The Dynamics of Cultivation

The problem, she told me, is that they don’t ask.  I demur. The problem, I retort, is that they ask without cultivating.

Oh yes.  You send your donors your newsletters, invite them to events. You send them handwritten letters, post pictures on social media…all one-way actions really aren’t getting you to better know your donor and, really, aren’t letting your donors know you any more than they already do.

Pushing information out is not the same as interacting.  And cultivation is all about the back and forth of good conversations and opportunities to learn more about each other; you learning about the donor/prospect and the donor/prospect learning more about your organization.

Real cultivation is a give and take, a back and forth. It is dynamic, not static and does not happen at an arm’s length distance. It lets you learn more about what would make a fabulous gift for your donor and your donor to learn more deeply about what matters so you can better accomplish your mission.

Cultivation is not you having a lovely lunch with your donor; it is you having a lovely lunch and learning more about what motivates and moves him or her.  It’s not you taking the prospect on a tour of your organization; it is you taking that prospect on a tour and finding out—from the questions he or she asks, and the answers you get to your (open-ended) questions—what that you’ve shown them is exciting to them, what they wished they would have seen.

In short, cultivation is a conversation where you are constantly adding to your knowledge of what philanthropically makes your donor tick.

And always, always, always, you are talking money—what you are hoping for, what they want to accomplish will cost.

You must plan your cultivation steps, including having clarity about the things you need to learn. And you need to have a strategy about how to go about learning those things.

If you cultivate wisely, you don’t have to worry too much about making an ask.  Often, you won’t have to—the donor will ask you.  Your job will be to make sure that what he or she is asking is at the right amount and for the right project or program.  But when you do have to formally request that gift, it should only be when you have all the answers to those burning questions and those answers clearly inform the ask you will make.

And while the yes you get may not be exactly the yes you were hoping for, if you’ve cultivated carefully, you won’t have been far off the mark.

The Wrong Board

A colleague who has spent her career at large, well-resourced nonprofits was complaining about a recent event she attended.  The purpose of the event was to match potential board members with nonprofits needing new board members.  The problem according to my colleague?  The potential board members were all inappropriate—too young, too unconnected, too little financial… Read more


Recently, Tom Backer of the Valley Nonprofit Resources  asked me to be part of their “uncertainly initiative.”  Anything Tom asks me to do I say yes to not just because I consider him a friend but mainly because he is so smart, so innovative and so important to the nonprofit sector. As a person who… Read more

Where You Want to Go and How You Want to Grow

Setting fundraising goals too often means the board telling staff—you did great (or not so great!) this year.  Increase that next year by 10%.  But that’s a little like my spouse telling me he expects that next year, Janet Levine Consulting—which is actually just me–should bring in 10% more than it did this year. Well, to… Read more