Donor Development – How to Get New Donors and Keep Old Ones?

By Murray Tilles, Light of Messiah Ministries

Donors…our most important resource for ministry. It is our donors who are saying through their giving that they are standing with us in our efforts to reach Jewish people with the message of our Messiah. They are the people who have a burden for our work. They are the people who pray for us. Many of those who donate to our ministries have Jewish friend and family members who they are hoping will come to know the Lord. Our donors, our supporters, our prayer partners…if it were not for them, we would not be able to accomplish our ministry purposes.

Ours is a small ministry. I began our ministry in Atlanta 13 years ago. We had no support, and no one on our mailing list except for the few family and friends who had a burden for our work. Today, we send out a little over 20,000 prayer letters a month and our revenues were just over $500,000. We have been blessed as a ministry and have only had one year when our expenses exceeded our income.

I believe we have done an adequate job of raising our support and maintaining donor relationships, however I also believe that this is the weakest are of our ministry and the area of ministry where I feel the most inadequate. In the United States the area of “donor development” has risen into the realm of the professional. Ministries can hire people who will go through their database to identify donors who may be able to be “managed” for more support. Ministries are encouraged to look for the regular donor who is giving $100 per month and then “develop the relationship” hoping that the donor will become a larger giver to the ministry. Mailing lists are analyzed, tweaked, and massaged to “get the most out of it”. Demographic studies are being done on mailing lists in order to find the elderly giver who may be able to give to the ministry upon their death, or the giver living in a higher class section of a city in order to find out if they can give more. Ministries are encouraged to call their larger donors to develop a deeper relationship in order to gain more support.

In the past several months I have received mailings from ministries both Jewish and others that look like checks from the government of the United States, they were, in fact, solicitations for support. I have received tape-recorded messages from ministries asking for support. And I have also received telephone calls from ministries that have received donations from my wife and myself thanking us for our support and asking how they can pray for us.

Donor relations have changed since I began ministry 21 years ago. Twenty years ago I was trained to write personal postcards to our donors in order to maintain a good relationship. That was about it. Today as the director of a Jewish ministry in the 21st century I am asking myself the question, “How do we move forward?”

Our ministry does not spend any money on developing or maintaining our donors. We do not have a line item in our budget designated for “donor relations”. Ours is a simple ministry. We work hard to reach Jewish people with the gospel, send out a monthly letter communicating what we did the previous month, receipt our donors every quarter, and send personal postcards out to our donors on occasion. The biggest change in our efforts has come due to the fact that we have begun calling our donors instead of writing postcards to thank them. Since we are in our vehicles more than we are in the office we have found it more efficient, personal, and effective, to give our donors a call to thank them rather than sending them a card or letter. Many of our donors have expressed appreciation for the calls of thanks that we have given to them.

There are four simple principles I live by in relating to the donors who support Light of Messiah Ministries.
They are:

  • Be Ethical – Do not communicate in a way that hides facts. Do not lie. Do not be deceitful. Do not make something look like what it is not.

  • Be Honest – give the correct facts. Do not exaggerate the need to get more. Do not exaggerate the results to make yourself look better.

  • Be Persistent – Communicate with your donors as much as you can, not to ask for more, but to express gratitude for their giving. As the area of “donor development” becomes more and more professional, people will begin to see through the marketing tactics. As a matter of principle I do not give to ministries who have a “high sell” or “aggressive selling” approach. If I receive more than a couple of glitzy appeal letters a year I will ask to be taken off of the mailing list. Madison Avenue approaches may work now, but I do not know if they will continue to work in the future.

  • Be Real – Communicate from your heart. If there is one complement our ministry receives it is that our communication is real and personal. If people feel like they are a part of your ministry, that they are important, that they mean something to you, then they will respond with their prayers and financial support. Too many ministries begin as a small personal ministry and then grow beyond their donors. Try to maintain a feeling of being personal with your donors.

    Are we doing enough? I must admit this is the greatest personal and ministry struggle for me. On the one hand I am aware that there are more effective ways of raising support for our ministry. I have a deep desire to have our ministry grow. If we could raise our revenues by 50% I already have projects in mind that will increase the exposure of our ministry and make us a more effective outreach to the Jewish community in Atlanta and the southeast. However I struggle with managing our mailing list to “get the most out of it.” If I identify the larger givers and give them more attention in the hopes that they might support our ministry in greater amounts, what of the widow who gives to our ministry out of her need? Is it less important for me to thank her than the donor who gives $10,000 without blinking? Is it right for me to call a donor who may be able to give our ministry more support in order to develop the relationship with him and ignore the donor who gave their last $5 and wrote our ministry a note asking for prayer. Is it right for me to approach an elderly couple in the hopes that we might receive some of their giving at their death?

    At this point in our growth, our ministry is adequately provided for. We are growing slowly. Our revenues are increasing. We are growing. I believe we are growing because we have stayed the course in doing evangelism and communicating to our donors our thanks for their support. We have not, however, done anything more. Could we? I am sure that we could. Are we going to? Only as I feel comfortable as the director of our ministry. May God help us all to be ethical, honest, persistent, and real in our approach to ministry, and our approach to those who support us with their prayers and financial support.

    Murray Tilles