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It’s About the Relationship!

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By Hillel Korin, Korin Development Associates

As a fundraiser, what’s the single most important skill that one can have? No, it’s not working through a complex  calculation about a CRUT or a CRAT. It’s not running an income projection and it’s not even writing the most breathtaking proposal a donor may be inspired by. It’s about how well as individuals we manage the relationships we develop and nurture.

After you first meet,  it’s also about knowing how best to “move” a prospect through the process. Some of the details can seem mundane – making sure that a note or card is written at the appropriate time.  Sometimes it’s about waiting for the right moment with the prospect (and also telling a boss or a colleague to have patience to let  the process unfold)…

One vignette from my personal experience may illustrate this.

As the associate vice president at a small liberal arts institution about to launch its first comprehensive campaign,  I had the occasion to discuss the role of alumni leadership with a couple, both of whom were graduates of the institution. I should point out that they were also close friends whom I had known when I, too, attended the school. I also knew them through their active involvement in the local Jewish community where I had previously been a senior fund raising executive.

In the course of outlining the campaign and the need for alumni leaders to “step up” and take on an active role,  I suggested that their commitment needed to be in the seven-figure range. I knew that both of their families were capable of such a gift and that it would involve a multi-year commitment. The discussion went well, though it ended without a firm commitment.  My instinct was to wait and let the couple cultivate their own thinking.

The story: several weeks later, I was on my way home one evening when my cell phone rang.  The couple asked me to stop by their home and meet them for a drink. Over the course of the next few hours, they proceeded to share with me their thinking (and their families’, too) about their initial commitment for the campaign. I listened and formulated  a few questions as to how the funds could be utilized.

Clearly, the couple wanted the gift to be reflective of their two areas of study, and they wanted the gift to be different (their words) as to how it would be used. To advance the process, I suggested we call the president and senior vice president of development to share their thinking.

Holding off, the couple suggested we wait as they wanted to credit me for their commitment and, in a special way, still keep it (for the moment) on the personal level we had developed and were enjoying. As I was leaving, and thanking them profusely (with a foot literally out the door), they  suggested that we meet in New York to finalize the gift since its funding was from their New York-based family foundation.

There is a postscript to this story – the gift was consummated and added to several times, and an endowed scholarship was added from the foundation. Unfortunately, one half of the couple passed away suddenly several weeks after the gift was finalized. To this day the other spouse remains my friend.  We share holidays and family celebrations; her children call me Uncle and we spend lots of time together. And yes, we still discuss philanthropy.

So as my very first fund raising mentor told me: when you nurture trust-based relationships that are strong and enduring, good things can happen.

Gleaned from my 40 years of experience, here are my 10 rules of relationship management:

1. Create an individualized cultivation and solicitation plan
2. Make the relationship about the institution’s connection with the donor
3. Make a point to acknowledge key lifecycle events
4. Do not take shortcuts
5. Involve other key stakeholders in the process
6. Premature solicitation is just what it implies
7. Don’t be afraid to float trial balloons
8. Listening is a fundraiser’s best attribute
9. Patience is your best friend
10. It’s about the donor, stupid – at the end of the process you must have satisfied the donor’s desire to assist the institution, while attaining a commitment for a key purpose or project

Remember: it’s about the relationship.


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