Turn Tech Leaders Into Top Donors: How to Court the Internet Elite

Has your board ever made the helpful suggestion that you should be getting large gifts for your nonprofit from the millionaires of Silicon Valley?

We recently discussed the subject of how to effectively court the Internet elite with some Bay Area nonprofit executives keen to zero in on this topic. The centerpiece of the discussion was 11 hard-won insights by Jennifer Lynch, the development director at San Francisco Opera, a longtime Mission Minded client.

After several years of intense and intentional outreach into this sector of donor prospects, Jennifer and her colleagues have gleaned some insights every nonprofit should know.

Here’s a summary of what she shared:

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1. Think Long Term
Generally speaking, it’s not realistic to think you can approach these folks for major gifts now, or even in the near future. Most tech donors, especially those under 60, are a long-term investment in your organization’s future and not, generally speaking, a great prospect pool for short-term major gifts. No matter how much wealth a person has amassed, these prospects are not necessarily going to begin making major gifts just because you ask them at such a young point in their lives. Think of these donors as those you’ll court for quite some time in order to get a gift. Better yet, court them with the idea that they may give you lots of other things, including new ideas and expertise, and never make the major gift you initially had in mind.

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2. Consider Personal Context
According to Jennifer, many nonprofit organizations are shooting themselves in the foot by trying novel approaches to engaging this group with basically the same old goal—getting major gifts right away. Staff and board focus on the prospect’s wealth (and how to capitalize on it immediately) rather than who these people really are as individuals and what they may be interested in. Ask yourself where the prospect is in his or her life. A tech entrepreneur under 50 who often is still very active in their career, focused on raising kids, etc., may not be ready to think about seven figure+ gifts to any nonprofit, much less those with which they don’t feel any sense of affinity or intimacy.

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3. Build a New Relationship
This group of donor prospects doesn’t have the automatic trust in the concept of institutions as older donors may. In fact, the opposite is likely true. Many older donors, say those in their 70s, feel a sense of gratitude for institutions that they feel contributed, at least partially, to their success. These might include universities, the government, and other “pillars of the community.” In fact, it seems the opposite with tech donor prospects. They are more inclined to be skeptical of large, established institutions, and to wonder how efficient and results-oriented they are. So if your organization is one of these, be ready to build a relationship with tech donors based on something more than your venerable history and standing. Look for ways to highlight that the work you do is relevant and dynamic, and avoid the trap of assuming that your history speaks for itself. It may be saying the wrong things to these donors.

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4. Make “Social Responsibility” Personal
Many donors in this cohort are too involved in unconventional ways in their communities, not simply with standard models we recognize of committees and annual fund gifts. It used to be a given that companies and individuals would give to organizations like the United Way because “it’s the right thing to do.” There does not appear to be a “must do” list of institutions that help build one’s personal and professional profile as there may have been in previous generations. Tech donors will become actively engaged when they have an emotional or personal connection to a cause, but it’s not out of a sense of obligation.

Further, there is a sense that the best way to help is by showing nonprofits where they may be inefficient and how they could do things better. These donors don’t want to see themselves as “a brick in the wall writing checks” because, in the age of Kiva.org and Kickstarter, they see that model as outmoded philanthropy.

As you build relationships with these donors, be willing to hear their ideas on improvements to your approach and systems. And show them that they can play a truly unique role in strengthening your organization, rather than just asking them to rubber-stamp and fund what you’ve always done.

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5. Provide Grassroots Impact + a Unique Experience
As you work to make your mission relevant to prospective tech donors, be mindful of their driving desire for unique and exclusive experiences. They want to engage meaningfully with nonprofit causes doing profound work, but love the trappings of a unique adventure. How can you give your donor prospects well-planned and executed experiences that no one else has access to? This may take some creativity, but when you succeed you’ll be checking off this plus the first four things on this list.

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6. Allow for Creative Contribution
The tech entrepreneur wants to know what unique impact he or she will have by getting involved with your nonprofit. Making annual fund contributions to fund your activities generally does not meet this standard. And these donors don’t necessarily want to serve on existing committees either. They want to know exactly what they uniquely can do. Their greatest interest is in solving problems in creative ways, contributing strategic operational value. It’s what they thrive on, which usually accounts for the success they’ve had in business. Asking highly creative, strategic people to think inside an existing box is a dead end. Instead, invite feedback on new solutions to old problems. When you do, your prospect may be so engaged in the solution they developed that they will decide to fund their own idea as well as getting people in their networks involved.

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7. Appreciate that Time is a Gift
You think you’re busy? Because time is such a premium for these donors, many of them feel that the act of joining your board—making time for your organization—is a contribution on par with making a financial donation. Prized for their gifted creative and strategic minds, when they offer a share of their brains that should be considered a valuable gift. Because it is.

In addition to thinking of time as money, these donors are likely to have a very low tolerance for the process of the typical nonprofit board or committee meeting. The tech crowd is accustomed to no-excuses meetings where actions are linked to measureable outcomes. Your meeting had better make use of the time they spend in it by involving them in substantive conversation – not a review of the minutes of the last meeting or debate on a topic that doesn’t appreciably move the needle forward.

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8. Acknowledge that Family Comes First
If your donor prospect has kids, their kids and the institutions educating their kids are likely your biggest competition for time and attention. How can you make your work relevant to them if this is the case? Can you offer something to their kid’s school that the school couldn’t otherwise get? Can you bring students to your location for something unique?

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9. Prepare for the Informality / Formality Paradox
Younger tech donors are often turned off by what they perceive as the “formal” structures and culture of large nonprofit organizations. As Jennifer put it, “Big meetings with lots of people in suits and a chairman gaveling things to order = hives.” At the same time, these donors often have far more rigorous and formal expectations of the kind of preparation and content that will be delivered to them whenever they interact with your institution, especially in board settings. Don’t assume that because your donor prospect is wearing jeans that he’s a slacker. And encourage older board members to treat them with respect regardless of their attire.

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10. Startup Expectations, Startup Sympathies
There’s a paradox here. These donors do not want to hear that you can’t get basic things done that they value because you don’t have the money. Crying poverty falls on unsympathetic ears. They are not forgiving about the idea that a nonprofit does not have the resources that for profits have. This is likely because they’ve worked with many people in startups, or have been these people themselves, who have successfully launched something with nothing. Their expectations of staff being scrappy and resourceful are higher than other donor categories. So be prepared to recast your needs and limitations in a way these donors can respect.

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11. Get to the Gameplan
Tech donors generally don’t need to hear a long spiel about your context and how you got to where you are, how you arrived at the conclusions that led your organization to pursue a particular initiative, how your organization’s challenges have evolved over time. They are much more interested in what obstacles you face and how you’re planning to overcome them (other than simply raising more money).

What lessons have you learned that other nonprofit professionals can benefit from?


About the Author

Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded and a 20-year marketing veteran sought out for her expertise in branding and positioning nonprofit organizations.
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One Comment

  1. Andrea Edwards says:

    Great article Jennie–so on target and relevant. We have found everything said here to be true of alumni donors to CSUS, whether they are tech folks or not (of course many are). Among many good points, the idea of the uninspiring Annual Fund gift particularly resonates. It seems ridiculous to me that we expect young donors to be excited about deficit fundraising; well actually any donor really.

    I don’t read e-newsletters typically, but I will certainly continue to open yours. Thanks!

    Andrea