Wisdom Wednesdays: Don’t be Middling With the Middle

by Daniel Lee

This article, “What Went Wrong in the Middle?,” is a well-articulated observation stating that there is a lack of mid-level programs across the fundraising industry and recognizes that the consequence is a substantial amount of money not being invested in organizations.  The author, Curt Swindoll, Executive Vice President for Strategy at The Pursuant Group, offers many useful ideas that can help organizations improve or begin a mid-level program.

Luther Seminary started a mid-level giving program about six years ago.  My role working with this program is relatively recent, so I enjoyed comparing and contrasting the information in this article with how our mid-level program has developed over the years, alongside my own fresh perspective on managing the work.

Swindoll touches on some of the methods that have brought the Luther Seminary mid-level program success over the years, including his six reasons for why mid-level programs suffer.  In order to be successful, it’s not effective to have a strategy for all mid-level donors.  Rather, each household on a mid-level list needs a personalized plan of approach.  This suggests that it would be helpful to develop a list of donors who you would categorize as mid-level donors first.  In keeping with Swindolls’s recommendations, we have found that a focused strategy that has the ability to share compelling stories and develop a strong level of trust with donors is imperative to a high functioning mid-level program.

One argument Swindoll makes is regarding the absolute necessity of face-to-face visits.  The Seminary’s mid-level portfolio hovers around 400 households, so visiting everyone in person, multiple times a year, is nearly impossible.  In fact, one of the catalysts for developing our mid-level program was to focus the time and energy of staff who are on the road (we call them Philanthropic Advisors) toward the highest level of gifts possible.  In order to be good stewards of our resources we turned to a highly personalized version of phone and mail to connect with mid-level donors.  This is different than the traditional direct marketing program.

One of the things I’m learning about mid-level donors in my new role is that it comes down to knowing the list in and out and identifying individual trends so I can solicit and cultivate them accordingly.  As I mentioned before, it’s an individualized strategy of connecting with mid-level donors in a way that is meaningful and personal.  As Swindoll put it, “They require more trust than can be quickly cultivated through direct response mechanisms … ”  Once this trust has been established, and the relationship has been built, many mid-level donors will give routinely, without the face-to-face visits.  Basically, it’s a hybrid approach of major gift work and direct marketing.

If you are looking to begin raising mid-level gifts, but have a more limited budget, here are a few ideas that have successfully raised monies for Luther Seminary with mid-level donors:

  • In-house personal mailings that might include one or more of the following:  hand signature by the president, printed photos of students or hand-written notecards.  One note … don’t do these on a mass scale through a mail house or they will lose the organic, personal feel that triggers the strong response rates
  • Pick up the phone and call them!  Set aside time during the week to call donors to build that relationship and trust, whether it’s to solicit, cultivate or steward
  • Use existing wealth engine information to target donors with personalized proposals to upgrade them to a mid-level of giving

The core of Swindoll’s argument is accurate.  Without a focused mid-level strategy you are leaving money on the table.  Whether it’s baby steps or purchasing a package of third-party services, investing in a mid-level program will increase your ability to raise current gifts, planned gifts and cultivate those individuals who will one day be ready to make the ultimate gift for your institution and the mission you carry out through your daily work.

Daniel Lee is a Philanthropic Associate at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, Minn.  If you have any questions or would like to discuss mid-level giving, please contact him at dlee002@luthersem.edu.


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