Individual Donors: Building and Cultivating Relationships

Cultivating relationships with funders

Potential funders may come from all walks of life: wealthy individuals in the community; alumni from your school or university; colleagues from previous workplaces; Rotary clubs or other well-known philanthropists. It is always easier to start with people you already know, who are already inclined to help you. You don’t need to ask all your friends equally: prioritize those with financial resources.

A conversation with a funder will help you identify where your common interests lie and understand how they are thinking about refugee rights. Cultivating relationships outside of formal processes are important ways of getting funders to care about your work. This is arguably the most important stage of fundraising.

You can send out dozens of applications, but especially as a new organization with no proven record or reputation, you are just one of many applicants, unless you’ve already made an impression. An informal conversation with a funder will help you identify where your common interests lie and understand how they think about refugee rights, and can help you develop relationships and get funders to care about your work. Getting to know potential funders this way before submitting any formal request for funds improves your chances of success for each application and also lets you focus your grant-writing on funders where you have the greatest chance of success. Moreover, funders who are already very passionate about your work will go the extra mile to pitch you to the grant-making decision makers within their organizations.

Before making initial contact, research and prepare the following information:

  • What are their key interests? Human rights? Women’s rights? Development aid? How does your refugee rights work fit within these interests?
  • What projects have they funded? Are they similar to yours? This will help you determine whether you are a good fit for their work.
  • What kind of funding do they give? Funders might give one-time support for a year, or prefer long-term partnerships with multi-year funds. In addition, funding might be for general support or for a specific project/program. General support funds allow you to use the resources as you decide, while project-specific funds require you to dedicate funding in a specific way.
  • Where do they have offices? You want to meet them in person if possible, or schedule a Skype or phone conversation convenient to their time zone.
  • Who should you get in touch with? Foundations might divide their portfolio according to area of interest (e.g. human rights, healthcare) or by geographic region.
  • How do they identify new partners? Do they issue a call for proposals, require brief Letter of Interests (LOIs) as a first step, or do they accept proposals by invitation only? This will determine how you might cultivate them later.

Based on your research, send an email with a brief introduction and ask for a conversation. You may sometimes need to engage a funder repeatedly and send follow-up emails or have multiple conversations. Here is an example of how Asylum Access frames a cultivation email:

Dear [Staff Member or Organization],

I hope this email finds you well. I am writing on behalf of Asylum Access–Refugee Solutions Tanzania (AATZ), a nonprofit organization working with refugee women in Dar es Salaam. Given our common interests in rights empowerment for refugee women, I was wondering if you might have some time to speak in the coming weeks? I’d love to learn about your approach to long-term rights empowerment and how we might collectively seek improved rule of law protections for refugee women. Please let me know if you think a conversation would be possible.

In the meantime, I thought it may be useful to share a bit of information about AATZ. We were founded to build a durable solution for long-term refugee displacement through a rights-based model that includes individualized legal counsel and/or representation, community legal empowerment and policy advocacy. In addition to assisting refugee women with individual rights violations, we are also focusing our advocacy on the development of an urban refugee policy in Tanzania so refugee women will be able to live among local civil society. We’ve seen some progress on this by the government in the past year, and are working on further developments in 2013. In addition, we have also recently begun providing refugee legal aid to women asylum seekers in prisons.

If you have some time, I’d love to discuss this further with you–would this be possible?
Thank you very much for your time, and I hope to speak with you soon.

[Your Name]

Notice that this is fairly brief, makes a clear request and contains some basic information introducing your work.

Having a conversation with a prospective funder

When speaking with prospective funders, you need to have your “elevator pitch” ready to help them quickly understand the purpose and mission of your organization. You should also be able to provide more details to inform and engage your prospect.

Initial conversation

Your first conversation with your prospective funder can be seen as an “elevator pitch,” or a 3-minute description of your organization similar to what you might say to someone in an elevator who asked you about your work.

Honing your elevator pitch:

  • Focus on the big picture first
  • Use easy to understand catch phrases
  • Use examples of client stories, if the funder shows continued interest
  • Speak appropriately to the target audience. Avoid using jargons, especially if the funder is not familiar with the refugee rights field.

An elevator pitch includes:

  • The basics about your organization:
    • International or national non-profit, NGO status
    • Human rights for refugees (not humanitarian or charity)
    • Refugee legal aid
    • Innovative approach
  • The problem you are working to solve and why it matters (dismantle common assumptions from the start):
    • Nearly 20 million refugees in the world as of 2016, excluding internally displaced people.
    • Most refugees remain in their first country of refugee; less than 1% of refugees are resettled.
    • The average length of stay in exile is approaching 20 years
    • Rights enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention are often not put into practice.
      **Note: Ensure that you are presenting the most accurate and updated statistics.
  • Your solution to the problem: what is your approach, your theory of change, and the future you envision?
    • You should be able to articulate your organization’s activities and how they respond directly to the problem.
    • Discuss how your work contributes to short-term and long-term goals, e.g. empowering refugees to rebuild their lives themselves, equipping them with tools for sustainable long-term self-reliance.
    • Be prepared to explain how your work is effective and how is it similar or different from other approaches.
  • An illustration of the impact of your work. Asylum Access often tells a client story of how we are making a difference, as an example of how legal aid leads to concrete changes in a refugee’s daily life.
    • Remember the Nairobi Code! You should not share any client identifying information, unless you have obtained the client’s permission and can do so safely.
  • Why your work is relevant to the funder’s interests. Establish the connection between your goals and activities, and their funding priorities.

Our Cultivation Worksheet will help you prepare for a funder conversation. There is nothing more effective than practice and you will only get better the more you engage with funders. Remember: the number one reason people give money is because they were asked to do so.

 Questions you might ask the funder:

  • Do you currently work with refugees? In what way? This is a good way to find out how you might link your work to their concerns. For example, if they work with refugee women, you might speak about how your work addresses issues unique to them, such as issues of sexual and gender-based violence. To do this, you’ll need to first demonstrate the dynamics of the issue, before showing how you are offering a solution.
  • Do you work in Country X? Many funders may work in a specific geographic location or with a specific population. On occasion, you may find that there isn’t a clear overlap in interests immediately, but that you might still work with a similar population. For example, if most of your clients are Colombians in Ecuador, and the funder works with a Colombian population, you may find common ground.
  • What are your current priorities within your broad mission? How open are you to new partnerships? A funder may work with refugees, but focus on a specific nationality for now.
  • Would you encourage us to submit an application?

Funders are used to being approached for these conversations and often take the lead on providing this information without prompting.

General advice:

  • Demonstrate understanding of your field beyond your own work, such as refugee issues and refugee rights approaches.
  • Use easy to understand language and avoid legal jargon, unless it is evident that the funder is familiar with these.
  • Determine the individual funder’s knowledge about your issue and build on that knowledge from that level. Some may already work with other refugee rights organizations and are familiar with the field, whereas for other funders, you would be the first.
  • Listen to what the funder is saying and respond directly to their questions.

Making your request

Steering the conversation to the amount of money quickly is advised: after thanking donors for meeting you, reminding them why you are there and reiterating that you are ready to discuss how they can be involved as a financial supporter of your work, jump straight in with your request.

Once the conversation has progressed to specific details of your request, it is helpful to have a ‘donor pyramid’ prepared. Prior to the conversation, work out how much the organization or campaign needs to raise overall, and break it down into smaller amounts.

Donor Pyramid

Donor Pyramid


Using your visual aid, which can be tailor made to each donor’s giving potential, explain that this is how you intend to fund your campaign. Tell your donor that it is not by accident you are approaching them first, as there are not many people you can ask to be the leader of your campaign. Make them understand that they have a unique opportunity, and proceed to show how, without their support, you would have to approach – for example – one thousand other people for one thousand dollars each. Be direct.

Measuring effectiveness

If your organization is serious about building individual relationships as a major fundraising tool, you should be mindful of the time spent on these processes and what the return is on that investment. It makes sense to calculate how much time you are spending on cultivating relationships, and what you expect to get out of it. When working this out, include time spent on preparing for meetings and researching, and money spent on materials in your cost-benefit analysis: you do not want to just “break even”—or worse, cost the organization more than it’s making—on the time you invest in these activities.

Quantifying this relationship is difficult, and it is better to roughly estimate the costs than to attempt detailed record-keeping. Come up with rough rule-of-thumb estimates on how long it will take to sit down with someone with whom you already have a relationship and get money. You should aim for a 5:1 ratio on your time investment. You do not need to get a donation out of each donor meeting, but you do need a plan that results in a bigger return on your total investment in time.

There is value to cultivating relationships even when you do not make an ask. You do not need to get a donation out of each meeting, however you do need a plan that results on a bigger return on your total investment in time. Asks may be executed later on – particularly in the initial stages of your organization, as you are becoming more comfortable asking those outside of your immediate circles for money.