Season 3, Episode 39
In this episode, Amy Eisenstein and special guest Xan Blake, a Capital Campaign Pro supreme advisor with decades of experience in nonprofit consulting, dive deep into the critical topic of cultivation. Many people are confused about what cultivation really means in the context of capital campaigns, and in this enlightening conversation, Amy and Xan demystify the concept.
You’ll gain valuable insights into cultivating donors effectively during capital campaigns, whether through one-on-one conversations, events, or spontaneous organic opportunities. Don’t miss this episode if you want to enhance your cultivation strategies and build stronger relationships with your supporters.
Cultivation is a critical piece of the campaign process, although many people are confused about what cultivation really is. Hi, I’m Amy Eisenstein, and today, Andrea’s taking the day off. And we have a very special guest, one of our Capital Campaign Pro supreme advisors, Xan Blake.
Xan has been consulting for decades and working with Capital Campaign Pro for years now, and is one of our most trusted and well-respected advisors. So I am so thrilled, Xan, that you are here joining us today to talk about cultivation.
It’s a pleasure to be with you, Amy.
So let’s get started.
What is Donor Cultivation?
Why don’t we start with the basics? What is cultivation in the most basic sense?
I think a really simple way of thinking about cultivation is it is an organized effort to grow a supporter or a potential supporter’s interest in your organization. So it’s a whole lot about being sure that the donor has accurate information, that they understand what the organization really does.
And I think we always need to go back to this concept of being sure that we talk to the donor about why they care, what initially connected them to the organization, why is it of interest to them? And you’ll notice in here that I’m asking a bunch of questions, which is what we really encourage our clients to do with their donors is to get curious, to ask questions, but also don’t make assumptions about why people are interested.
I think one of the great questions is how does this particular organization fit into your overall philanthropic goals, or the goals that you want to see for this particular area of work, or for your community, or maybe even our country as a whole, however the donor thinks. How does this particular organization fit into the world that they want to help create?
So getting curious is a critical part of cultivating people. But at the end of the day, if you have a goal in mind, the goal is to make sure that the donor is better informed about what the organization does and grows in their attachment to it.
I think that’s such a beautiful way of putting it. It really is twofold, right? I mean, sometimes we talk about cultivation as building relationships with donors and how to do that or how to think about that might be confusing or unclear. And so if we think about it both from the perspective of the donor as getting to know the organization better, and also from the organization’s perspective, getting to know the donor better, I love this idea of being curious, asking questions.
And so I think sometimes when development directors or board members make mistakes with cultivation, it’s really believing that their job is to just download everything that they know about the organization to the donor. It’s more one way, telling stories and facts and figures. And that’s nice and well and good, but that’s only half the equation. Really getting to know the donor and why they care, why they’re involved and engaging them is the other piece. So thank you.
Donor Cultivation as it Applies to Capital Campaigns
So let’s pivot a little bit and talk about campaign-specific cultivation. So as a development director or an executive director thinking about cultivating some of their lead donors for a campaign, what do you recommend?
Well, there’s several ways that you can go about this. One of the things that I ask clients that I work with to think about when they’re thinking about a specific donor is, where are they on the spectrum of cultivation? Are they really pretty new to the organization? Maybe they’re a first time donor or maybe they’re completely new in some ways, right? As we’ve gone through the donor identification process, maybe there’s somebody who’s new.
Where are Donors in the Cultivation Process?
So are they in that very new space with the organization? Maybe we want to think of them as a little bit in the middle territory, like no, they know the organization, we know them, but they’re probably not as close to us as they could be, or us to them. And so that’s a different way of thinking about it. And then you move further down and then you have those folks who are tried and true with the organization, you know them very well, they know you.
And each one of those groups of people has their own challenges and opportunities. So as I go through this talking about specific things to do, you might want to categorize the person or the family in one of those three categories and see which one of these activities might fit them the best.
So the first part of a best practice is figure out where the donor is in the process, not just where you are in the process.
Informing and Educating Donors
And then I think, generally speaking, in the cultivation practice, what we want to do is provide an environment where we allow people to see and understand the work, to ask the questions that they might have about it, that work, and to be sure that they have current information about the organization in their mind. So how do we do this?
I think the very best way to do this is a one-on-one, or if it’s a couple, two folks from the donor family, and then potentially the executive director, CEO, maybe the director of development. And bringing those donors into the organization, giving a tour if you can, giving them a real opportunity to sit down and ask questions, being sure to share some challenges as well as successes about the organization. But letting them really see the work of what happens there.
How Do Volunteers Fit into the Picture?
I also think, and I think this is one thing that is just overlooked and I think this is also something that volunteers can do, so it doesn’t just have to be staff members, but providing just gentle touches of email that don’t ask anything of them, that just simply provide information.
Or, I think we under-utilize pictures. Some of our Capital Campaign Pro clients have just been absolutely brilliant about sharing some visual collateral, for lack of a better phrase, just simply doing some videos that talk about the work that they do. So I think anything that you can do to bring the individual donor closer to the organization through a real lived experience is super helpful.
Cultivation Stories from Capital Campaign Pro Clients
I want to share some things that I think that some of our Capital Campaign Pro clients have done that have just been extraordinary. So one organization that I was working with in the process of cultivating donors for the capital campaign, this organization was about land preservation.
And so, one of our core committee members, so this is a volunteer, not a staff member, in his cultivation process with donors, but actually if they were able and interested, he would take them snowboarding and they had a great time. So Brian would show them a piece of land that the organization perhaps had preserved. And then this was an organization up in the Northeast, and so if the donor wanted to, they would go snowboarding. And then after snowboarding, they’d have a conversation about the work of the organization.
So it’s really important that whatever the activity is actually marries with the nature of the organization. And I personally would advocate for being sure that you interject some fun into the process.
I love that.
But Amy, you’ve got a ton of experience in this area. So what about you? What do you think?
Yeah, I mean, you’ve given so many great examples and food for thought.
How does Cultivation Apply to Board Members?
I want to go back to a few things you said earlier and just make sure we emphasize them and highlight them for listeners. So thinking about donors or prospective donors on the spectrum of how well they know the organization and how well you know them, starting with a board member who in theory knows the organization very well, but often I’ll ask executive directors:
- Why did that board member join?
- Why are they a part of this board?
- Why are they here?
- Why do they care?
And I’m often not surprised anymore, but I often hear that they just don’t know. So I think that to me, hard, fast rules of cultivation is if you don’t know why a donor cares or why they’re part of the organization, you’re not ready to ask for a gift.
But getting back to your point of moving people along the spectrum of how well do they know the organization and how well do you know them, I think it’s both parts. So taking even board members, what don’t you know about them that you need to learn before asking for a gift?
Sometimes board members don’t know every aspect of the campaign if they’re not on that core committee or on the executive committee. They may need to be sat down and review the campaign goals or priorities or whatever it is before anybody can consider asking them for a gift.
Or even to your example, when was the last time all of your board members were out in your school, through the hospital, on the land, going snowboarding? And so really thinking about moving people towards, whether they don’t know your organization at all, where they’re at, starting where they’re at, and moving them closer to the organization.
Donor Engagement Tools Used for Cultivation
I think that’s such a powerful image and something that’s easy, to put people in three buckets:
- Are they very close to the organization or are they in the middle?
- Maybe they’ve been longtime donors but not involved at all or nobody knows them, but they give small gifts every year.
- Or maybe they’re newer to the organization.
And so what engagement tools, whether it’s a tour, whether it’s a one-on-one meeting with the executive director? What needs to happen so that they get to know more about the organization and you get to know more about them?
So I love this idea of gentle touches of emails, pictures, videos. And the videos don’t have to be fancy, right? Just on your iPhone, a quick clip, right? How did they do it?
An Example of An Excellent Engagement Tool
So, it’s interesting that you say that, which is that another one of our clients here at Capital Campaign Pro, they serve adults with significant intellectual disabilities. And so they were trying to talk about, with their donors, how this affects families and how they really are in support of the family and how most of the time the outreach comes from the family. And so they were trying to help donors and other supporters, and frankly, probably some board members understand exactly how this dynamic worked.
And so they received a call from a woman who essentially became the guardian of her sister. Because of the pandemic, they had really been isolated and it was having some pretty severe effects on her sister. And so this young woman who’s actually not that much older than the sister that she’s now responsible, wrote a very long email asking for some help and if there’s any way she could get services.
And this was really about their wait time. It wasn’t that they weren’t able to serve her in terms of their skills and their service. It was about the fact that their waiting list was months and months long. And that’s what the campaign was really designed to help shorten.
And so they asked the two sisters if they were willing to make a video, and they were indeed delighted to make the video. And they shared that video with me about how much better this client’s life is, this participant’s life is now that she’s engaged in this program, how relieved her sister is. I mean, she can now go to work, things that she simply couldn’t do before. And she was unable to go to work and responsible for her sister, so you can imagine the conundrum this woman was in.
And they sent it to me and they sent it to me in a rough cut and it was done 100% on a cell phone. And I took a look at it and I thought:
“This is perfect. We will not change a thing. Not one thing will we change.”
And so you don’t have to have a fancy film crew in there. You don’t, interestingly enough, in a lot of cases, even have to have a script. You just have to have somebody who has been affected by the organization in a positive way to sit down and have a conversation about that and you can produce something really beautiful.
So I would encourage people to be bold with this and don’t worry that you’re going to have folks judging you for your lack of perfection. I think we’re all at a place in life where we like to see people be authentic. So be authentic.
Right. It doesn’t need to be highly produced. It doesn’t need to be expensive. In fact, probably most donors these days would prefer it to be authentic and not expensive. And we’re used to watching all kinds of home videos on YouTube and Instagram and wherever we’re watching these videos, on Facebook. And so it’s the norm now and to be able to fire off an email.
Now, I want to take that to the next step because I think that organizations get stuck with one way, what they consider cultivation, one way, information dump and telling stories, which is one piece of the process. But then after somebody’s watched a video like that, whether it’s live and in person or you’re sending it by email, what’s the next step? Then how do you take that farther? How do you continue the cultivation?
Well, I think a lot of our listeners are probably out there raising their hand saying something about like:
“Well, what about events? Don’t we invite people to events?”
And I do think that there is a place and a space for events, and I do think that it is possible to have a small event, a small event, where people are really thoroughly cultivated.
In these bigger events, we do do a lot of the putting the information out, but we don’t do a lot of taking the information back in. So I think for anybody who’s listening, I want you to be thoughtful about how you see events and their potential to actually cultivate the donor as opposed to just push information out to them.
On Donor Cultivation Events
I actually really think the best cultivation events, once a donor is a little bit further along the path, is really a one-on-one conversation most likely with a lead staff person or with a lead board member, and just a real thorough conversation about the work that the organization does. Perhaps now we’re diving more deeply into the components of what the campaign is, so how this particular campaign will bring the organization to its next level of performance and to a higher level of work to better fulfill its mission.
I think the thing that I want for folks to hear is that, you’re right, Amy, this idea of pushing emails or videos or those other things out, that’s helpful and it can be one of the many steps, but the real cultivation comes when people are in conversation with each other, when they can ask questions, they can answer questions, sometimes that they can agree that a problem is really vexing and maybe the organization doesn’t 100% solve it, but they make steps in that direction.
We see that a lot in the environmental space because no one organization can solve the problems that we face relative to the environment. And no one organization can grasp all the opportunities that are there, need to be grasped. But what an organization can do for the most part is only really something that can be communicated in conversation between people.
So really encourage people, if this causes you a little fear to maybe put down that fear because this is really the only way that people truly grow their attachment to an organization.
Yeah, I think that’s such a good point.
Focus on the Challenges of the Organization Itself
All right, there’s three things that you said recently that I want to circle back to and highlight. One is, you did talk about events as potential cultivation opportunities, and I think that many organizations actually use them as a crutch, right? They think, “We did a gala and it’s a cultivation event.” Or honestly, even sometimes a smaller event in someone’s home and they think they’ve cultivated somebody.
That’s maybe a first step or a step, but it’s not a conversation. If there’s not a meaningful dialogue or opportunity to go back and forth and ask questions, as you said, be curious, you haven’t really cultivated somebody. So I think I don’t want to give people an out and let them say, oh, we said events count. They’re a piece of it, but they’re not the full picture. So I just want to hammer that home.
I love that you said earlier that it’s an opportunity to talk about challenges and successes of the organization because I think most nonprofit leaders shy away from the challenges and don’t want to share those with donors. They don’t want to share the negative or anything that’s going wrong or that’s hard about the organization.
But as you alluded to, with land preservation as an example, or cleaning the environment, or healthcare, the list goes on and on, homelessness, hunger, education, these are societal problems that are too big to tackle alone and need everybody’s input.
And so I think actually focusing on the challenges and the problems, not just of the mission, but the challenges of the organization itself, of the campaign, brings donors into the conversation as real partners instead of just simply funders and not people who are engaged in solving the problem. And it’s a game changer when you can include people in that way. Have you found that?
Absolutely. And also what you said should feel like a huge relief to people who are listening, to the executive directors, directors of development. If you could take this thing that you might, up to this point, be perceiving as a big problem for you, the fact that you can’t solve everything and convert it into, I don’t know that it’s a bit of a strength, but it can be an asset in this conversation.
And I mean asset in the way that your honesty, your thoughtfulness, your complete understanding of the situation will likely impress the donors that you understand the nuances, the complications. And it will also likely build trust between the two of you that you are telling them the truth, even if the truth isn’t always pretty and that you’re aware of the complications that your work faces.
Amy, I say this a lot, I say this at some point with almost every client that I work with, which is that the work that nonprofits do, most nonprofits do in this country is work that the for-profit environment doesn’t want to touch. It’s complicated. It’s messy. It’s difficult. It’s ongoing. It’s oftentimes not immediately resolvable or maybe resolvable at all, but we keep working on it. We keep trying. We keep coming up with better solutions.
And yes, sometimes we fail. And I say we because I’ve worked within a nonprofit for 21 years, and sometimes we fail. But sharing those successes and failures with your donors is part of the process, and it’s part of growing that relationship with them.
And oftentimes, I was just coaching a client just yesterday about the fact that her organization is really struggling in a number of areas, and I just said to her, “Now is the time.” This is the CEO. I said, “Now is the time for you to go meet with your donors. You need to go tell them what’s going on. And I think you’re going to be surprised at how much they come forward to help.” So we have to trust them. If we want them to trust us, which we do, we have to trust them.
Yes. When we were preparing for this, you gave me an awesome example, and I don’t know if it’s the snowboarder. I think it’s somebody else who was cleaning trails.
Organic Cultivation Opportunites
So let’s talk for a minute about organic cultivation opportunities. That’s a phrase that you came up with. I love it. Tell us what that means to you and give us that great example that you shared with me earlier.
Well, so I came up with the phrase because I want to be able to communicate to clients that this doesn’t have to be so structured. It’s sort of the anti-event point of view, right? Because Amy and I agree with this, that the events do not replace cultivation. So the point was this doesn’t need to be this difficult. Sometimes opportunities come to you, and if you can seize those opportunities, you might be amazed at what happens.
So it’s about being open to the possibility that a cultivation opportunity will simply arrive at your front door. And I had a powerful example of this a couple years ago when I was working on a campaign. It was a different, actually, land preservation organization. And one of our committee members, his name was Alan. So he was on the steering committee for the campaign.
Alan also happened to be the chief volunteer of the volunteer group that in the springtime would go through and clean the trails that this particular organization oversaw in this area. So he led a group of about a hundred volunteers every spring, and they would go out and clean up trails.
So in the process of being part of the campaign, Alan got really interested in planned giving, which of course delighted me because I’m a huge advocate of planned giving. And so just for definition, planned giving are those gifts that people make in their wills and their estate plans.
And so, Alan was out with a couple of volunteers cleaning a trail, and he and one particular volunteer were off by themselves working on part of a trail, and they were in conversation about the organization. And Alan simply said, “Have you ever considered naming this organization in your estate plans?” And the man looked up at him and he said, “Oh, that organization’s getting our entire estate.”
We had no idea that this was in the works. There was no documentation. There was no indication that this gift existed at all. As it turned out, that estate was valued at $1.8 million, and that entire estate did indeed go to the organization. So –
What a great story. I mean, so often, volunteers especially but staff too, are afraid to even bring up estate plans and bequests. And look at that, you brought it up and there was already a million dollar plus gift in the works, but no, because probably everybody had been afraid to talk about it before up until this point.
But the idea of this organic cultivation opportunity, they were just out on the trail having a conversation, and the board member was brave enough and informed enough and confident enough, whatever it is, to just bring it up. And the donor wasn’t upset or offended or mad or whatever we’re afraid is going to happen when we talk about these things. So-
No, actually, he was delighted because the rest of the story is this, which is that he wasn’t aware that there was a capital campaign going on.
Again, this man wasn’t really on our radar all that much, or this couple I should say. And they had been flying very, very below the radar. And so they turned out to be the second-largest gift for the campaign. And they were the gift that I believe, if my memory serves me, pushed us over the finish line.
So they —
What a story. And that was just non-strategic, sort of random conversation, and it’s so great. And they were living the mission and having a conversation, and that’s the ultimate cultivation.
But I want to say one more thing about the organic cultivation, which is this. So it is a great story and it does talk about the power of just having conversation, but it might to some people feel like, “Well, that’s like a one in a million shot, Xan.”
Final Thoughts — Share Why You Care
So let me tell you what’s not one in a million shot, which is when you are out with folks having coffee, having a drink, going for a walk, and people say, “So what have you been up to lately?” If you are part of a capital campaign steering committee, board, wherever, if you are aware of one for an organization that you care about … And I’m talking specifically now to volunteers because I really want the volunteers who hear this to think about, what can I do?
You can talk about the fact that, obviously amongst other things, but that this is a focus of your efforts right now, a focus of your work. You can share why you care, and you can do this all in less than five minutes as you’re taking your walk or sipping your coffee.
And the thing that I want volunteers to hear about this is you are a mighty powerful source when it comes to this kind of information for other donors. The fact that you would give your time, your energy to see an organization raise a certain amount of money, whatever that might be, is incredibly powerful to other people.
And so, I like for people to understand that they don’t just set an example, but by their service to these organizations and by their generosity of time and resources, that they truly inspire other people.
I love that. So I’m going to leave our listeners with infuse fun and the mission wherever possible, take them snowboarding, on a trail cleanup, get them out, active, engaged, involved in your mission, meeting the clients, if that’s appropriate, doing the work of the organization so they can see firsthand really what you’re all about.
So Xan, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us today. I just love it and I know listeners are going to be better cultivators as a result.