After 20-plus years of working with nonprofits, I can say one thing for certain: you can measure the strength (not to mention the future strength) of your organization by the depth of your relationships.

donors as ATM

If you’ve built a strong community of supporters, you’re going to be able to rely on them when you need extra help to meet your goals.

These supporters are the volunteers who show up to help out when your staff is overtaxed, who talk passionately about your latest project with their friends and family, or raise their monthly donation when your other sources of funding run dry. They do it because they believe in what you do — and because they believe you value them right back.

In his article “Friend-raising before fund-raising” Roger and Brandon highlight the importance of relationship building in soliciting support:

“Organizations that compete successfully for major donors are skilled in making friends, in fostering relationships with people who share a vision and values, and instinctively understand the need for collaboration.”

A big part of the friendship equation lies in the way you communicate and connect with your constituents. Do you truly see them as friends of your organization, invested in who you are and what you’re doing…. or do you see them as nothing more than a bank?

When you go to the bank to make a withdrawal, you don’t have to justify why you’re taking the money out, or what you’re going to do with it. After all,  it’s there waiting for you. It’s yours. The ATM isn’t going to ask why it should hand over the cash! The number on your card is all the justification you need.

(And it’s pretty unlikely you’re going to say “thank you,” either, or follow up with the ATM to let it know what you did with the cash.)

Too many nonprofits are just as confident (and blunt!) about asking for money, time or other forms of support from their constituents, regardless of the fact that the support they’re seeking is anything but a given: they feel entitled, because they believe in their mission and how deserving it is.

But unless they’ve done a good job of articulating their mission and why it matters to them — and learning why and how it matters to the people they’re sharing it with, and asking for support from — they’re likely to be met with more resistance than unabashed acceptance. The “ask” simply isn’t enough.

So how can you avoid treating your community like a savings account?

When your organization has a clear, well-defined brand, you’re off to a great start. You’ve done the work of differentiating yourself by establishing your values, your goals and your unique areas of capability. Your supporters can identify easily with your core mission because they truly know what it entails. When they talk about you to their friends and family, they don’t have to scramble to talk about who you are… the right words are at the tip of their tongues.

But, as with any real relationship, it simply doesn’t work when it’s all about you.

You need to be aware of your constituents’ brands, too.

As Roger and Brandon write:

“While articulating your brand is very important, it’s only part of the equation. Organizations that are successful at connecting to major donors are also skilled at understanding the “brands” of their prospects. What is it that they care about? What do they stand for? What is it that they want to accomplish?”

Are you asking these questions? Do you care about the answers?

The reality is that people are giving for reasons intimately connected to their personal brand now, as Roger and Brandon explain:

“Major giving today is not about being a ‘good person,’ checking off the $100 box on an annual fund donation form, or becoming a member. It’s about accomplishing something both the donor and the organization consider as vitally important.”

And if you’re like most organizations, you have a support base that brings together a lot of different people with a lot of different reasons for getting behind your mission. One message, or “way in,” does not fit all — even if your core brand is crystal clear.

This is where listening comes in.

Take the time to ask all the people who support you — from the folks on your board to the people who work in your office, right on down to the people who give $10 a month through automatic debits — why they take the time to be involved.

How did they find out about you? Where did the emotional connection to your organization begin? What do they value most about what you do? How does contributing to what you do make them feel? When they talk about you to others, what words are they using? What kind of responses do they get?

These are just a few of the questions that will help you get to the heart of why people support you — and by taking a good look at the answers, you’ll learn to share your mission with them more effectively… and connect with other future supporters just like them.

Don’t worry if you discover a lot of different answers to the same questions — understanding the unique and diverse nature of your support base will make the job of reaching out to them that much easier.

And you’ll never treat them like an ATM again.

To read more from Roger and Brandon about ‘friend-raising’, head to And be sure to take a look at our other articles, too — we’ve got lots of resources for nonprofits and for-profits alike.