I left private legal practice for nonprofit fundraising to get away from the less relational aspects of the service provider-client relationship. Steep billing rates, adversarial positions, and dense subject matter hindered my ability to be really great at my job, so I turned to more mission-driven work in the nonprofit sector. I thought nonprofit fundraising was the opposite of lawyering. But I learned quickly that some essential aspects of great fundraisers overlap a great deal with those of great attorneys.
My success and joy as a lawyer had little to do with actual legal work. I loved building trust, meeting clients where they were most comfortable, and taking a relationship-above-all approach to my work. I saw the results of my efforts: strong working relationships, good client retention, and overall positive feedback. As it turns out, those things I loved about being a lawyer are not only portable, but crucial, to nonprofit fundraising success.
I suspect my experience is not unique to lawyers, and can be extrapolated to other professional service industries. Accountants, marketers, and consultants across industries focus on relationships, not pure transactions, to build fruitful professional relationships. So, if service providers can be better by acting more like nonprofit fundraisers, can the reverse be true, too?
As fundraisers, it’s easy for us to gloss over the more logistical aspects of our jobs. After all, it’s a vocation, right? Otherwise, wouldn’t we all go make a lot more money in the corporate sector? But as much as fundraising is a calling, it’s also a career that requires business development, sales, client retention, and articulable value propositions. Fundraisers may find additional success by adopting the following professional service principles.
1. Treating Donors Like Customers (But Not in a Bad Way)
Many fundraisers will recoil at the thought of calling donors “clients,” or, even worse, “customers.” The words alone create a dispassionate space between donor and fundraiser (and, by extension, the nonprofit). And there is wisdom in avoiding reducing donors to mere clients if it means failing to foster genuine, trusting relationships. But the provider-client model is potentially valuable to fundraisers, too.
Great service providers blend relationship building with unparalleled client service, because they understand that their customers have plenty of other choices. As an attorney, my client retention and business development strategy was twofold:
- Impress prospects and clients with consistently high-quality service; and
- Demonstrate (and articulate!) the value proposition of my services over my competitors’ offerings.
Fundraisers can learn from that strategy, especially now that opportunities to give charitably are ubiquitous and as easy as a few smartphone touches.
Fundraisers may be the only link between their organizations and donors, so spectacular customer service is crucial. That service combines responsiveness to donors’ needs with a proactive, continual demonstration of what they get for their money. Fundraisers can articulate their value propositions in the form of regular, personalized check-ins by phone or handwritten note, custom stewardship reports that reflect donors’ impact over time, or other high-touch, grateful expressions of how and why the donor might consider giving in the future. The best service providers go above and beyond to retain customers/clients in a competitive landscape, and fundraisers can, too.
Learn more about donor stewardship in the article: 3 Stewardship Techniques to Scale Your Fundraising Efforts
2. Playing the Role of Trusted Advisor
People often go to lawyers and accountants for transactional matters – contract reviews, tax filings, a strongly worded letter about a neighbor’s dog that just won’t stop barking – but savvy service providers know that transactions are jumping-off points for long-term relationships. Service providers can build trust such that a one-off interaction evolves into a lasting provider-client relationship. That connection can in turn transform from a series of responsive transactions based immediate needs to more strategic planning, with the provider playing the role of trusted advisor/innovator/peripheral brain for the client.
When I worked with entrepreneurs, I loved being able to sit with my clients, review the stack of projects they initially hired me to complete, and start thinking creatively about how to make their business visions real. At that point, I had built a strong foundation of trust by keeping promises, responding consistently, and demonstrating value for the fees my clients’ paid. With that solid foundation, I was able to offer innovative solutions my clients hadn’t considered, which strengthened our relationship even further.
That goal of becoming a trusted advisor is equally relevant for fundraisers. Stewardship is more than responding to donors’ needs. It’s even more than building trust and rapport with donors. Fundraisers can strive to be trusted philanthropic advisors and bring ideas and solutions that donors may not have even considered. A fundraiser might suggest that a donor maximize his or her tax benefits by giving stock instead of cash, offer an introduction to impact investing and other innovative tools, or help the donor see the outcome of his or her giving more clearly by suggesting a restricted gift to a specific program. Even the most sophisticated donors may not know about some of the options available to them, and that represents an opportunity for fundraisers to deepen relationships and strengthen that link between donors and the organization’s mission.
3. Keeping Records Like Somebody’s Watching
Nonprofits are required to keep and report certain data to retain their tax-exempt status, including publishing their Form 990 annually. On a macro level, those reporting requirements provide some accountability for nonprofits, especially with respect to the IRS. But there are few rigorous industry standards, and virtually no legally mandated requirements, for nonprofit recordkeeping on the donor level.
Customer relationship management software advances have made database management easier, but often nonprofits lack processes for entering and updating donor data. That lack of consistency can damage relationships with donors, whether as a result of incomplete or incorrect tracking of demographic data, a lack call reports that leads to duplicate outreach from development staff, or missed follow-up deadlines. Fundraisers can reduce the likelihood of such uncomfortable instances by following their professional services counterparts’ more stringent data practices.
The legal industry in particular requires strict documentation and database management. Lawyers keep detailed notes about client meetings, track their billable time to fractions of an hour, and tend to err on the side of more information than less. The nuances of that industry, especially its often-adversarial nature, dictate lawyers’ thoroughness. Clients question bills, allies and opponents may request (or demand) records, and clients have an expectation of zealous representation and reasonable file-keeping. In the event of compromised or incomplete data, attorneys face lost trust, decreased client retention, and even malpractice claims.
Fundraisers don’t face the same risk of professional malpractice litigation that lawyers do, but the principles underlying good recordkeeping are still relevant. Keeping good notes of each donor meeting and communication in a way that assumes someone else will want or need to review them is good for fundraisers, organizations, and donors alike. Knowing what donors have about themselves and their philanthropic passions increases their affinity with fundraisers and nonprofits, and helps the fundraiser craft proposals for the donor’s future giving. Likewise, the relatively high turnover among fundraisers demands good data to prevent a drop-in continuity and service for donors by new development staff.
The above principles are only some of the elements that sit at the intersection of professional service providers and fundraisers. As distinct – and often disparate – as their two industries seem, private sector attorneys, lawyers, and other professionals and nonprofit fundraisers can learn a lot from each other’s best practices. Service providers can build trust by focusing more on genuine relationships. Fundraisers can adopt the above tips, among others, and everybody can build lasting, authentic, and mutually beneficial connections with their respective customers.