sheila would love to update you on some of the current developments here at our center and get your input on a few things.”
    • Sends the guest list with two to three sentences about each guest, including last gift, person who engaged them, bucket area of greatest interest, and any other recent participation.

Suggested Agenda:

  • Greeting
  • Thank you for past support, including one or two specific, human examples of what their support made possible
  • Ask/talk about their “bucket” area of greatest impact. For example, in a senior center, is it meals, social, or healthcare? Give examples of new developments in that area
  • Share challenges the staff are facing and ask questions about how the donor’s expertise might relate to each challenge
  • Ask what is going on in the donor’s life: family, business, other community interests
  • Be genuine, open, and be sure the donor does 75% of the talking
  • Make a plan for getting back in touch with the donor to follow up on any action items discussed and talk about a next date for another meeting
  • Thank the donor
  • Put all notes in database and take prompt action on any suggestions or open items
  • Keep things moving: don’t let too much time pass before the next contact—two to four weeks at longest

General Comments:

  • Whether in your phone calls, small group lunches, or one-on-one meeting with donors, if people ask how else they can help, be sure to invite them to become an Ambassador.
  • Keep using this precious hour of your CEO’s time for any of these three activities. At the end of three months, ask your CEO if she would be willing to increase to two hours a week.
  • By then you will have seen how much coordination time this takes from your development director or major gifts person as well as the volunteers on your cultivation committee.

By then, you no doubt also will have seen how much these simple contacts have deepened each donor’s connection to the mission, which is the whole purpose of donor cultivation.

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Recognizing Multiple-Year Giving Society Donors

Inviting Guests to the Point of Entry

Q: We are working on our recognition plan for our Multiple-Year Giving Society Donors. What are your thoughts on giving thank-you gifts or offering benefits for each level?

Katherine in Colorado

A: We do not recommend any type of premium or special benefits for membership. You want to focus your thanking and cultivation of these donors on mission-focused activities. When someone joins your giving society newly, it would be appropriate for them to receive a small token of appreciation that highlights the impact of their gift. For example, a framed picture of a piece of land they helped to protect, or the hand print of a child with the words “thank you” written in a child’s handwriting.

These donors are true supporters of your mission and work and would not be looking for perks in return for their support. What they want is to be closer to your mission and to be reminded of the difference they are making with their gift. The best way to do this is to focus your cultivation and thanking of this donor on personal, mission-focused contacts. These can range from phone calls, emails, or face-to-face visits from your organization’s leadership, to Free Feel-Good Cultivation Events, where you will have special ribbons on their name tags indicating that they are a member of your giving society.

You can always ask each donor directly how they would like to be involved or communicated. That is the best way to find out the type of recognition that would be most meaningful to each donor.

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Choosing Units of Service

Q: We want to structure our giving units based on the Benevon suggestion of $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 annually. 

Looking at our individual giving over the last two years, only 4% of our donors have given above $1,000 annually. In this situation, are the units of $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 too aggressive?

Richie in Colorado

A: We have a formula for determining your units of service:

Look at your organization’s single largest, unrestricted gift from an individual or a family foundation in the past two years.

  • If that gift was less than $10,000, you should be using the levels $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 for five years.
  • If the largest gift was $10,000 or more, you should be using $1,000, $10,000, and $25,000 for five years.

While either of these options may sound too large given where you are now with your fundraising, you should keep in mind that the giving society is a pathway to building a major gifts program. The levels are intentionally high so that you can grow into them as you engage more people in your organization and grow your donor base.

You may only have people join at the $1,000 level in either scenario in your first year, but some of those very same donors will increase to those higher levels even in their first five years if you cultivate them and bring them closer to your organization and your mission.

If at least 40% of your Ask Event guests have attended a Point of Entry Event in the prior year, you should expect 10% of the Ask Event guests to join the giving society.

Also remember (or see the sample pledge form on page 186 of Terry’s newest book, The Benevon Model for Sustainable Funding: A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting it Right, Second  Edition) that there are two additional boxes on the pledge form beyond the three larger giving levels:

  • Box 4 is a fill-in-the-blanks box where donors can tell you how much they want to give and for how many years. This box is where your smaller donors can make their gifts or where larger donors can make gifts for less than five years.
  • Box 5 says: “Please contact me. I have other thoughts to share.”
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Cultivation Tip #1: Think Like a Donor

To get insights into how to cultivate a donor, the place to start is to look at what motivates you personally as a donor. Here is a simple but powerful exercise. Make a list of the organizations you give money to. Not just the obvious one or two, but go a little deeper. Come up with at least five. Next, take the time to answer each of the following questions for each contribution you make.

What patterns or trends do you notice in your giving? For example:

1. For how many years have you been giving to the same organizations? Have you increased your giving over the years? What, if anything, has the organization done along the way that has inspired you to give more?

2. Are you a loyal or a fickle donor? Or a little of both? Do you give faithfully to your old standby favorites? Do you intersperse them with new ones? If so, what does it take to become a new recipient of your gift?

3. Is there any correlation between the amount of your time and money you give to an organization? Do you feel differently about giving money to the places where you also volunteer in some way?

4. What kind of thanks do you receive? Are you thanked more or less than you would like? Does it feel personal enough? Does it seem like the organization knows you or wants to know you better?

5. Is your name prominently displayed in places that matter to you? On plaques, or in annual reports. Though this may not seem like it matters to you, notice your reaction should your name be inadvertently omitted.

6. In terms of ongoing connection, is there more each organization could be doing? Do they invite you to other events throughout the year? Do you feel sufficiently connected to their mission? If it’s a national organization, are you part of a larger national “society” or group recognition program?

7. What more would it take for them to receive a larger gift from you? More information, more direct contact, more recognition? Maybe just a phone call?

Notice what makes you tick when it comes to giving away your money.

Notice what more an organization could have done to get to know you and your passion for their work. Often just a phone call or a personal invitation to a meeting or program of interest will make a big difference. Perhaps you’ve already done that with some of your favorite organizations and now you need something more. Perhaps they’ve missed your cues and their attempts to “cultivate” you feel too heavy-handed.

As you begin the cultivation process with each donor, remember, first and foremost, that you are a donor. Your name is on a list at each of these nonprofit organizations. Someone within those organizations may be trying to “cultivate” you right now!

Rather than girding yourself for approaching hostile strangers to awkwardly get to know them so that you can ultimately convince them to part with their precious money, think of approaching them as you would want to be approached—as real human being with concerns, opinions, a busy life, and a commitment to making the world a better place.

It will make your fundraising efforts easier and more natural. Happy cultivating!