Category Archives: Major Donors

Writing Top-Notch donor notes

There are many things that one could associated with the term “top notch”. Restaurant comes to mind. Or service. The quality of donor notes in your database is probably not one of them. But  of the Veritus Group think they should be. Quality notes are listed as one of their 7 absolutes for major gift fundraising success. This got me thinking… what makes a note ‘top-notch’? What should you be recording in your donor database?

Now, some of these will seem obvious but sometimes some of the simplest details are easy to overlook. Here is my list of things that at some point in my career I’ve found myself wishing someone had recorded!

  1. The donor’s first name. Yes, I warned you that I was going to state the bleeding obvious! Believe it or not, I’ve seen this scenario a couple of times. Major Donor Officer visits donor. Returns to office. Writes down notes about his/her chat with the lovely Mrs Johnston, lists the name of all her grandchildren and even the dog but at the end of it her record still says “Mrs C Johnston”. I understand that not everyone likes using their first name but it is a very valuable piece of information when it comes to major donor research; particularly if the donor has a very common surname. To give the major donor officers the benefit of the doubt, they may not have actually known the name, which brings me to item 2.
  2. Preferred way of being addressed. If a donor says “call me Betty”, it’s something to note. I’m sure that many major gift officers have a fantastic memory for names but in the event that person leaves the Organisation, that most fundamental of information is lost if it is not recorded.
  3. Location of the meeting. I’m reading a note someone wrote about a donor meeting 18 months ago – why do I care where they met? If that meeting was at the Organisation’s facilities, then we are going to avoid that embarassing situation of asking whether a donor would like to come on a tour, only for them to tell you they did that last year!
  4. Duration of meeting. This isn’t about clockwatching. While longer is not always better, I think recording duration can give you a hint to how comfortable, engaged or interested the donor is in the Organisation. I do stress the word ‘hint’. In my mind, I’m confident that a donor who has a discussion which lasts an hour is very likely to be more engaged that one who has a 5 minute conversation at the front door. I certainly wouldn’t go as far as saying that 1 hour conversation is better than a half an hour one. Some people can talk for a long time about not very much!
  5. Connection to Organisation. Most major donor officers are pretty good at recording this one – why did the person first start giving? What is their connection to the Organisation?
  6. Other connections and Relationships. Like the reason for giving, most people record when a donor mentions they went to school with someone connected with your Organisation – in a note. Don’t get me wrong, writing a note is certainly better than doing nothing. However, I’d encourage you to go one step further and put a big smile on your data monkey’s dial – link those contacts in your database. Data monkeys love links as these are so much easier to find and use than some text notes.

I’m curious – what would do you think makes a top-notch donor note?


Networking tips for introverts

Recently we had a staff day including an afternoon of professional development and ‘team building.’ Gulp. Are there another two words in the English language that can bring such dread to an introvert?

For me, it’s a double whammy. Not only do I not enjoy being in a room for 40 other people (4 is about my limit), but I have such a high degree of cynicism when it comes to team building that I find myself coming up with various schemes which may get me out of this exercise.

As for networking, I’d rather poke myself in the eye with a stick.

Thankfully, the facilitator of the session – the value of networking – was remarkably sensible. Sandra Wood ran the session. The timing was perfect as there was a supporters event the following week. When asked about how I felt about networking, I freely admitted that the idea made me feel rather ill yet I also knew there was no way of escaping the function I had to attend.

Sandra’s advice was practical. Eat before you go. Hold your drink in your left hand and keep your right hand free for shaking hands. And my favourite – if you need to join a group, go for a group of 3 not 2. Her practicality won me over. Here was a woman who took the time to acknowledge that this is something many people do not want to do; something people dread and then set about trying to ‘lessen’ the dread. Over the years, I’ve met many facilitators of professional development and in particular ‘team building’. Nearly all of them seem to have the opinion that introverts just need to become team players. Few acknowledge the challenges and for that I really do give Sandra credit.

Through the workshop, Sandra tried to get us to re-interpret our thinking. I was sceptical to say the least. However by the end of the session, I had realised that given I had to go to this event, I might as well try to make it more bearable for myself. Could I feel comfortable in myself doing this – definitely not! Did I feel proud of the work my employer does – absolutely!

That was my key which took off the edge. If I just focused on the positive feelings I have about my job, then that would negate any lack of confidence in a crowd.

I’m pleased to say that I survived the function and even managed to have a couple of good conversations with a some major donors! For that I have to give credit to Sandra Wood Consulting. I certainly won’t be volunteering myself for such events in the future however when I do need to attend, I think I now have a few tricks to get me through them with better results.

What’s in a face?

Do you ever wonder what you can tell about a person from the way they look? Recently, I’ve been assisting with some donor research for a major campaign. When gathering information, photographs invariably come into the mix. This got me wondering – what can you discern from the way your donor looks?

If I were to take the advice of my mother, the answer would surely be ‘a good deal.’ I grew up listening to my mum during the evening news tell me all about people from the way they looked. ‘I don’t like that man; he has a nasty mouth.’ (I don’t really want to admit it but I tended to agree his mouth wasn’t born out of happy street).

It seems my mum isn’t the only one who uses mouths and eyes as a indication of personality. As I collate the research together and a new image appears, I hear comments from colleagues like ‘he looks friendly’, ‘she’s like my grandma’, or ‘oh… I’m not sure about calling him, he looks cranky.’

Snoop: what your staff says about youSo I delved into my bookshelf and unearthed a copy of Snoop: what your stuff says about you. I acquired this book more than 2 years ago now. It seems that since then the author Sam Gosling has acquired a PhD and the book has been re-released with a new lime green finish.

I remember buying it. It was the first paragraph on the back which caught my attention:

What does your desk reveal about your personality? What about the books you own or the pictures on your wall? And what’s the best way to find out what your new partner is really like?

It was the desk comment which did it for you see, comments on my desk are not uncommon. Many a colleague has remarked that they don’t understand me and my desk. My messy desk does not fit with all their other perceptions. ‘How can you be so meticulous with your data but have a desk like that?’ This one is almost as common as ‘How can you work with numbers all day long yet you can create art like that?’ (For my answer explaining the two can co-exist see: Data and Creativity.)

Would Snoop reveal to me the mystery of my messy desk? (I’m not sure whether it solved the mystery but Gosling himself admits to a mess of a desk and he seems to have some street cred when it comes to analytics so I’ll take that as proof that a messy desk does not spell the end of my analytical career).

But back to donors and their faces. Gosling for the most part focuses on physical environments, however he does talk about some research he conducted where he asked students to 

rate people’s personalities just from looking at photographs of them. Considering they have nothing more than a still photo to go on, our observers… were surprisingly accurate at judging others’ levels of extraversion, agreeableness, and openness.

So it would seem if on viewing a photograph of a donor I see them as creative or unconventional, this can be a valid way of determining they are a person high in openness.

My next line of thinking is whether we can do anything with that? I tend to think perhaps we can.

If people who are high on openness like playing with new ideas, trying new activities and challenging traditional thought, then I’m sure that in turn can influence which programs they may want to financially support. Alternatively, if I’m seeing photographs of donors who appear relaxed and cheerful, then assuming that they may be high on agreeableness is apparently ok. And I’m sure that fundraisers are looking for people high agreeableness since they “tend to be helpful, selfless, sympathetic, kind, forgiving, trusting and considerate.”

He doesn’t say much about people with nasty mouths though. I must tell my mother that.



Training a new data monkey – what would you recommend?

After a 4 month search, I have finally acquired myself a trainee data monkey. Now comes the critical question – how to train the monkey?

I’ve started by piling a number of articles and books on his desk! Here are a few that I consider ‘foundation’ pieces. I’d be most interesting in hearing from other fundraisers as to books, articles, blogs etc that you regard as essential!

Fundraising books

These would be my top 3 books for getting a good grounding in fundraising. What is your top 3?

The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications by Jeff Brooks.

Since hearing Jeff Brooks speak at the Fundraising and Philanthropy forum in Sydney two years ago, I’ve been a fan.

I love Jeff’s simplicity, his wit and most of all his dislike of brand gurus! I mentioned to a colleague that I had ordered a copy of Jeff’s new book and in response, they said to me that they expected it to be just a summary of what he writes on his Future Fundraising Now blog.

Only half way through the book, I can certainly say there are many familiar themes, yet I’m thoroughly enjoying it and I think it will be a fantastic book for my trainee data monkey.

Building Donor Loyalty: The Fundraiser’s Guide to Increasing Lifetime Value by Adrian Sargeant and Elaine Jay.

I first read this book about 6 or 7 years ago and its impact has never left me. My experience of fundraising texts to that point had been of rather vague prose banging on about how to make donors feel important.

This book combined definitive data about why donor loyalty matters with concrete strategies for improving it.

It remains a favourite to this day.

Relationship Fundraising: A Donor-based approach to the Business of Raising Money by Ken Burnett.

Many people recommend the work of Ken Burnett. He talks about donors as friends. When I first read this I thought it sounded nice but it didn’t actually click with me until I became a donor myself.

I support the Cat Protection Society at Enmore ever since I adopted my two tortoise shells from them in 2009. I subscribe to their facebook page and actually look forward to their facebook status updates telling my who has been adopted. I was asked to write an article for their recent book, Feline Friends, about my girls’ fascination with walking through my paintings while they are still wet. To my delight, it didn’t end up on the editor’s cutting room floor. When I approached them for an advance copy for my grandmother’s 90th birthday, they happily obliged.

I am a donor yet I feel like a friend.

Fundraising Articles

Of all the areas of fundraising, I find major gifts one of the hardest to find quality reference material. I’ve directed my new colleague to a most entertaining and informative series of blog posts by Jeff Schreifels from Passionate Giving.

If you haven’t seen 10 Reasons Why Most Major Gift Programs SuckI strongly recommend it.

Last but not least, is an interesting 2 part blog post on what makes a great database manager by Ivan Wainewright. I have to admit to reading this post with some trepidation as I am a database manager with no formal training in the area. I like the article because personally it pointed out some strengths I’d overlooked and highlighted areas where I can improve my skills.

I’d be really interested to hear from you – what books or articles would you add to this list?

Chiuaua beats fundraising everytime

I have discovered the sure fire way to get a colleague of mine to read her email. I sent her two emails within the space of 5 minutes. The first had a title like ‘major donor invitation list needed’, the second was called ‘the chiuaua check.’ Guess which one she opened?

Sadly for Mademoiselle [obviously not her real name] both were work related, although at the time the first was more important than the latter.

Perhaps I should start inserting random words in all my work titles. Instead of sending out emails talking data specifications and use cases, I should start calling them data dalmations and unicorn sticks. At least instead of blank faces, I might get slightly bemused ones.

For those who are remotely curious how a ‘chiuaua check’ could be work related – aside from if I was employed by a vet – here’s the answer.

You may have heard the saying, ‘how does a chiuaua go about eating an elephant?’

‘One bite at a time.’

Given the gaps in databases can be the size of an elephant, I decided that all fundraising staff who worked with donors, supporters, stakeholders (insert appropriate word here), had to complete the chiuaua check for every person they met. While it sounds interesting. It’s quite dull. It was a list of four items in the database they had to check – and update – for each person they met.

I have no idea whether this will actually result in a noticeable dent in data quality. I don’t even know if they will do it. However, at least they opened the email!

Data Mining for Fundraisers

I know, I know… it sounds like you’re in for a boring post. ‘Feeding your brand manager to the lions’… now that would be a good title for a post! But alas, ‘data mining for fundraisers’ it is. Why? It’s the name of a book I just finished reading. Well, actually it’s the short name. The full title is: Data Mining for Fund Raisers: How to Use Simple Statistics to Find Gold in Your Donor Database-Even if You Hate Statistics‘ written by Peter B. Wylie.

It is a fantastic book and here’s why.

  1. It’s short. Who wants to read a tome on data mining in the hope that it will enhance your Organisation’s fundraising. This book is under 100 pages and in my opinion, teaches far more than many books do which are four times the size.
  2. There’s not an RFM, LTV, LYBUNT in sight. Well, there may be the occasional reference to such things… but for the most part this book is about data mining. This book is about finding donors in your database who will end up with a brilliant RFM score long before they have one.
  3. It’s practical. This isn’t a text book. It’s more like a tutorial. The chapters are even called ‘step 2, step 3…’. It is a book designed to be put into practice.
  4. The author is a pragmatist. When you get to the part of ‘significance’, he tells you that you can run a chi-square test, or run the ‘wow, look at that difference style test’. I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to read a book written by someone with over 35 years of statistical experience telling me that it was ok to skip the significance testing and go with the ‘gasp, isn’t that a brilliant difference’ style approach.
  5. There’s nothing new here. This may sound like a strange ‘plus’. Let me try to explain. This book is consistent with so much of what I have read and done over the years in my roles which was very comforting. I didn’t go to ‘data monkey training school’. Sometimes I think I should have more of a background in statistics or IT to do the work that I do. Yet the idea of either bores me to death and I have clung to experiences where I’ve come across someone with those qualifications who, at the end of the day, was quite ineffective. Reading this book assured me that a qualification in stats is not essential. This showed me I’ve been on the right track, filled in a few of the missing pieces and gave me a structure for building a predictive model.

So I say to Mr Peter B Wylie – thank you! A handy little book that I will revisit time and time again.

For the love of flares

There’s an illness which appears to be relatively common in the not for profit data world. It infects fundraisers and service providers alike. It’s called bucketitis.

Let me explain with an example that has little to do with fundraising or the provision of services. Instead, let’s talk bad fashion.

Imagine you run a business which hosts fancy dress parties. You have a database full of people who love to dress up and attend these raves (each to their own I say!). Party night arrives and you do a little data collection – census collection for party goers if you like. There are girls dressed with headbands, shapeless short dresses covered with fringe and beads. There are some guys in brown and white robes, sporting beards and trying their best to look like Ewan McGregor (but nowhere near as cute). Lastly there’s a pack of people in flares complemented with orange and brown shirts.

Now, what happens next depends on whether you are infected with bucketitis.

A non-infected person would be content with their data gathering and leave their database full of flares, dropped waistlines and people wanting to learn more about the force.

An infected person, rounds up records from the night in question and creates 3 buckets: flappers, Jedi Knights and Seventies junkies.

You may well ask what’s wrong with that? Well here are 2 reasons why I think you should fight outbreaks of bucketitis.

1)   Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.

Okay, I exaggerate. Tomorrow you won’t be dead; you’ll just have data that’s one day old. That’s not really an issue if you’re planning on getting your Charleston ball flyers out in the next week.  (Now’s the time to be honest and ask what’s the likelihood of something happening that quickly in the not for profit world?)

So a few months go by. There’s a few more parties here and there and you’re ready to mail the next round of invitations. You delve into your database and locate the ‘bucket’ of Abba loving disco dudes for your next event. Chances are some of your eventers have been Bjorn Again (sorry, couldn’t resist) and attended a few more parties this time as pirates or dalmatians. Your flappers have become flamingoes and Jedi’s turned to juniper berries. Yet you’re stuck with the bucket you made 3 months ago. You either send them the Super Trooper pitch and hope they are still Abba fans at heart, or review your bucket and update your data.

This is what I have against buckets. Maintenance. If the data items which make people belong to a bucket are already in your database, a bucket is UNNECESSARY WORK.

On to reason 2…

2)   Regenerating the doctor

Who can put their hand on their heart and tell me that their buckets NEVER vary in their purpose or definition? My favourite one for this is ‘major donor’. This group of highly desirable supporters, regenerate enough to put Doctor Who to shame. Last week, there was only a dollar criteria on the major donor bucket. This week, we need to toss that bucket and make a new one because connection and long-term support is now in the frame as well as donations given.

In short, my second reason for bucket dislike is that they aren’t flexible enough to keep pace with your business needs.


So why if buckets are so terrible are they in such abundance? I’m sure your database calls them something a little more sophisticated than ‘buckets’. You might have profiles, groups, static lists, attributes, categories or hmm… ‘custom fields’.

I think software developers have created these functions in response to a real need. Trouble is that we have gone beyond that need. Instead of using their flexible tools in our databases to document and capture data elements, we go one step further and create buckets. If you can capture ‘weighs 100kg’ that’s fantastic. STOP THERE. Record it as ‘overweight’ and sure as eggs your new clinical director will have a different methodology and re-classification here we come!

While that’s the end of my data rant, I just have to share with you a little anecdote I found in preparing this blog post. Fumbling around for some costume terms I flicked through one of my fashion books and discovered this fact: In 1925 with the short skirts all the rage, clergy across the globe denounced this scandalous new fashion trend. My favourite is from the Archbishop of Naples who apparently ‘went so far as to announce that the recent earthquake at Amalfi was due to the anger of God against a skirt which reached no further than the knee.’ Oh dear. I’m glad that Archbishop was probably dead before the rise of the mini skirt.

[References: Costume and Fashion, A Concise History by James Laver, p 232)



Who to invite to your major donor event: the looking glass version

It seems that this a subject people are ‘googling’ and given my previous answer involved the tweedles I figure I should contribute something a tad more meaningful. So here it is…

The answer is: your donors.

I kid you not.

I list this because I don’t know how many times I’ve had people suggest a wealthy individual with no connection to the cause as their first point of call. In these cases, I don’t even have to ask my usual question – ‘what do you hope to achieve by having this event?’ – as their agenda is clear. Unfortunately their target is wrong!

Ok, so let’s assume your thought was your existing donors. Which ones should you invite?

I give you the data monkey’s mantra: ‘it depends.’ This answer is generally followed by a whole stack of questions:

  • Where are you having the event?
  • What style of event is it?
  • Is it sit down or standing only? (Very pertinent to many elderly donors)

The list goes on.

To avoid the irritating ‘it depends’ answer (and probably to get a better fundraising result) I suggest a new approach.

Stop asking ‘who should I invite to my major donor event’  and approach the task the other way around.  Start with knowing which major donors you wish to engage and then decide what the event should be. After reviewing who the donors are you may decide that an event isn’t the most appropriate mechanism!

In conclusion, if you try the above let me know how it works out for you. If you stick with asking ‘who should we invite to our major donor event’ then the answer is…

…it depends!

The ongoing campaign to ban Barry

Have I mentioned recently how dodgy my fundraising database is? Barry is at serious risk of being bashed over the head with a tyre iron. Yes, you didn’t know that data monkeys could be violent, did you? Well, we can.

Given this acute grumpiness I engaged in a moment of reflection this evening.

I’ve had poor data before. I’ve had databases – fundraising and clinical – with all the wit and charm of Peter Reith – why is this particular fundraising database different?

I think it’s because his days are numbered. If it was just the idea of getting a new donor database, I’d remind myself that it would be eons away. Yet, Barry’s replacement is on the horizon and so I become more and more irritated with him each day.

This is far from helpful given I’m trying to convince staff who have severe Barry avoidance issues, that they must open him up and use him! They point at the names the database spat out and say: ‘see, look how useless this data is.’ I want to answer, ‘well of course Barry thinks Harold Holt is still the Prime Minister. That’s how long since anyone put any decent data in him!’

How can I business possibly survive this way?

Easy. It’s called the Excel spreadsheet to the rescue. When your database isn’t as helpful as you’d like, make an excel spreadsheet. It won’t do any harm. I promise. It’s just ONE little mailing list.

If it truly were just one little mailing list, it would probably be ok. However these excel spreadsheets become endemic and pretty soon you’re wondering why your donor database is 3 Premiers behind reality.

In the defence of these excel spreadsheet masterminds, they do it because all too often the fundraising database isn’t up to the task. If Barry could send an email, they wouldn’t have this separate email / SMS list. If he knew how to remind them to ring a Major Donor, they wouldn’t have the outlook reminder, or the paper diary, or worse, no reminder at all.

What? No Reminder? How can that happen? Well, we all know that the email alert, the post-it note on your computer screen, the ‘write it on your hand and don’t have a bath’ method can all be effective… until you change staff.

I recall a gentleman I once worked with at the Free the Flamingo Foundation. This guy was a seasoned fundraiser, joining the Organisation full of hope and enthusiasm. Early on, he asked me to generate a list of the Organisation’s major donors.

‘Anyone who has given over $50k (single gift) and then, if there aren’t enough of those maybe $20k’.

Knowing what was in the donor database, I answered quickly: ‘It’s going to be a bloody short list’.

He wasn’t impressed!

So the criteria got knocked further and further down. We got to the point where we had found the mass. Turns out lots of people gave $1,000 to help the flamingoes. Yet that was the problem, there was a mass of donors at the $1,000 mark and almost no one above it. Where does one start?

He would ask me sensible questions like ‘tell me which ones we’ve had the most contact with?’ or ‘which ones are the most connected?’, or ‘who has attended a recent event?’ and it was my duty to disappoint him again by revealing such information was – at best – in the notes and we’d need to employ the text fairy – and at worst – in the heads of people who no longer worked there.

This I have decided this is the 11th reason why Major Gift Programs Suck: we consistently fail to plan for changing staff by documenting well. (To read the original 10, check out the thought-provoking series: ’10 Reasons Why Most Major Gift Programs Suck’ on the Passionate Giving blog. Highly recommended.)

I wish I could tell you that the Free the Flamingo Foundation solved this issue. Alas not. In fact, my seasoned fundraiser repeated the seasoned mistake and after a year or so of relationship development, he too walked out the door with the knowledge in his head.

Who to invite to your major donor event: Tweedledum or Tweedledee?

If you’re a data person in a not for profit, I’m sure this is a familiar scenario. ‘We want to have a major donor event… a tour of the facilities, a service manager will speak… could you find us some donors to invite?’ Ok, I exaggerate. Maybe you’re a lucky database manager and the fundraiser asks you for all donors who have given say $1000 or more. After some ferreting in the database, you come up with a list and send it back to the fundraiser. Let’s say there are two people on your list – tweedledum and tweedledee.

Meet tweedledum.He meets your fundraiser’s criteria – he has given one donation of $1000 last year.

Now meet tweedledee.  He’s given the same amount of money – $1000 last year, however he knows the chairman, is managing director of a well known hardware franchise and already attended the Organisation’s gala dinner.

Ok, fundraisers, it’s time to vote.

I’m imagining that many fundraiser’s would pick Tweedledee – after all you know he has a stronger connection to the Organisation. Some of you may pick Tweedledum thinking that this is a trick question. Well, I’ve got news for you, it IS a trick question. However the answer may not be what you think.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee are actually the same donor. The difference is that Tweedledum is in your database with the information recorded above (1 gift of $1000). The extra things listed about Tweedledee are all the things the fundraiser’s know but haven’t put in the database! So if the aim of this event was to capture donors who had never met the chairman, or knew little about our cause, we’d look mighty silly inviting Tweedledee. If we were looking for donors to nurture, Tweedledum may be overlooked for lack of history – what a lost opportunity!

How much do you know about your donors that isn’t in your database?