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Start conversations. Engage donors.

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Barbara Birch is vice president of development at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. (Illustration by Zach Williams/ NYN Media)

Often the biggest hurdle in cultivating donors is getting them to meet with you so you can make your case. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to get them to come to you? 

There is.

By convening conversations that position your organization as a leader in addressing the underlying core issues behind problems your clients face each day, your organization can enhance its visibility in the field and increase its recognition among potential funders.

Today’s donors are knowledgeable and engaged in the issues they hope to impact through their philanthropy. They look to support the organizations they believe are most effective at identifying and solving problems - and they want to participate in the conversation. Donors seek to identify a problem’s underlying causes, and they want to know which organizations understand those causes at the deepest level. Those are the organizations they will want to partner with.

For example, suppose your organization runs a soup kitchen. The soup kitchen is addressing an immediate problem by feeding those who are hungry, but what is causing hunger or poverty in that community? It would be preferable to solve the problems that are causing so many to need assistance and eliminate the need for the soup kitchen completely. Increasingly funders are thinking: How can I use my donation to solve the problem at an earlier causal stage?

To engage funders, first consider your mission and the societal problem - such as ameliorating hunger or helping students get into college - that it seeks to address. Then think about the people you would like to engage in a meaningful discussion around those issues. If your CEO or president is recognized as an important contributor to the conversation - or has contacts who are - you may have an opportunity to be a convener of a cause-related discussion that attracts donors engaged in that cause. As you develop more cause-based conversations, you will build stronger relationships with leaders in your field as well as potential funders.

What does a successful cause-related discussion look like?  Here are some guidelines:

  1. Understand the goal: The purpose of a cause discussion is to engage high-level prospects in a dialogue with the change makers who are working on the issues they care about. Prospects are not going to attend a large public event, so keep it exclusive and personal. A small group of 10-12 people – donors and relevant leaders. That's enough to make a donor feel part of an important discussion and small enough to allow you to engage each donor personally. 
  2. Identify a topic of interest: Timeliness is important.To find the right theme, look to current events. What is attracting attention in your field? Is there a controversial issue that is being debated? Does someone associated with your organization write articles or blogs on the topic?  Cause discussions do not need to be planned far in advance or be intricate to be effective. Make it convenient and simple – coffee and light fare in a conference room will do the trick. 
  3. Set the agenda: Remember that the purpose is not to discuss your organization’s particular program. You are not promoting your work; you are positioning your organization as a convener of important conversations with people who can make a difference. Engage in a meaningful debate or address an obstacle to change or perhaps a hopeful new idea.
  4. Follow up: If you have engaged a few key people in the discussion, you have likely made it significantly easier to get a meeting with them in the future. They now see your organization as a key player and will be interested in what you have to say when you reach out. 

If you have achieved your goal, you may have connected with a new donor or two, strengthened relationships with existing donors, and demonstrated that your organization is a go-to location for the issues they care about. You will have gained visibility and credibility, which sets the stage for future discussions, meetings and asks.

Barbara Birch is vice president of development at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.  

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