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Cultivating donor prospects post-covid

Cultivating donor prospects post-covid

May 16, 2023
John O'Kane, CFRE

COVID-19 did a number on the cultivation of major gifts. Primarily, it ended or greatly scaled back personal cultivation, which gave way to Zoom calls, phone calls, texts and computer chats. Some creative gift officers did arrange meetings outside with social distancing for those prospects who were willing to engage in this way. This did not stop the pressure from executive directors or development directors to close a major gift prematurely and before it was primed.

There is no substitute for what a personal interaction with a donor prospect can yield. This can include both the verbal and the nonverbal clues that are revealed – not to mention the trust that must be built in the relationship. Just like the old school and church raffles where you “had to be present to win” at the event when the winners were drawn, to cultivate a major gift properly you do need “to be present to win.”

I am concerned that the cultivation steps taken during COVID have lulled development professionals in continuing to use them and to not seek the all- important face-to-face interactions. Younger development professionals, raised on social media interactions, may prefer this style of cultivation and even feel uncomfortable in the in-person cultivation of a prospect, especially when the prospect is older than they are.

 Let’s go back to Donor Cultivation 101 to review key steps in the process.

  1. Thank the donor as personally and as timely as possible, preferably with a phone call. I would especially do this for first time donors as well as for donors that have been identified with major gift potential. I realize this is easier for small nonprofits but there are ways even larger ones can do this.

    A personal contact cuts through the morass of texts and emails. A personal contact allows one to determine the interest, and even the motivation, of the donor and how to determine next steps. It also establishes the comfort level for future visits. If a phone call is not answered, a message can be left or, preferably, a personal note can be sent with a message that you will call again.

  2. Ask the donor how you can keep them informed of the work of the nonprofit and especially of their area of interest. Always ask the prospect when you can get back with them. This gives you permission and a time frame to know when to recontact them.  

    Be careful not to overwhelm the prospect with daily texts, weekly appeals, etc. which so many nonprofits do today with the ease of using electronic communication. Let the prospect help you establish an ongoing method of communication and a timeframe to reconnect.

  3. Appreciate, appreciate and appreciate. The donor has many opportunities and choices to give but has chosen to contribute to your organization. Be careful you do not overdo it. Ask the donor prospect how they would like to be recognized. Some donors will want all the recognition you can give them, and others would much rather stay anonymous. 

    Nonprofits seldom seek this distinction and instead use a “one-size fits all” recognition. Also, watch the “tchotchkes.” Some donors don’t mind being given small tokens of appreciation, but others see this expense as taking resources away from the mission.

I hope these simple thoughts can re-establish the importance of face-to-face cultivation, especially for prospects identified with major gift potential. One of the biggest drawbacks to taking the time to cultivate and to solicit a major gift is the pressure put on development professionals to close prematurely on a gift to meet established goals or a budget. As the development professional builds a relationship with a major donor prospect there is a responsibility owed to them and not just to the nonprofit organization.


John O'Kane, CFRE

John O’Kane, principal of John O’Kane Consulting, retired after 31 years as a Professor of Practice in the Nonprofit Studies Program, Department of Public Management and Policy, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. In 2019 he celebrated 50 years of work in the nonprofit sector, where he has gained experience with personnel management, organizational development, training, consulting and fundraising. After more than 25 years, John retired from the Atlanta fundraising consulting firm of Coxe Curry & Associates. Prior to that, he was vice president of human resources with the United Way of Metro Atlanta and before that served as executive director of the Mental Health Association of Metropolitan Atlanta. John has served on numerous boards of directors and advisory councils including the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Atlanta Chapter; the Georgia Society of Association Executives and the National Academy of Volunteerism (faculty).