Ask and Ye Shall Be Connected: How to Get Referrals to New Donors

Fundraisers often forget to ask donors, board members, and other constituents for referrals to people who might be interested in their organization’s work.

That’s just one conclusion of Cause Selling: The Sanford Way, a new fundraising textbook based on sales techniques. The book was paid for by philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, whose lifetime donations to charity have now topped $1 billion. (I hope to review the entire textbook here soon.)

I’ve always been skeptical of armchair experts who think sales tactics can apply to fundraising. But I have to admit that Cause Selling has some useful pointers on getting referrals to donors. The advice is gleaned from sales and marketing research by authors David J. Lill, a business consultant, and his daughter, Jennifer Lill-Brown.

In the sales arena, for instance, statistics show that 20 percent of customers will provide repeated referrals, while another 20 percent will never do so. “It’s the other 60 percent where a plan of action is essential,” the authors write.

To my knowledge, there’s no reliable research on what percentage of donors actually makes referrals, but there’s a lesson for fundraisers in the sales stats: You need a plan for consistently asking donors and others for the names of potential supporters and tracking the results. 

Another lesson from Cause Selling: “You can’t just ask for referrals; you must earn them.”

That means asking the right way: Determine if and how donors, board members, and others want to be involved in approaching any person whose name they provide, the authors advise. Some will make the introduction, others will allow you to use their name, and still others don’t want either.

Among the textbook’s other tips:

  • Make sure donors and others know that you will handle their contacts with respect and professionalism.
  • Always report what you do with referrals to the people who provided them. (I bet a lot of fundraisers fall down on the job here.)
  • Don’t forget to thank donors, board members and others for their referrals.

The authors point to Erica McDonald, an environmental fundraiser, who’s found a witty, inexpensive way to thank people who give her names of potential donors. Whenever she gets such a referral, McDonald promptly buys a $1 lottery ticket and mails it to the person who shared the contact, along with a handwritten note: “Thanks a million for the referral. I hope you win a million!”

Not only does that simple gesture create goodwill, it also generates more contacts, she says. “It almost always gets me at least one more referral.”  

How do you thank people who steer you to new donors?