If you’ve been reading up on giving societies, you’re probably starting to feel the effects of whiplash.
Giving societies—or special, named recognition circles for donors—are long-standing staples of major & principal gifts fundraising. In some nonprofit sectors, they’re considered a given—synonymous, even, with quality stewardship. In others, fundraising leaders are starting to wonder: are giving circles right for us?
Fundraising thought leaders are divided, too. Recently, the scale seems to have tipped against giving societies due to the risks they present to relationship-based fundraising.
The potential downsides are real, but they are not the whole story. Strategic design and thoughtful rollout can mitigate much of the risk. What’s more, the benefits often far outweigh the costs. Giving societies can dramatically improve the donor experience by:
Bringing mission impact to life for donors
Fostering community among donors
Creating a jumping off point for major gifts team members to create really special, individualized stewardship experiences for donors
Ensuring a baseline experience for all donors, so no donors fall through the cracks during busy times or inevitable staffing transitions
Institutionalizing the importance of stewardship across the organization, from fundraising to leadership to finance to program
Streamlining back office operations and increasing efficiency, so that stewardship touchpoints are timelier, more personalized, and more meaningful to donors
Considering creating giving societies for your nonprofit? Here are six reasons they might be right for your organization.
1. Your fundraisers excel at relationship-based fundraising—and need more time to do it.
Giving societies are a powerful tool to shift the focus of your most valuable resources—your fundraisers—to the most valuable work—building relationships.
Absent giving societies, it’s common for stewardship to be the domain of fundraisers themselves. They are expected to know each donor in their portfolio and provide each a personalized stewardship experience. Many fundraisers do this well, but it’s challenging for even the most experienced to juggle up to 150 relationships. Staffing gaps and competing priorities add additional challenges. As a result, it’s common that stewardship ends up:
Incomplete—not leveraging all the potential ways to thank, engage, and inspire donors simply because of limited bandwidth
Inconsistent—varying by relationship-manager, time of year, etc.
Flat—providing little change in experience as giving grows
Giving societies create a standard baseline stewardship experience that spans all donors, raises the quality and quantity of touchpoints, and provides increased opportunities for top donors. Relationship managers are freed to spend less time on touchpoints that all donors should get—such as timely leadership thank yous, annual reports, key mission updates, event invitations, etc.—and more time on touchpoints specific to their donors—such as 1:1 conversations, personalized updates on topics of interest, and special mission experiences.
The key to making this work? Relationship managers who embrace the essentials of relationship-based fundraising: spend time with your donor, ask about their philanthropic interests, learn what kind of impact they want to make on your mission, ask them for a gift that fulfills those interests and desires. The only difference a giving society makes is to simplify year-round stewardship and free up time to personally say thank you, demonstrate the impact of giving, and deepen relationships.
2. You have meaningful, mission-based funding opportunities.
Giving societies don’t change the what you’re fundraising for. You are still fundraising for your mission, and there’s still no substitute for providing major donors tangible ways to make an impact on your work.
As critics point out, giving societies can tempt fundraisers to substitute genuine relationship-based fundraising with a more transactional approach: simply asking donors to renew their giving society membership each year. With this approach, you will:
Reduce the quality of donors’ experience with your organization
Miss opportunities to get to know donors better
Miss opportunities to ask for larger gifts
Lose donors who feel they are not receiving opportunities to make an impact on the mission
As discussed above, a relationship-focused fundraising program is key. It is as critical to continually invest in identifying meaningful funding opportunities for major donors: specific projects, initiatives, or focus areas where a major gift will help you move the needle toward fulfilling the mission you and the donor share. Educate fundraisers on the ‘menu’ you’ve created, why those opportunities are important, and how donors can help.
Some donors will be interested in discussing the giving society as part of their solicitation and may factor it into giving decisions, but fundraisers should never take their focus off of making the match between donor interest and organizational priorities.
3. Your donors expect it.
Giving societies are the norm in some nonprofit sectors—such as higher education and academic medicine—and certain areas of the U.S.—such as the Northeast.
In these areas, donors themselves equate quality stewardship with giving societies. Organizations that don’t offer giving societies may be perceived as unappreciative of donor gifts and uninterested in larger, transformational philanthropic partners.
Take a look at your peer organizations and local nonprofits: What has your philanthropic community come to expect? As board members and major donors: How do you like to be recognized?
4. Your donors enjoy a sense of belonging.
Many donors choose their philanthropic priorities based on a sense of belonging to a cause or a community. We need look no further than the popularity of fundraising events to understand the power of the social aspects of giving.
If you sense donors hungering for ways to connect to experts, leadership, or each other, giving societies can provide a great vehicle for fostering community. Provide unique members-only mission experiences, such as salon dinners with experts, site visits and tours, and thank you notes from people whose lives were changed by their generosity. Offer opportunities to get to know your board, your leadership, and your program staff through regular thank you calls, giving impact meetings, and personalized update reports from program staff. Bring members together to get to know each other through opportunities like members-only receptions or special meet and greets at your existing events.
5. You have a solid donor base—and you know where you want to grow.
Giving societies are best designed around where you want your donors to go, not the most common giving levels today. For this design to work, you’ll need:
A core base of major donors to fill up the lower levels in your society
A handful of donors who reach the higher levels
A vision for the giving behavior you want to drive: Giving outside events? Unrestricted or less restricted giving? Repeat giving? Lifetime giving?
With these ingredients, you’ll be able to design your societies to both:
Provide meaningful recognition to donors today
Incentivize increased giving and engagement over time to achieve your strategic goals
6. It’s time to hold your organization accountable to higher quality stewardship.
It’s easier to talk about stewardship than to deliver it. Strong stewardship takes consistent, high-level contributions from every department in a nonprofit: leadership, fundraising, program, finance, communications, and marketing.
You need staff and volunteer leadership to regularly thank and get to know donors. You need fundraisers to provide special, personalized opportunities. You need program staff to spend time with donors and share ideas for bringing the mission to life. You need finance staff to record gifts quickly and accurately, and to collaborate with fundraisers to deliver proper acknowledgement. You need communications and marketing to provide content for mission updates and recognition opportunities for top donors.
In the complex, high-pressure lives of nonprofit professionals, the only way to deliver anything consistently at a high level is to make it an everyday process.
And that’s what giving societies do: they convert great ideas for stewardship into practical reality for donors delivered by an everyday process that brings together everything an organization has to offer.
In our view, every nonprofit needs a giving society of some sort.
For some, the traditional, publicly promoted giving society is the right fit. If you’ve read this article and felt, “this is us,” it’s time to get started!
For the rest, it’s essential to set up the systems and structures—an ‘internal-only’ giving society, if you will—even if now isn’t the time to go public or you feel your donors aren’t interest, don’t move on to the next topic. Take the time to get organized internally and make sure every major donor is receiving meaningful stewardship all the time—no matter their relationship manager, no matter the competing priorities. Make lists of top donors, segment them by level, and provide meaningful year-round experiences to each group.
Your donors will thank you.