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Narrow the Gap: Our Best Fundraising ROI

Marketing is important, but it's not enough. Not even close.

By Andy Ragone

Some have recently shared this sentiment with me: "We're marketing for planned gifts just like you instructed, Andy. Why then aren't the gifts rolling in?"

"Right!?!" You may be thinking, or perhaps even shouting as you resonate with this question.


The work of marketing and education for complex gifts is important, but this is only part of the puzzle.

There can be a large gap between sparking donor interest through marketing and securing actual gift commitments. The way we address this gap will make all the difference and turn interest into lasting philanthropic partnerships. This article is here to help you narrow that gap.


Yes, marketing and planned giving education are important.

If you are aiming to build out your gift planning program or fine-tune it, you will first want to ramp up your marketing and education efforts. Help donors understand the tax-saving benefits of giving from asset wealth instead of cash. They will not give larger gifts from asset wealth if they do not know how a gift works or how they benefit by making a planned gift. A strong marketing and planned giving educational presence makes it easier to get your program off the ground.


What do we recommend for marketing? Be everywhere!


If you haven't already, please review the article Eight Secrets to Know when Marketing for Planned Gifts.


Here's a snapshot of what we recommend for marketing:

  • Use online, print, organization publications, signatures, inserts, ads, guides, etc. Keep your messaging simple and consistent.

  • 25-35 marketing touchpoints per year to the appropriate target audience.

  • Real-time event marketing on social media. Post photos and videos during or immediately after events targeted at legacy donors and prospects.

  • Educate on the most common giving vehicles: bequests, IRA distribution gifts, appreciated asset gifts, real estate gifts, charitable gift annuities, and donor advised funds.

  • Keep donor stories fresh. Explain the "Why" behind their giving AND "How" they are choosing to give.

  • Always have relevant and reasonable calls to action. Make it comfortable for donors to engage.

There is more to do on the education side, but this would be a great start.

"Hold on now, Andy!" You may object. "We're already marketing as you recommend. But, back to our question: Where are the gifts!?!"


Programs will struggle to move forward without a consistent and strategic marketing plan. However, there's more to building a program than pushing marketing messages. It is not reasonable to expect gifts to come in from marketing alone. You may get a few, but they will likely be small in frequency and size alike.


Why is this the case? Larger gifts, in most instances, have relationships attached to them. 


Marketing is important, but it's not enough. Not even close.


Again, where do we start? We start with marketing. What is the benefit of marketing? Marketing will reveal interested prospects. With a solid marketing effort, your leads will begin showing up over time.


If marketing reveals donor interest, then it's up to us to determine our unique next steps with each donor who shows interest. 


Please underline that!


We need to narrow the gap between producing interest (marketing) and securing gifts. We start with these interested donor prospects, no matter how small the initial response may be, and go from there. Interest grows as we better identify our ideal target audience, which takes some time and strategy to do. We will have to save segmentation for another blog.

Here is the hard question: What percentage of each week is dedicated to visiting donors? My goal here is not to add responsibility to an already full plate. Instead, this is a question of prioritization. In most cases, development shops are not structured to emphasize front-line fundraising through donor visitation. We tend to wear many hats, and more urgent matters can easily dictate how we operate, even if the unintentional consequence is a much lower overall ROI from staff performance.


Narrow the gap between marketing and securing gifts.


How do we narrow that gap? Meet donors in person whenever possible so they may get to Know you, Like you, and Trust you (KLT). I know! This is stating the obvious. It isn't a matter of knowing what we should be doing. Rather, this is a matter of prioritizing visits for development officers above all else.

·       Know: Donors need to know us through numerous touch-points over a long period of time. A consistent marketing and stewardship approach helps prospects and existing legacy donors become familiar with us. They need to know who we are, and this requires us to stick around long enough to be well known in our communities. If the average lifespan for a development officer is 18 months per organization, it's no wonder that our donors hesitate to give us their time. They may meet us once or twice, but they never come to know us. Most successful gift officers have long tenures at their organizations.

·       Like: How we approach our donors matters. Donors decide if they like us based on our interactions. Each visit becomes a building block to create a relational foundation. Learn what they're passionate about and care for them as human beings. This takes time.

·       Trust: Donors trust us when they feel we have their best interests at heart. Trust builds when donors see our organizations consistently meeting community needs and us following through on our commitments. Trust is also built when our donors become comfortable with us.

Please prioritize making connections at your events and scheduling more personal meetings. It's a delicate relational dance. Even if you're not extroverted you can still be exceptional at creating these relationships for mutual benefit.


"How do I get my foot in the door?"

I hear this question a lot, and I love the fact that development officers are trying to overcome this obstacle.

"Andy, we want to meet with our donors, but how do we reach out so they will want to meet with us individually?"

My friend, Jill Rode, works at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. The Music Academy has a beautiful campus next to the ocean and draws in talented young musicians from all over the world for summer sessions. I don't know how many recitals and events they have each summer, but there are a lot. While Jill markets throughout the rest of the year, she primarily focuses on spending time with donors at recitals, inviting them to non-fundraising events, having coffee or lunch with them, and discovering why the Music Academy is so important to them. She meets A LOT of people this way.

Your organization may not be situated in Santa Barbara, atop a bluff next to the Pacific.

However, there are structured and repeatable ways to make relationships happen. Two such examples would be to host small group VIP tours or educational seminars to help your donors solve problems. For example, your donors need carefully drafted estate plans, yet many do not have them. Offer estate planning seminars to help them put their plans together. Offer lunch or dinner with these seminars, get to know a few people and go from there. Structure these types of donor-benefiting experiences in your overall fundraising strategy.

Moreover, many of your donors may appreciate the added care and attention that you offer. Help them help you.

Prioritize and Practice front-line fundraising, where you meet donors on their turf, homes, coffee shops, etc. This will produce your greatest ROI. Do things and create events that spark their interest or meet their needs. Meet them again and again. Help them feel important and conduct unique "life review" each time. Become a student of them. Put them into your work routine. After all, they ARE your work. When conducting a "life review," consider the following questions:


  • Are they retired? How did they get there? What did they do for work? What did they like most or least about what they did? What do they enjoy doing now?

  • What is their lifestyle like? Why is lifestyle important to them? I'm especially interested in observing this, mostly because I know that donors will not compromise their lifestyles to make gifts. Many donors live modestly and yet have great wealth. We also have donors who live a little more extravagantly and may not have as much to offer. Observe, observe, observe.

  • What is their family dynamic like? What are their goals for children and grandchildren?

  • Who has inspired them the most? What are their pet peeves?

  • How do they wish to be perceived? What motivates them to be charitable?

  • What is their history with your organization and the cause you are championing? Have they volunteered or been personally involved above and beyond donating?

  • How do they feel about the cause your organization is aiming to remedy? How important is it to them? How do they see if your organization is poised to solve the problems it has set out to solve?

Instead of only promoting your organization's work, make the conversation about your donors' interests. Over time, you will discover the common ground with your organization's mission.

An important side note: Do you have a stewardship plan for legacy donors and prospects? If not, create one. It can be as simple as an Excel sheet tracking stewardship efforts for certain donors. Recognize important dates and create VIP events for these donors. Make regular, thoughtful contact throughout the year.

Another important side note: Read the room. Remember, not every donor will know, like, or trust you enough to let you into their lives. But that doesn't mean they're not interested in your organization's work. Stay the course with them at whatever level they allow.

Relationship building is OUR work. Spending time with donors yields the greatest ROI.

While obvious, relationship building is OUR work. Marketing brings us the leads, but relationship-building is where the magic begins. Understanding the gap between sparking interest through marketing and securing actual commitments is crucial. The key is building genuine, personal connections with donors. This takes time and perseverance, but this is also how you transform donor interest into lasting philanthropic partnerships. That is the all-to-critical part to bringing in gifts.

Marketing brings us the leads, but relationship-building turns those leads into gifts. Prioritize this every day. Remember, donor visits produce our greatest ROI.

There is more to share about knowing and structuring gifts as well as having a team of professional advisors around you to finalize gifts, but if you get this far, you will be well ahead of the curve.

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