Cultivated Giving: An Extended Metaphor that Works

Cultivation hands plantJenny and I like to start our workshop “CULTIVATE: The Art & Science of Major Gifts” by asking people how they see themselves as fundraisers. Are you a stalker? A combatant? A seducer? A salesperson? Or a farmer?

We like the metaphor of the farmer. The successful fundraiser is the one who cultivates relationships with donors like a patient, gentle farmer rather than fighting with them like a WWF fighter.


What do you see in the photo above that informs your ideas of cultivated giving?

  • “You have to get your hands dirty.” Cultivated giving is about getting down in the garden with your donors. Face to face visits, phone calls, personal letters. Really listening and understanding their motivations and needs as donors to our organization.
  • “It starts as a small seedling and grows into a mature plant that yields fruit.” We can’t ignore the first-time $25 gift. Studies show these gifts are often tests. Donors want to see how we will respond. Welcome those first-time donors with a special welcome letter and package that tells them you noticed.
  • “You have to have a lot of patience.” Cultivated giving takes time. We can’t be focused solely on our quarterly financial bottom line. We have to be focused on the lifetime return on investment and the relationship we are creating with the donor.
  • “You need fertile soil, sunshine and water to help it thrive.” What are the nutrients you can add to your soil? Your annual report, thank you letters and calls, invitations to events (not the gala!) that are very special – like graduation or client award ceremonies, birthday cards.
  • “This is a living thing. Not static.” If the plant starts to wilt and we don’t notice, it will die. Relationships shift and change on a regular basis and we have to tend to them.
  • “Not every little plant will thrive, but we give each one a chance.” We don’t always which plants will mature to the ultimate size, so we have to treat each one with as much care as we can.
  • “The seedling starts out in a small pot and must be migrated to a larger pot as it grows.” We have to find opportunities for greater and greater investment on the part of our donors.
  • “I’m only one farmer. I need more farm hands!” Get your board, CEO and other staff on board. Provide training. Take your board members on donor visits. In the words of Simone Joyaux, enable your board members and other volunteers to be part of the fundraising process.