“Let’s go after the low hanging fruit!” Many development professionals have no doubt heard some variation of this suggestion, often from a well-meaning leader, untutored in fundraising or simply looking for “quick wins.” This brings up two issues: What is “low hanging fruit” and why isn’t leadership versed in advancement?
Thinking of potential donors and their gifts as “low hanging fruit” is short-term thinking. We’re focusing on what is quick and easy and not considering the greater opportunity. What we should be asking ourselves is: Is this gift the one that the donor wants to make? Is the gift at a level consistent with the donor’s capacity? What happens once the gift is made? Will the donor be engaged and inspired by the use of the gift? And, most importantly: Are both the organization and the donor both best served by this short-term, transactional relationship?
Moving from transactional giving to giving motivated by the donor’s passion should be the goal of every advancement officer and part of an overall organizational strategy. Our research provides extensive evidence that by understanding donors’ motivations and values, development officers can better engage with their donors, locate their passions, and work more effectively to build and maintain a strong relationship between donors and the organization.
A related issue is the pressure often felt by development officers when leadership looks for quick wins. Of course, many donors will make a gift from loyalty or from a feeling of obligation, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. But as easily as a donor makes a gift on this basis, he or she can just as easily move his or her giving to another organization.
We have all seen variations of the “donor cycle,” but is this really the best way to understand where a donor is in relation to supporting your organization? A cycle implies a continual step process, as found in manufacturing. Through our research with thousands of donors, we have developed a method to locate donors on a continuum of engagement. This is a more thoughtful and intentional approach that renders the concept of a “donor cycle” obsolete. It also helps shape a stewardship strategy that respects the donor’s wishes and establishes the groundwork for future contributions from that donor.
Within your portfolio of donors and potential donors, understanding where each and every individual is on the continuum of engagement requires highly-developed skills that can be acquired only through experience and training. The advancement office is the keeper of these skills and bears a responsibility to make sure others in the organization not only understand these skills but are also trained in them. Building a strong culture of philanthropy requires setting long-term objectives and bringing others—deans, doctors, C-suite leaders, board members—into the work of fundraising.
Fundraisers have all experienced the joy of receiving a large, unexpected gift. Once the initial wave of satisfaction passes, however, the first question that comes to mind is, “How can I repeat this gift?” This type of gift can and should raise our sights, but once the low-hanging fruit crowd gets wind that the transactional approach has worked, even if only once, expectations ratchet up. While this is challenging, part of any development officer’s job is managing expectations, requiring a strategic approach to help leaders and boards understand the process that leads to higher-value, more sustained giving. Embedding advancement with the overall organizational strategy remains a key challenge in our field.
Like binge-watching Game of Thrones, short-term, transactional approaches to fundraising may provide fleeting satisfaction that compels us to seek out repeated doses to continue experiencing the rush.
Explore ways you can effectively tend your donor orchard by attending Dynamics of Clinician Engagement or Key Concepts for Donor Development.