Building a broad donor base is an important first step to a sustainable development program for any nonprofit. Many organizations successfully secure large numbers of donors through membership programs or other giving interactions that are fundamentally transactional: the donor finds a tangible direct or indirect benefit for their gift. For example, a member joining a public radio station receives a CD and discounted admission to special concerts. A donor to a local food bank gains the immediate satisfaction of knowing they are helping hungry families. This engagement provides a limited view of the organization and of what the donor’s support makes possible.

Organizations that can engage constituents beyond the initial transaction have a higher probability of building long-term relationships which lead to more significant support. Communication and congregation (building community through in-person gatherings) are the keys to fostering donor commitment to the organization’s mission. The unique character of your organization and its programs will dictate the kinds of engagement you can offer; the more you know about your donors’ interests, the more you can personalize the topics and medium of your outreach.

Here are some suggestions based on how organizations we know are successfully building beyond the transactional:

  • “Insider” webinars or conference calls hosted by key members of the program staff – ideally, donors can be invited to participate based on their known interests. Topics should be timely and offer an opportunity for the organization’s experts to demonstrate how the organization is connected to the broader community and its field (i.e., a curator commenting on a recent art discovery at another museum, or an executive director discussing the impact of proposed policy changes on the organization’s services).
  • “Members Only” events or pre-event gatherings should feature brief presentations about the organization’s current accomplishments and future plans, and highlight the role of philanthropic support. The “behind the scenes” element continues to be a real draw for members. Audience targeting is possible here, too – a symphony may discuss its planned gift legacy society with the audience at its weekday afternoon concerts.
  • Offering additional “subscriber” programs are a clear way to communicate effectively and foster congregation. An independent high school has now established a summer travel program with the help of the son of a faculty member to inspire lifelong learning and build cohesive community around the goals of the school. The program is open to current families and alumni and all travel costs are covered by the participants. This summer, the group travels to India. Continuing education courses structured around your organization’s area of service or expertise, and even mini certificate courses can prompt a group of enthusiastic donors to become even more engaged in your organization, and each other.

These efforts require partnership between development and program staff, with the blessing of the organization’s highest leadership. It is important that all staff recognize that sharing the inner workings of the organization is an important means of connecting donors with your mission. Efforts to collect detailed information about constituents’ interests and communication preferences enable constituent mapping which can drive more personalized outreach. With an organization-wide commitment to building deeper relationships with donors, a large donor base can realize its potential.