Purposefully Welcoming Donors to GCF Enhances Relationships

A Wonderful Problem

At The Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCF), we have a wonderful problem: two-thirds of our new donors/fund establishers are unfamiliar with our organization — let alone our mission or impact in our community. Sure, they may have seen our name or logo around the Greater Cincinnati area in art institutions, on beautification projects, or alongside several other funders of an education initiative, but they do not know how we can help them accomplish their charitable goals. I cannot think of another type of organization in the nonprofit sector that suffers from this “major-gift-before-a-relationship” syndrome.

You may wonder, how does this happen? We partner with professional advisors (attorneys, CPAs, and wealth/investment advisors) from across our region to serve as a resource for them and their clients. We’re really good at it. How good? Good enough to have two-thirds of our new funds originate from a professional-advisor referral. In most cases, the referring professional advisor provides us with everything we need to know to establish a fund — usually a donor advised fund. Often these funds need to be opened quickly without a lot of qualitative information about the donor’s charitable interest.

The result: we open a lot of funds efficiently and effectively, but we don’t usually have an opportunity to meet or even talk to the new donor before they make the first gift.


Over the years, we have experimented with various forms of orientations – both one-on-one and in group settings. The donors who participated found the meetings worthwhile, but our overall yield rate for agreeing to a meeting was abysmal. Many factors led to this outcome. Some donors didn’t know who we were and why we were calling. They thought they just opened another account with their investment advisor. Also, the term “orientation” implies that the GCF staff person will be doing all the talking and the donor will be listening. Our donors, like those at most community foundations, are smart, successful distinguished members of our community who live very hectic lives.

Why would they spend their time listening to us talk about us?

The Tipping Point

In 2010, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) conducted its Donor Perception Survey of donor advised fund donors at GCF. The overall results were good, but we could do better. We had very strong, meaningful relationships with some of our donors, but our relationships with donors were inconsistent overall. Our leadership team and board (with input from a donor task force) made the strategic decision to focus our efforts on improving our overall donor relations program. We not only made a much-needed investment in our donor relations staff, but we made sure we had the right type of staff — individuals who understand relationship building as opposed to just opening funds. We also began focusing on education opportunities that would strengthen our skills to work with donor families. For example, four of our staff members have earned their Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy® designation from The American College, and this mindset has spread among other GCF staff.

The investment in staff and training positioned GCF to create what we call “The Welcome Experience” for our newest donors. Our goal was to connect with our new donors and to convey to them that we appreciate them for entrusting GCF to be their philanthropic partner. Some of the improvements we made are:

  1. We attempt to meet the new donor with their professional advisor before they establish the fund. If that is not possible, we ensure the professional advisor will inform her client that a GCF staff person will be contacting them.
  2. Once the fund is established, our President/CEO calls the donor to thank them for establishing the fund, and she includes the name of the GCF staff member who will be contacting them to meet.
  3. When the staff person reaches out to the donor to schedule the meeting, we position the meeting as an important step in GCF understanding their charitable goals so we can help accomplish them. We remove as many barriers as possible such as offering to meet at their home or office instead of our offices. If we do meet in our offices, we have created comfortable donor lounges rather than formal conference rooms.
  4. The Welcome Meeting agenda is centered around the donor’s interests. Throughout the meeting, we want the donor to understand that we care about their charitable goals, and we’re here to help. This is also the staff member’s opportunity to position himself/herself as their central point of contact at the Foundation moving forward. The agenda is split into three sections:
  • Donor’s giving: This section of the meeting is squarely focused on the donor’s current and future giving, and what values drive those decisions. It often consumes the lion’s share of the meeting.
  • Overview of GCF: This is our opportunity to comprehensively explain GCF to the donor — including all of the other types of funds (Community, field of interest, etc.) we have to help them accomplish their goals. While this is a broad overview, we’re able to adjust to the areas they have the most interest. For example, if a donor is passionate about children, I’ll be sure to discuss our Grants for Kids mini-grant programs, which fund children’s programs during the school year or summer. When a donor has no interest in a certain GCF topic, I adjust my message accordingly to ensure the conversation stays relevant to the donor. We marry the donor’s interest with GCF’s community knowledge by offering to connect the donor to programs that may be of interest to them.
  • DAF mechanics: This is often the shortest agenda item. We review how the donor’s fund operates within GCF. Often, we demo our online donor portal to help them access their fund for the first time.

Improved results

After our first year, 75.6% of the donors who were offered a Welcome Meeting had accepted the invitation. After CEP conducted the Donor Perception Survey in 2013, our overall donor satisfaction score rating improved to the 91st percentile (from the 61st in 2010). Moreover, we were able to segment the donor respondents by the fund’s date of establishment. This allowed CEP to analyze the donor base that had the new welcome experience. GCF’s 2013 Donor Perception Report Key Findings show that this cohort of donors “tend to rate GCF higher for the responsiveness of Foundation staff, the helpfulness of the advice and expertise of Foundation Staff, helpfulness of conversations with Foundation staff to learn about the Foundation, and the importance of the quality of GCF’s staff as a factor in donors’ decisions to give to the Foundation.”

The 2013 Key Findings continue with, “In addition, compared to pre November 2011 donors, a larger proportion of post November 2011 donors indicate that they more frequently use the advice and expertise of Foundation staff for achieving their charitable giving goals, have conversations with staff to learn about the Foundation, are satisfied with the quality of the Foundation’s staff, and have communicated their personal charitable goals to the Foundation. In particular, 100 percent of post November 2011 donors report that they have used the advice and expertise of Foundation staff, and 85 percent of post November 2011 donors indicate that they have communicated their personal charitable goals to the Foundation.”

Our next challenge is to discover how to expand our welcome experience concepts to our existing donor relationships to enable us to better serve their charitable needs. Perhaps our next iteration of the DPR will show an even more satisfied and engaged donor base!

Phillip Lanham is the Director of Donor Relations at The Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

community foundations, developing strategy, Donor Perception Report, research
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