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Relationship & Process- A Powerful Combination

Management Series


My colleagues and I at Plus Delta Partners frequently ask fundraisers to define their role. The exchange often goes like this: 

Q:  What is the role of a fundraiser? 

A:  Fundraisers build relationships. 

Okay, but what is a relationship, and how does a fundraiser build one with a donor? Being a person who appreciates clarity of expression, I have grown to believe that relationship as a word and concept is used so ubiquitously in fundraising that its meaning has grown ambiguous.     

Likewise, I have seen managers of frontline fundraisers struggle with how to guide their teams on this issue. Knowing that relationships are important, managers frequently suggest inviting donors to events, bringing them back to the organization, or initiating connections with other donors as next steps. While these ideas are designed to generate an emotional connection, they are rarely integrated with a defined process by which donors are empowered to make meaningful giving decisions.   

So how do fundraisers (and the managers that lead them) balance the two—relationship and process—for the benefit of themselves and their donors?  

For help resolving this conundrum, I turned to my friends, and Plus Delta alumni Judi Tichenor, JD and Michael Ward, CFRE. Judi is Executive Director of Gift Planning at Rice University, and Michael is the Executive Director of Development for the Wilson College of Textiles at North Carolina State University. Michael and Judi are both seasoned fundraisers and respected managers—they are pros that are well versed in both relationship and process.  

BH: "Michael, when it comes to your work as a fundraiser, what does the word relationship mean to you?" 


MW: "Relationship, to me, speaks to connection, trust, and common interest.  In many ways, relationships define our lives and many of the decisions we make." 


JT: "I agree wholeheartedly; however, I might say that successful donor relationships are characterized by an appropriately paced personal connection, trust, and common interest." 


BH: "What do you mean by 'appropriately paced,' Judi?"


JT: "One of the bigger challenges I have seen in the field for Development Officers is balancing the pressure to close gifts,  to meet metrics and donor-centered relationship development.(Metrics in the form of dollar targets, while great for setting goals, keep getting interpreted as the reasons for why we do what we do, at the peril—if not downright destruction—of too many donor relationships). Another challenge involves timing of moves based on where the donor is and a resistance to making moves at all, for fear of donor’s anger and rejection."   

"So 'appropriately paced' in my mind, means meeting the donor where they are—catching up if they are ahead of you, or going back to where they are on the road, listening intentionally, analyzing what they are saying, both verbally and non-verbally, and taking the time one needs to establish a real knowledge of the donor’s goals, wishes for impact, and recognition. Then, mirroring that effectively and even combining things you have heard in order to meet as many of the donor’s objectives as possible while also integrating those with the organization’s priorities." 


BH: "You both seem to agree that trust is central to the donor relationship. How, exactly, do you create trust with your donors?" 


JT: "Trust begins with listening well, sharing oneself appropriately but not so as toto overwhelm the donor as the central figure in the relationship." 


MW: "You often hear the phrase 'friends give to friends,' and I have found that the more I learn about people through inquisitive open-ended questions, the deeper the bond develops. Naturally, I enjoy learning about people and their interests. I am an open book myself, and I think creating that meaningful relationship is a two-way street, the same way friendships are formed."   


JT: "To build trust with people, you have to take time to get to know them. Be positive and sincere, without being overly flattering and at the same time recognizing people need to hear that what they are doing is special. True empathy, something I was taught a long time ago, comes with effective listening without an agenda, mirroring, and reliable actions when actions are agreed upon."


BH: "Having been participants in multiple Plus Delta programs, you both know that we emphasize the importance of following a consistent process when it comes to working with donors. We call it the Donor Engagement Process (DEP) and each stage in the process—Qualification, Cultivation, etc.—involves specific objectives, questions, and outputs that define best practices for frontline fundraisers. Do you see relationship building and following a process as incompatible?" 


MW: "No, I think process and relationship can be very much compatible. In fact, you need them both aligned in order to move giving conversations forward." 


BH: "What do you think, Judi? Can gift officers follow a consistent process while also building relationships with donors?"


JT: "Overall, I think the answer is yes, with caveats. The biggest problem I can see with a consistent process is for those of us who do this more as an artform—like me. I like relying on my observation skills and intuition. Plus Delta gave me a process to integrate with those skills and abilities, but it took me awhile to see that I could combine them both and be more effective." 

 "Using the process provided by Plus Delta is very thought-provoking, which is great! Sometimes I get bogged down by the process when feeling it is just one more thing on the list that I have to do. The only other item I would add is that those who are more transactionally inclined might be at risk of just using the Plus Delta process in bits and pieces, forgetting that building the relationship is the key to the whole Plus Delta process." 


BH: "Judi raises an interesting point about gift officers that behave transactionally. These officers tend to move quickly—oftentimes too quickly. Does following a process increase the risk of officers behaving transactionally?" 


JT: "As long as the relationship building skills and creative process are not sacrificed in favor of a formulaic process, or worse still, bits and pieces of the process used willy nilly, or applied before one gets to know the donor, then I think the process can be extremely helpful in thinking through the next steps."  


BH: "And what about those fundraisers that are not transactional, but gravitate toward the other end of the spectrum: those that can be overly relational and have a tendency to over cultivate prospects because it has become difficult or impossible to talk with the prospect about the taboo subjects of money and giving? Can process be helpful to these gift officers?" 


MW: "One hundred percent yes!  Many of us in this profession believe there is such a term as friendraising. Not only is it a poor investment by the organization to continue on this path, but you can't help to think about how the prospect may feel, knowing they are likely being engaged by other nonprofits. Gift officers who become “friendraisers” must have a good manager/leader/coach to get them on track, and the manger/leader/coach can rely on process—including tools like Plus Delta’s DEP—to help convert friend-raisers into fund-raisers."  


Judi and Michael gave me valuable insights and helped me focus on how relationship relates to process. Having a consistent process—the DEP within the Plus Delta community—helps to keep the relationship in balance: neither too transactional nor overly relational. It’s possible to build the relationship while simultaneously advancing the conversation around specific, actionable philanthropic opportunities. 

From the very first contact with a potential donor, fundraisers are working to establish connection and trust; they are also seeking to identify common interests, values, and goals. Through their words and actions, they are building a relationship. As Judi pointed out, the pace at which gift officers are able to develop trust and to secure prospects’ investment in shared objectives depends on a variety of factors, including where the prospects are in their journeys when we find them and how rapidly each individual is willing to advance. 

The relationship is based on all of the experiences that fundraiser and donor share together. It begins with their very first interaction and continues to grow and evolve as they have more and more interactions. Ideally, those interactions are characterized by consistent principles and behaviors (e.g., honesty, transparency, collaboration) that all parties can come to expect from one another. 

The process is simply how we go about building a strong relationship. How we establish trust, how we connect, how we discover common interests, how we move forward together at a mutually appropriate pace. Process is the pathway we follow to stay on course and to increase the likelihood of reaching our desired goal: a mutually meaningful philanthropic relationship. 

Michael touched on the importance of this topic to those who are managing frontline fundraisers. Good managers help gift officers to achieve balance in their donor relationships, being neither too transactional nor overly relational. The best managers use a well-defined process (like the DEP) to provide coaching that helps gift officers gain confidence and, over time, achieve self-sufficiency in applying the process themselves. 

I am grateful to Judi and Michael for helping me to clarify my thinking on this issue and leading me to a couple key insights: 

  1. If more gift officers better understood the connection between relationship and process, would they raise more money?  I believe they would. 
  2. If more managers provided frontline fundraisers with coaching on how to apply process in their work, would those fundraisers ultimately build stronger donor relationships? Again, the answer is yes. 

The moral of the story?  We all need people like Michael and Judi in our lives because it is the relationships we build and how we build them, that really matters. 

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