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5 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Started In Donor Relations

By Jan McGuire

Like many of you, I didn’t start my career in donor relations. I’ve worn a lot of hats over the years – from conference & event planning to alumni association work, from outside sales to directing sales & marketing efforts – and it all culminated in the wonderful work of donor relations. Based on my winding career path, I thought I understood all I needed to know about donor relations: the importance of retaining donors, recognizing donors and communicating with donors. Turns out, all of that was just the tip of the iceberg! Here are few invaluable things I wish I had known on day one that took me months to learn:

  1. The data is important. As in, it’s REALLY important. The data drives so much of our work and I can’t stress enough how important it is to spend time with any and all reports you can get your hands on from day one. How many acknowledgments are you sending yearly from your top administrators? How many endowments are you reporting on and how are your reports tiered, if tiered at all? How many donors are in your giving and recognition societies? All of these numbers are your key indicators and will help you assess if your acknowledgment thresholds are too high, too low or spot on, giving society requirements are too high, too low or spot on, and so forth.

  2. Metrics matter. The data helps you determine who you are reaching and the metrics help you determine if you are reaching them in a meaningful way. For example, if you host donor events on a regular basis, what’s happening after your attendees go home? Are they giving to your organization in the next 30-60-90 days? If not, assess your event messaging and your event follow-up. Dive into your reports. Are the donors who receive endowment or impact reports truly engaged with your organization? If not, survey your donors to evaluate your report messaging, delivery options (print or electronic), and learn what would be more meaningful to them.

  3. Don’t assume your leadership understands the value of strong donor relations efforts in the fundraising cycle. Use your data and your metrics to help you lead up. Help your leaders understand things such as the cumulative gifts & commitments in the room at your events as well as the potential giving capacity in the room. Show them the value of the endowments you report on, how many donors receive these reports and the giving & potential giving of these donors. It never hurts to point out how many of these donors are assigned to your gift officers or how many aren’t (yikes!). And always remember that metrics can help you lobby for additional staff members (hint, hint).

  4. As with leadership, never assume your gift officers and their support staff understand (or even remember) what you do and how it helps them. Be sure that donor relations orientation is part of the onboarding of new employees. Invite new employees to your office suite to meet the staff who prepare the acknowledgment letters, reports and other things that help keep donors engaged. As gift officers move frequently from one organization to another, it’s important that they understand what your donor relations office provides at your organization.

  5. Build and maintain rapport with your campus partners. The people in your endowment investment office, scholarship or financial aid office and your database/IT department shouldn’t just be names in your inbox. You should introduce yourself to them in person right away. Let them know how much you value their work and its importance to your work. They are often far more “removed” from donors on a daily basis than we are in donor relations. It never hurts to reiterate to them what you are able to share with donors because of the data, reports and other information they provide you.

For those of you who are new to field of donor relations, welcome! For those of you recently promoted to a leadership role in donor relations, congrats! For the seasoned donor relations employees reading this, remember your work makes a difference! I hope these tips help.


This post was written by DRG Group member, Jan McGuire.


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