Permission-based Fundraising: Watch Your Step

It’s been nearly 20 years since the breakthrough “Permission Marketing” was published, postulating that individuals will not interact with you until they have given you the permission to do so. The book’s author, Seth Godin, likened it to dating:

A Permission Marketer goes on a date. If it goes well, the two of them go on another date. And then another. Until, after ten or twelve dates, both sides can really communicate with each other about their needs and desires…. Finally, after three or four months of dating, the Permission Marketer proposes marriage.

Permission Marketing is just like dating. It turns strangers into friends and friends into lifetime customers. Many of the rules of dating apply, and so do many of the benefits.

Applying this same reasoning in the nonprofit sector (and we can and do apply it), you should ask: is your organization taking the time to build good relationships with donors, or do the internal needs of your organization trump the importance of permission-based fundraising?

And what permission are you seeking? If it’s simply to get a gift, then you’re ‘way off the mark.  What you’re really seeking is permission to build a relationship with the donor. The approach is a light touch, and a journey of small steps. You take a step toward them, then see if they take a step toward you. The step toward you is the permission, and the demonstrated desire is to have you take another step toward them – the more mutual steps, then the closer the relationship.

Productive university gift programs prescribe to this formula, and so can arts organizations. The urgency of organizational financial need must be balanced with the relationship needs of your donors, so make sure you find and keep that balance. Make sure your case is sound, energetic and inspiring so that you have something beyond “need” to communicate. Once you translate that case into a full strategic plan, then you have something to discuss with your donors – connecting with their passions and preferences too – so when something arises in the strategic plan, like an enhancement or program expansion, you know exactly which donors to approach.

During this relationship building, and especially during long-term stewardship, you’re sharing bits of information, pertinent to each donor. Showing them the accomplishments they care most about, and revealing the importance of how the work – and the donor partnership – adds value to the community. So, when it comes to the ask, it’s au naturel. All of the “whys” have already been answered and the ask is mission based, value based, and community based.

Consider these “permission-based” questions:

  • What is the relationship with the donor now, and what do I want it to be?

  • How much does the donor already know and understand about our organization?

  • Has the donor had an opportunity to consider and comment on our organization, and have they been engaged by asking questions?

  • Have I reached a level of confidence that, when I do ask for the gift, I’m at least 80% sure the answer will be “yes”? If the answer is “no,” then map out the permission-based steps necessary to get there.

When gift officers go for the kill before the relationship is established – the desire to be efficient results in a counter effect. Permission-based fundraising is harder and requires more work, but in the long run, it will yield better results. So honor the donor’s pace and watch your steps, and your institution will flourish.

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