By Jeff Muller, Crossroads Insights LLC
Bridging between low-dollar annual and major giving—and being a key feeder for planned giving—mid-level programs play an essential role in the philanthropic ecosystem. Yet occupying this nexus of the various individual giving programs creates unique relational opportunities and challenges for mid-level teams, a theme recently explored in conversation with three expert practitioners: Colleen Morith of the Smithsonian Institution, Ishmam Rahman of the International Rescue Committee, and Andrew Wiley of the World Wildlife Fund.
The discussion centered on the core challenge for any mid-level program: how do you cost-effectively create the feeling of a high touch relationship with donors who aren’t yet giving enough to warrant dedicated relationship managers? One thing was clear. This requires a variety of approaches, including deploying a strategic and personalized direct response program, leveraging vendor and volunteer capacities, and utilizing a modest amount of traditional relationship management tactics. Below are some of the key recommendations that emerged.
Practice Active Listening
Organizations that actively listen to their donors create stronger relationships and can better align their efforts with donor expectations. There are various ways to accomplish this, including through one-on-one interactions, focus groups, and even gathering feedback from telemarketing efforts. In the case of WWF, Andrew shared that “we have conducted periodic mid-level donor surveys that provide so much rich information. They’ve helped us identify people who are interested in deeper engagement while augmenting our understanding of what donors are looking for.”
Create the “Surround Sound” Effect
“There are many ways to reach out to mid-level donors,” said Ishmam, “but if they’re not in the right place, and have time to respond, they’re not going to. That’s why it’s important to create a ‘surround sound’ effect.” This multifaceted approach involves utilizing various channels, including phone calls, texts, handwritten notes, emails, and acknowledgments, to engage donors from different angles. By saturating the donor’s experience with multiple touchpoints, organizations increase the chances of capturing donors’ attention and fostering deeper connections.
Leverage Your Volunteers
One thing is clear: personalization and human connection are essential in mid-level programs. Colleen shared one way the Smithsonian achieves this using volunteers. “We have within the mid-level a group of volunteers who do new member outreach. Each month, they send hand-written note cards to new donors who are in either their third or ninth month of membership.” Not only does this make the recipients feel valued and appreciated, but it also provides the volunteers with a greater connection to the life of the organization.
One key piece of establishing effective donor relationships is how organizations communicate impact, bringing the donors into the mission and understanding their role as change agents. At organizations like the IRC—which are known for emergency response—Ishmam shared that “timing may be the biggest factor. Whenever an emergency or disaster happens, how quickly we communicate our response really affects how donors perceive that their money is making an impact.” Timeliness in communication underscores the organization’s commitment to addressing pressing issues and strengthens the connection between donors and the cause.
Internal Collaboration is Essential
Given the unique space occupied by mid-level donors, building strong internal relationships is crucial for the success of mid-level programs. Andrew pointed out that “because mid-level programs often don’t have all the dedicated capacities required for success, we must leverage relationships with other teams who have complementary resources. In the end, the donor and the donor experience are collectively our North Star. When all the teams are supporting each other, it makes the donor’s experience more rewarding, which creates the conditions for more meaningful gifts in the future.” Establishing working groups, fostering trust, and promoting transparency can all contribute to a culture of accountability and shared mission.
Cultivate Leadership Support
Building a strong relationship with leadership is paramount for the success of collaborative efforts, as Colleen highlighted. “When our Assistant Secretary started, we met with him and brought in our direct marketing firm to make sure he understood the importance of membership, including our mid-level program, and how it worked. Now, he’s a huge champion.” This kind of endorsement from leadership not only fosters understanding but also facilitates smooth collaboration and alignment of objectives. Ultimately, a culture of collaboration championed by leaders allows for efficient teamwork, enhanced communication, and the realization of shared objectives.