I recently was asked to make a presentation to my peers on the donor cultivation cycle. When I was perusing Google images for that all important stock image of what it looks like it struck me that there hasn’t really been much innovation around the process. Yes, one or two offerings had a simplified 4 step approach while some had double that. Some had changed the patterns or flow of the diagram to make it look more visually appealing or to make it look like they are the ones that coined the process as a competitive edge for their consultancy. The one thing that did remain though is that it was dimensionally limited.

Then I checked the images of a sales funnel which as you might now forms the shape of a cone, one where it can be shown in a variety of ways, but most often than not either in 3D or dissected to show how the funnel is actually built on the backend.

It was the diagrams on the backend that had me thinking about what automations exist for nonprofit fundraising and whether the donor cultivation cycle could ever be looked at as a 3 dimensional, dynamic process (and I’m not talking about meeting donors in real life).

The answer, I feel is no at this point, but this isn’t an argument for sales funnels, nor is it me going down the rabbit hole of fundraising in the metaverse, it’s simply a pause in time to reflect on whether the donor cultivation cycle is the best approach or just our must tried and tested approach.

I’m not fundamentally against using a sales funnel approach. It largely follows the donor cultivation cycle but isn’t a circular process, it’s more start to finish. My main qualms with it are the insidious gamification of it in for profit sales where folks are in many ways duped into the funnel via various offers and then go through an automated process which results in additional tactics at the point of sale to mine additional dollars from you. It’s not about relationships it’s about the sale, and it’s tinkered with at the margins almost daily to see an increase of the conversion rate of 0.1%.

Yes, a dramatic point made, but I digress.

During my reflection of the process I started to look more at the commonalities of the cycle, the images, the words, the word cycle. Then it hit me, the arrows on each stage showed what the next step in the process was and with that I understood that the point of contention for me was the speed and cadence of each step and the lack of analysis of what constitutes a time for that next step to occur.

While no donor conversation is the same and some asks happen in the first meeting and some on the hundred and first, what we don’t see in our cycle is depth and speed. What are the markers that move us on to the next step? What are the on and off ramps in the process? Is this a roundabout or a washing machine?

Sadly, I think it’s a washing machine where we select the time of the cycle after loading it up and there isn’t any real opportunity to speed it up. It must go through the process and that’s one where the clothes get bounced all around the drum in the ebb and flow of time.

For some organisations that don’t have a specific plan for a prospect (like a funnel), they will be caught in a washing machine – a profile piece here, an invitation to lunch there, a board seat here and some network connections over there. It’s tough to watch and even tougher to wait.

So should we be reviewing the cycle? It’s difficult. But there are tools out there to help, there are metrics that can be derived to guide us and there is best practice of which to inform us. And while I’m thinking about how quantum computing and washing machines intersect at the moment, it might be easier to talk about modeling software. What can help move the cycle forward, what can move our fundraisers next steps forward and so on and so forth.

This will ultimately come from our CRM’s – propensity modeling, automated moves management and other reporting data, stewardship support, predictions on donor behaviours, avoiding sandbagging and ‘dropping the ball’. The list goes on.

I encourage folks to talk about their fundamental practices and whether improvements in processes can be made and most importantly, automated. At the end of the day washing machines are a staple of most households. They get the job done and go through a cycle but even then we periodically upgrade them as they run faster, quieter and more efficiently. How might we upgrade our approaches? I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on this one…

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