It’s no secret that the most important thing about major gift fundraising is relationship building. No matter whether you’re talking about raising money from individuals, companies, or foundations, the key is building honest, authentic relationships to bring about positive change.
Building relationships efficiently
It seems almost counter-intuitive to think about building authentic relationships efficiently. Think about that for a second. It sounds sort of … off, doesn’t it?
But being money-limited (and therefore necessarily practical), a nonprofit can’t just start at Dr. Aaron and, ten years later, invite the board of the Zwerling Foundation to tea. Prospect research is the efficient solution to the “where do we start?” conundrum. Research uses art and science to help narrow down the most likely prospects to make a major gift in many ways.
Transforming ore into gold
With the list narrowed by research, frontline fundraisers begin to build relationships with those prospective donors.
And, being practical, there’s an art and science to this process, too: relationship management (or sometimes, RM or prospect management).
Relationship management professionals are the ones quarterbacking those gift officer/donor relationships; assigning the right prospect manager to a donor prospect; tracking the number of meaningful visits; reassigning a prospect manager’s “portfolio” of donors when that person leaves; making decisions when movement isn’t happening; making sure no prospective donor is forgotten …and much more.
Making a science – a system – of building relationships
As I thought more deeply about that this week, it occurred to me that building relationships doesn’t seem like a science-y thing.
And what if, subconsciously, relationship management systems are seen by the relationship builders – the frontline fundraisers – as not actually helping to build strong authentic relationships? Psychologically, could there be subconscious push-back against the system because of the seeming artifice of it? I don’t know, I’m not a psychologist, but it’s an interesting question.
So, I wondered, how do you get around that potential roadblock, if it is one? What is the secret recipe that makes a relationship management system truly successful? Is it the relationships? Is it the system? Or is it both?
I needed to talk with the experts, so I contacted Janna Holm, Director of Relationship Management at Johns Hopkins University and Lisa Howley, formerly at Johns Hopkins and now at the University of Southern California. Why those two?
- Johns Hopkins is in the midst of its “Rising to the Challenge” campaign to raise $4.5 billion. In May of this year, after just two years in its public phase, the campaign is already two-thirds of the way to the goal, with more than $3 billion raised to date. They are obviously doing several things right, and I suspect that relationship management is one of those things.
- I saw a presentation Janna did a few years ago on relationship management at an APRA-Maryland conference that just blew me away. Her sheer enthusiasm and obvious deep knowledge on the topic made for a great presentation, and I came away with a lot of new ways to think about RM.
- Lisa has been an eloquent and generous expert/advocate in this area for many years, mentoring and sharing her knowledge on an international scale at APRA and chapter conferences.
So this week I get the pleasure of sharing with you Janna’s thoughts on these questions I’ve been pondering. (And make sure to check back in a couple of weeks, because I just loved the spin Lisa had on the topic and I can’t wait to share that with you as well).
What are the traits of a great relationship manager?
To begin with, Janna says there are four main skill-sets that the people who build and maintain a successful relationship management system should have:
Innate analytical skills – not necessarily the ability to build models or do statistical regressions, but that natural ability to see patterns and outliers, to derive meaning from a dataset.
Curiosity, which allows me to explore the questions behind the information – “Why is it that way?” “How could we make it better?” “What other options are out there?”
Objectivity, because in a role where I’m working with multiple gift officers and making decisions about assignments and solicitations, they need to understand the decisions I make and they need to trust me as a partner.
Knowledge of my own realm Relationship Management systems, data analytics, etc., of course, but also of fundraising in general, to provide the context for my work. If I don’t know what my peer institutions are doing, or if I don’t know what big challenge the planned giving world is facing, I won’t be as strong of a partner.”
Great relationship management professionals need to be great at building relationships themselves, Janna says:
Just as gift officers strive to be “donor-centric” in their work, my team and I strive to be “gift-officer centric” in the systems and services that we produce. Could my fundraisers still bring in gifts without me? Sure. Am I able to help them do that more effectively? Of course! It takes listening to each gift officer, learning their unique issues, challenges and successes, and then working within my RM systems to help steer them towards success.”
Great RM pros also need to be great at reading, synthesizing and translating information – in two directions.
I translate data and systems into actionable narratives and recommendations for my front line staff to work most effectively and efficiently. But I also learn from my fundraisers how they’re tracking data or thinking about their work, and I try to translate that into systems and policies that align with my organization’s staff and culture.
To do this, I need that duality – the ability to build a strong relationship with fundraisers around trust, integrity and support, but also the ability to understand the systems and make them work as efficiently as possible. If I focus on just relationships, or just systems, I won’t be as effectual. I need to convert the art of fundraising into science, and turn the science into art.
So great relationship management to Janna is all about alchemy – blending art and science to create symbiotic, seamless, and authentic relationships internally, so that strong and authentic relationships can be built externally.
It’s a tall order
But when you’re in a campaign, thinking about a campaign, or just need to raise individual major gifts efficiently, this kind of extraordinary thinking and doing is critical. And clearly effective.