A Lesson in Online Constituency Building From … Major Gifts



The tools of traditional offline direct response fundraising produce terrifically concrete and immediate results. We solicit our donors, they respond, we measure our results. As the name itself implies, it’s a direct, largely black and white, medium. We either meet our fundraising goals or we don’t.

While direct response produces wonderfully immediate and measurable results, it can also produce not-so-wonderful linear thinking when it comes to membership development strategy. Every new media breakthrough brings out our dreamers just as much as it brings out our skeptics: “Sure (insert new media here) is all good and well,” they say, “but how do I actually raise money with it?”

Direct response is an excellent membership development tool, of course. And I believe that a healthy measure of skepticism can serve us well too. But we can also benefit from approaching new prospective membership development tools with a little imagination, and a little patience.

The good news is, as online constituency-building establishes its place in membership development, the direct response world is doing just this. It’s recognizing that there’s more than simply drawing a straight line from Solicitation to Gift. Our programs now embrace, or at least accommodate, the in-between state of participation – i.e. non-giving relationships centered around action, conversation, or other engagement – now made possible on a large scale online, as a deliberate first step on the path to giving.

Revolutionary? Not really.

Major gift fundraising – one of the earliest forms of development to be defined as the field became organized and professionalized many decades ago – has long practiced a staged approach to fundraising that is at the heart of today’s online constituency-building strategy. Its best practitioners share a number of qualities that can be uniquely instructional to us as we shape our approaches to identifying action-takers and converting them to donors online.

For instance …

Major gifts people are patient. They don’t look at their watches when they’re talking to a prospective donor. They never interrupt a good conversation with an ask.

Major gifts people embrace the journey. They trust that if they make it a good one, and travel with the right person, they’ll arrive at their destination.

Major gifts people are strategic. They always have a plan, and they are always thinking three moves ahead.

As we establish new models for direct response membership development encompassing online constituency building, let’s not forget that sometimes the most valuable models for our future aren’t actually new at all. They are alive and thriving in our present.


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