3 Nonprofits Aim to Better Connect with Donors | npENGAGE

3 Nonprofits Aim to Better Connect with Donors

By on Feb 11, 2015


Fundraising is getting personal.

Whether big, small or mid-sized, nonprofits are looking for ways to better understand donors and focus their fundraising on creating opportunities for donors to support the particular causes and interests they care about.

“It’s really the personal touch in all areas,” says Brooke Fairman, director of development at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I.  “We’re looking for what makes the donors tick, not just treating everyone the same.”

Christine Bork, Chicago-based chief development and communications officer for CureSearch for Children’s Cancer in Bethesda, Md. agrees.

“Meet your donors where they are,” she says.

And Joe Montgomery, chief advancement officer at Darlington School in Rome, Ga., says personal relationships are indispensable to effective fundraising.

“Actively steward the relationships that will ultimately define your success,” he says, “whether they be trustees, campaign volunteers or major donors.”

Nonprofits use a broad range of strategies to focus their fundraising on donors. Those strategies can include segmenting appeals based on donors’ interests; giving donors the opportunity to create their own funds, and their own websites to raise money for those funds; and listening carefully to feedback from fundraising volunteers.

Roger Williams Park Zoo

Last year, the Roger Williams Park Zoo farmed out the marketing of its annual fund to a local mail house and marketing firm. The firm analyzed the Zoo’s mailing list and the results of a survey the Zoo had conducted that asked donors what interested them the most at the Zoo. The analysis found that donors who cared most about conservation and research, animal care, and general zoo activities gave more than other donors.

So for last year’s annual fund drive, the Rhode Island Zoo Society, which manages the zoo for the City of Providence, targeted those three donor groups.

The appeal raised $75,000, setting a baseline for what the Zoo expects will be significant increases in future years.

Fundraising at the Zoo has become “very, very donor-centric,” says Fairman, the director of development.

CureSearch for Cancer Research

With events generating roughly 48 percent of the $6.1 million it raised in 2014 to support research, CureSearch for Children’s Cancer faces a big challenge in converting the 20,000 individuals who participate in its events into ongoing donors.

The biggest success for CureSearch among major donors has been an initiative that identifies event participants with the capacity to give at least $25,000, typically by raising those funds.

Using a Blackbaud template that carries the CureSearch brand and can be co-branded with the name of the donor family, CureSearch lets parents of children who have died from cancer, or who still have it, create funds to support research, along with a website to raise money for those funds.

In the past two years, the number of funds has grown to eight from two, including two that raise six-figure totals annually. Collectively, the eight funds gave roughly $600,000 for research in 2014.

“What’s working for us right now is the customization of fundraising for different audiences, giving a very small but very important group of people exactly what they’re looking for,” says Bork, the chief development and communications officers. “We give them their own website, and we’re maintaining and supporting that and giving them the resources to help them fundraise.”

Using the same Blackbaud product, CureSearch offers similar opportunities for families that might raise much less, such as $500.

“We’re allowing people to do whatever they want to do to raise money for this cause whenever they want to do it,” Bork says.

Darlington School

In a just-ended capital campaign that raised $97 million, exceeding its goal by $7 million, Darlington School in Rome, Ga., learned about the value of listening to its volunteers and adapting to changing circumstances.

On Sept. 17, 2008, just before an event at the Capital City Club in Atlanta that attracted 300 guests for the campaign’s public kickoff, the school’s development staff met with the 40 members of its local campaign cabinet to talk about their assignments over the next 18 months to ask for gifts from the school’s top 200 prospects in the region.

That day, however, the Dow plunged nearly 500 points, triggering a collapse in the capital markets.

In the following weeks, campaign volunteers were “reluctant to call on their assignments and ask for a contribution,” says Joe Montgomery chief advancement officer.

So in early October, the School reconvened its Atlanta cabinet, advising the volunteers not to “waste good prospects on a bad economy,” Montgomery says.

“Cultivate those relationships,” was the advice given to the volunteers, he says. “They’re your friends. If you’re tentative about asking, and they’re uncertain, then take them to lunch. Don’t avoid them. Cultivate them.”

After exceeding its $90 million goal by its deadline on May 31, 2012, the campaign added a “Go the Extra Mile” segment that ended Dec. 31, 2013, and raised another $7 million.


Todd Cohen, a veteran journalist, has reported on the charitable world for 23 years. The News & Observer in Raleigh called Todd “arguably the foremost authority on philanthropy and nonprofits in North Carolina.” Todd is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he received a bachelor’s degree in English, and the New England School of Law in Boston. In 1993, he launched the Philanthropy Journal. He served through 2012 as editor and publisher of the Journal, which was the first statewide newspaper in the U.S. to report on the charitable world. Todd created Philanthropy North Carolina in 2012 to provide writing, communications support and advisory services to nonprofits, foundations and higher education, and to consulting firms and other businesses that work with charities and philanthropic organizations.

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