Whom Do We Serve - Do You Really Know Your Constituents?

Posted by David G Phillips on Aug 9, 2018 8:51:07 AM

Do you like to watch people? Are you, like so many people, completely happy sitting in your organization’s lobby, snack shop, cafeteria or other common area watching the people come and go? Do you ever wonder to yourself, who are these people, where do they live, work, and play? To which political party do they belong, how well educated are they? I wonder if they have children, how many—boys or girls? You reckon they have any pets?

If you are like most of us, you can be very curious on a personal level. Did you know such curiosity can be a real asset in the development profession? How? First, because there is a growing need in the fundraising community to be able to demonstrate who we are helping and how we are helping them. Second, because individual donors want to know they can make a real difference through their giving to just the right program. Institutional donors, whether corporations, foundations or venture philanthropists, are all looking to see that they make the biggest difference they can in their area of concern. They want the very biggest bang for their buck! Can you blame them?

Our success as fundraising professionals depends upon our ability to establish more friendships with new people, re-establish and rekindle relationships that have cooled, and most importantly, to continue the growth and nourishment of relationships that are healthy and working. Being open to all three opportunities to establish, re-establish and nourish relationships with people enables us to reach our fullest fundraising potential.

How do you develop closer relationships with people and educate them more fully about the work you are doing through your charitable organization? Spend more time with them. How do you rekindle wavering relationships? You do so by going to see the person in question on their terms and learning what is acceptable and even desirable from their standpoint and trying to help them make that happen. How do you get new people involved? Share your excitement with them. How do you improve all these relationships? By making every person realize that you think they are special, each in his own way and taking it one step further, by offering them a real opportunity to make a difference through their gift.

The only way to do this is to know your constituents and to know them well. Clearly, you will meet the most influential people first—board members and major contributors. Nevertheless, you need to work hard to meet interesting and influential people and to cultivate their interest in what you are doing. By learning more about them and the forces at work in their lives, you will be able to cultivate their increasing interest and awareness in your organization. If you are a good development professional, who knows how to ask for the gift, the money will surely follow.

In addition to the social and interpersonal interaction that builds stronger relationships, there are other very helpful tools, which can enable you to learn more about your prospective donors. Perhaps the most important thing is information. If you want to develop the best plan to reach your prospective donors peer-to-peer or friend-to-friend, you really need to know who your constituents are, where they live, their vocations, their avocations, what they do with their free time and with whom.

If you run a development office for most any institution whether it is a school, hospital or church, you can put an information gathering system into place that is at once very effective, informative, manageable and unobtrusive. It must also be sensitive to the patient, student or client’s needs for privacy.

What a difference it can make during the solicitation of a major gift from a large corporation that is still located in a city that has suffered flight to the suburbs when you can say, “of the 24,000 visits we had to our emergency room in 1999, 112 (4.7%) were employees of Mega-corporation. Of our 90,000 admissions to the hospital, 2,700 (3%) were employees of Mega-corporation. Your gift to our campaign represents an investment in the quality health care of your workforce.” This helps quantify for them their rationale for giving and it solidifies your relationship as their health care provider, giving you the silent leverage you need to get a much larger gift than Mega-corporation is giving to other hospitals and charitable organizations in the community.

Institutional donors also tend to support their own officers and directors who are serving on boards or capital campaign committees in the community. Thus, it is said, that it is often who you know that determines your fundraising success. If you can get a prominent member of a corporate or foundation board to serve as an advocate on your campaign committee, you are going to be speaking with a louder, more pleasing voice than ever before. You need all the information you can get to try to develop and recruit the most effective campaign team. It comes down to knowing your constituents and prospects as well as you possibly can.

In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey outlines one of the most important habits for us to learn: Seek first to understand, and only then to be understood. Wow! So simple, so powerful and I cringe when I think of the times that I have caused myself pain or embarrassment because I jumped to conclusions and acted on partial or sketchy information.

Cringe with me while I share this real life story. I was chief development officer at Spoleto Festival USA. We had a major fundraising special event called our gala, scheduled for the Saturday night of the festival opening weekend. This year’s gala was going to be exceptional. It was outside in beautiful downtown Charleston, after the Miami City Ballet. We really lived it up and charged $500 per couple (exorbitant for Charleston). We had Peter Duchin’s Orchestra from New York, all our major contributors and supporters were to be there, each enjoying a full evening including dinner, dancing and hours of open bar. We had a champagne celebration planned for midnight.

It was a sell-out! Seats were assigned, all details were attended to, and off we went to the ballet. I left the ballet a little early to get to the site of the party. Everything was going great when a concern was brought to my attention. Seating was tight and we had worked for days to get all the kinks out. I was told that there was a lady at my table, a Ms. Jane Kingston. I knew the names of everyone who was to be at my table; after all, I invited five couples of my high school friends from Columbia to join the party at my expense. Three of those couples were to join Margie and me at our table, along with one of our most generous new donors, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Smith. I had met Jack through some other Spoleto friends and since he lived in the Washington, D.C area, I had actually never been able to solicit him in person, so I had done so over the phone rather than let it go waiting.

Having a sister who kept her maiden name should have prepared me better for this exercise, but I think this event, because of its importance and the presence of so many of my childhood friends, had me somewhat excited and distracted. I approached Ms. Kingston, introduced myself and asked her if someone had gotten her anything to drink. I sent for a glass of wine and began searching for the right way to tell this lady that she was in the wrong seat. How I wished we had an extra seat at our table as Jane was charming and would certainly add to the party.

Imagine my horror when I asked her if I could help her find her seat and she explained who she was, whom she was with (her husband, Jack Smith, had to fly in late), etc. I felt like melting, right then and there. I apologized to her for the misunderstanding and we made a great evening out of it, but it just goes to show you how important it is to “seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”

Perhaps my blunder above will prevent you from a similar faux pas. Happy holidays, good luck fundraising and remember, have some fun while you are at it.


David G. Phillips is president of Custom Development Solutions, Inc.(CDS)CDS is among the most sought after fundraising consulting firms specializing in the strategic planning and tactical execution of capital campaigns for non-profits throughout the United States and Canada.  If you have a fundraising question, please call CDS at 800-761-3833 or send an email to info@cdsfunds.com.

Topics: Campaign Feasibility and Planning Studies, Board Development, Capital Campaigns, development, donors, fundraising, gift, organization constituents, organizational supporters, volunteers

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