Nonprofit development departments have two basic purposes. The first purpose is to build a base of financial support for the organization’s mission by acquiring people to donate to the cause. The second purpose is to strengthen the relationships of those donors by getting them more involved in the organization so they will grow passionate about the programs, and continue to increase their support so the organization can continue its mission. In nonprofit speak, that is called move management. While the skills needed to do both tasks are similar, they are different in a number of ways.
When I have looked at some job descriptions for development positions in nonprofits, I have often seen HR Managers looking for individuals with so many years of sales experience, but depending on the positions, customer service skills and experience would be far more appropriate. While both sales and customer service are related, they are not necessarily the same. I have had this conversation with those in the fundraising field and many of them agree.
When a nonprofit is hiring for a position that involves acquiring new donors and business support for things like event sponsorship, you definitely can use someone with sales skills and experience. You need someone who can tell the story of what your organization does and why a person or business should support it. A sales professional is the first personal contact that tells the customer or, in the case of a nonprofit, the potential donor the benefits of their initial gift to the organization. They persuade the individual to make the choice and get them in the door. Sometimes they initiate the contact to create the donor relationship, and other times an individual who is interested comes to them. For example, some businesses have sales professionals that seek out clients who may have a use for their services or products, or in the case of a retail sales professional, the customer comes to the business already interested in a product or service, and the sales person describes the benefits of the product so the customer makes the purchase, initiating the relationship with the buyer. When a nonprofit needs to increase the size of their donor base, they need someone with skills of persuasion like a sales professional.
However, the important thing is to have your donors coming back again and again to continue giving and increase their involvement with the organization, and that takes customer service skills. A company that expects to be successful knows that they rely on repeat business, not one time buyers, just as a nonprofit organization needs continued support from its donors and not a one time gift. Customer service professionals follow up with their clients to make sure they are happy with their purchase. They ask open ended questions to see if there are ways to improve the product or service or if there are any problems that need to be corrected, and they listen carefully to the responses given. If the customer has any questions, they respond in a timely manner. The customer service representative always thanks the customer for their business every time they make contact with them. If a nonprofit organization wants its donors to continue giving and increase their gifts, whether as a major gift or a planned gift, they need to do the same thing. An organization needs someone who will contact its donors on a regular basis with an email, a newsletter, a phone call, or a personal visit, and with each contact thank them for their support. They will need someone who will ask open ended questions about why donors support the organization and if there are things they can do better. Organizations need someone who will listen carefully to the responses, taking notes to enter in the donor database so that information can be used to tailor individualized plans for the donors’ increased involvement. They will need to ask the donors about others in their networks that may support the organization’s mission and programs. For a position like a major gifts manager or planned giving officer, someone with these customer service skills would be an excellent choice for a nonprofit organization.
At a time when many organizations are struggling to build their donor bases and retain past supporters, it would be wise for an organization to consider someone with sales and extensive customer service skills. While it is very important to have training in things like grant writing and event management, it is more important to bring new donors to the organization, and then keep them as donors, so they will continue supporting its programs and increase their involvement, becoming partners in the nonprofit’s success.