Donor Cultivation: How to Grow Bountiful Nonprofit Relationships

I love to garden, it’s in my blood. Growing up in [what used to be] the outskirts of Boise, Idaho, my family depended on our large garden to provide 90% of the produce we ate during the year. But what I recall about gardening is filtered through my childhood memory so that all I remember are the moments of bliss where we would stuff ourselves with ripe strawberries or go on treasure hunts to find the largest potato. I don’t recall the hours my parents spent preparing the earth, or the time hunched over in the hot sun weeding around all the plants. Because I was a kid and, for the most part, spared that drudgery.

Now as an adult, most of gardening has been in the form of raise beds – tidy little boxes filled with perfect soil that I replenish each year. I don’t have to haul out the rototiller to break up the earth, and the weeds that do shoot up are fairly innocuous. But this year, for whatever reason, I decided that one, simple garden in my backyard wasn’t enough of a commitment. I needed a second plot.

In April, I rented a 20X20 space at the local community garden, determined to have plenty of room for winter squash, melons, and shell beans to spread out and flourish. In my head, this garden plot would be easy – as easy as my raised beds have been. I would plant my seeds and show up every week or so to check the progress, add some water, and eventually harvest. What I didn’t take into account, was the basic rule of gardening that my parents relied on each year: your garden is only as good as the soil you plant in.

The weeds in my second garden plot seemed harmless in the month of April when I threw the seeds into the ground, but there is a reason we have the saying “growing like a weed”… they never stop growing! Knee-high deadnettle and spreading cheatgrass have all but consumed my 400 square foot space. It takes me hours to simply uncover my plants each week, and they struggle to compete with the nutrients, sun, and rain. By June, I became that wannabe-trendy-gal-who-can’t-keep-up-with-her-commitments. I’m not proud, but I’m learning.

Now let’s switch gears to your nonprofit and fundraising efforts. There are a number of analogies using gardening and fundraising, but I want to point to the most obvious given my ongoing reality: Your fundraising efforts are only as good as the systemic, structural support around you.

Let’s pretend your donors are seeds (for new donors) or seedlings (for current supporters) and you are trying to nurture fruitful relationships. What does your soil look like? First, does your organization have a clearly defined mission, vision, or values and do your staff and board know what they are? Do you have a suitable database for capturing gifts and keeping track of donor relations? Moving into the analogy even further, do you have dedicated staff to nurture your seedlings?

If you think long and hard about the “soil” of your philanthropy department, you may see areas that could use amending. Perhaps it is time to rethink your strategic plan or hire that major gifts officer. The last thing you want, trust me, is to spend time planting seeds for support only to have your relationships struggle to survive. Doing so wastes time and energy, and it looks bad to the community of “gardeners” surrounding you. Take the time to do it right. And, if you find yourself with time to spare, I’ll meet ya at my garden plot with a pair of gloves.

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