That’s my most unfavorite unanswerable question. It’s not only unanswerable, it reflects that no matter how much you’re paying lip service to the contrary, you’re probably seeing your donors as ATMs. And trust me when I tell you that donors are remarkably good at picking up on that sentiment.

The puzzle of how and how much to invest in sustaining relationships with your donors is complicated in old and new ways. The ‘old’ problem is the ‘neither fish nor fowl’ aspect of the midlevel. It’s not a one to many model like pure direct marketing, but it’s also not a one to one model like major gifts. It’s like business class on a three-class airliner – nicer than coach but totally not first class.

If that was the only challenge with how to steward midlevel donors, it would still be tough. But there’s a new challenge. And it’s big.

The three-class airliner fundraising model privileges white, wealthy people. Fundraising as we know it is rife with inherent inequities and structural racism. And now that we finally see it, business as usual is not an option.

So what’s a fundraiser to do? Begin with a minimum standard of care for all donors, from $5 to $5 million. Find a way to personally thank every single donor the first time they give. That’s not an insurmountable problem if you make it a priority.

Craft and enforce a written ‘promise to donors’ and communicate it to everyone who gives.

Focus recognition on length of support rather than the size of a gift. It amazes me how few organizations send donors a note (or even an email) on the anniversary of their first gift. Honor donors who reach the 5- and 10-year mark in supporting you, no matter how small the gift. The bar for amazing your donors is really low right now because at least in the verticals we work in, the practice is so rare.

When you ask a donor (or activist) to do something and they follow through, get back to them. What happened as a result of their action or their gift?

And keep an eye on trailblazers like the Oregon Food Bank, who have embarked on  a remarkable mission to decenter money and center equity in their philanthropic work.

Trying to calculate the ROI of a single cultivation touch is like trying to figure out the impact on a budding relationship of a dinner date. Does that dinner make them 10% more likely to love me? Stupid question, right?

Midlevel is the perfect starting place for upping your stewardship game across the board. By all indications, midlevel donors care more about your cause, pay attention to how they are treated and retain better than most donors. Treating them like partners in your work may well increase their generosity, but do it simply because it’s the right thing to do.


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