Making a Good First Impression on Potential Community Supporters

So, you’ve clearly defined your nonprofit’s identity. Your internal and external materials communicate a unified message. You’ve identified what groups and organizations you want to partner with. Now it’s time to approach them.

Do Your Research

To make the most of your visit and make a really good impression, research who you will be approaching before you approach them. Know something about them. You want to be able to know your potential partners’ priorities, speak their language, and relevant information about you. In addition, you want to show them that you have put some effort into the developing relationship and that the relationship is important to you. Important enough for you to be selective. You will also save them valuable time if you come in with the background facts.


Before you approach a foundation, go through their 990’s (tax returns) and match your organization’s mission and needs to their requirements. Since it is public information, foundations expect grant-seekers to read their 990s and be familiar with them. If you want to be successful in getting donations from foundations, then start with knowing the foundation’s mission, interest areas, geographical giving area and funding range. You can glean all that information from the 990. 990s can be attained by searching a foundation’s website, asking the foundation for it or visiting a library with collection of foundation tax returns.

Of course, that’s a lot of information to get through. It may be worth your while to subscribe to a foundation database that can search 990’s by relevant categories, like issue, geographical scope, funding range and others. Two foundation databases that we have found helpful are the Foundation Directory Online and Foundation Search. For more about building relationships with foundations can be found in our discussion Building Donor Relationships: Foundations.


For-profits are keenly interested in your agency’s financial performance. You need to intimately know your agency’s financial performance in order to get the most from the corporate giving relationship. Being able to speak to your agency’s financial health puts you heads and shoulders above the rest. You need to be able to talk about assets and liabilities, return on investment, profit margin, debt ratio and growth trends, financially as well as programmatically. If you don’t know how to read and interpret your agency’s financials, find out how. Read a book. Find a webinar. Go to a training. Anything that will help you be able to talk in terms of financial performance will pay off.

Another area of performance business partners are keenly interested in is agency market performance. This is where the having the community feedback we talked about in What Does the Community Really Think of Your Nonprofit? comes in handy. Business professionals with want to know what your reputation, or brand value, is in the community. They will also be interested in what markets, other than clients, you serve.  Think staff, donors, advocates, and collaborators in addition to clients. What services and benefits do you provide to each of those markets? What is your market position in each group? What is your reach? How do you know? What evidence do you have? Who are your competitors? How do you differentiate from them? What makes you unique? We talked about developing unique marketing position statements in Influencing the Conversation About You.

The good news is that if you’re doing research on and getting feedback from your supporters, you’re halfway there. Human resources may conduct employee surveys and have other employees as a group information. Your executive director or chief operations manager may have information on agency collaborative partnerships. Or you may already have it for grant narratives. You can save time by leveraging what you’re already doing. For more information on building relationships with businesses, see our conversation Building Donor Relationships: Corporations.


How do addressing your agency’s issues effect the community and the way it votes? These are the things legislators will be interested in. What issues are important to your community’s voters? Who are your agency’s constituencies? Not only the clients, but also other supporters, like advocates, donors, and other partner groups. How big a group are they? How influential are they? What is your reach with them? What is your influence with them? How are your agency’s issues important to the public? The community feedback we talked about in What Does the Community Really Think of Your Nonprofit? can really pay off.

You, as a nonprofit, may not be able to lobby for specific candidates or legislation, but you can advocate for your cause and educate your legislators about community issues. And you can educate your community about legislative issues. Do you know what issues are coming up for a vote? Do you have communication channels already in place can educate your legislators and other agency constituencies about community issues? For example, you can write letters to the editor or speak as an expert on issues your organization deals with.

If you plan on applying for government funding, you need to know the regulations surrounding the financial and operational requirements of the funding. The government has particular financial and programmatic restrictions that must be followed. And your agency will, sooner or later, be audited. If you don’t pass the audit, you may have return money that was already spent that you don’t have. Or you may be sanctioned and subject to harsher reporting requirements. Not to mention the PR nightmares that can ensue.

But knowing all the rules and regulations associated with any particular governmental funding allocation is easier said than done. First of all, you need to know the legislation that determined the funding. And you need to know the legislation that law was built on. And the one before that. Sometimes, you need to go back to legislation that is decades old. It takes a lot of time and effort. For more about building relationships with government representatives, see our discussion Building Donor Relationships: Government Funders.

Proofread Your Materials

If you approach with an email or letter or leave printed material with them, check for misspellings and grammatical errors. If you are mailing something, make sure the names, mailing addresses, and salutations are correct. If the basic contact information is not correct and it doesn’t mean enough to you for you to know the most basic facts about them, why should they get to know you and your organization? This is especially important when asking for donations. Be especially careful when submitting budgets or other financial information, Do your numbers add up? Is your math correct? Check and double check. If there are mistakes, the donor might ask, “Will my money be used for what it’s intended? How do I know the information is trustworthy if there are errors?”

The most common mistakes are the sloppy ones, like errors in name, address, salutation, spelling, grammar, and math. If you are presenting anything numerical, make sure your math is right. There is nothing more frustrating than having someone get all excited about working with you but be confused about what you want, particularly if it’s a donation. Proofread your materials. Then proofread them again. Make sure your communications process includes proofreading and editing.

Have a Good Attitude

It almost goes without saying, when you interact with potential supporters always be courteous and respectful. People generally respond to other people in the same way they are approached and responded to. Reach out to others when you are in a good mood and you realize what an honor is to have someone take the time to interact with you. People will generally respond in kind. They may even tell you how honored they are that you reached to them. That you think so highly of them that you believe they can help you in impacting such as important cause.

Exhibit Trustworthiness

You also want to send the message “I can be trusted.” According to the Blackbaud Institute, 64 percent of individual supporters research an organization through its website. This means that your website needs to be up to date. And transparent. For example, it is best practice to make you financial statements, your audit and 990, available on your website.

Your brand is your promise to the community. Your brand says, “This is who we are.” Remember that every piece of information about your nonprofit should communicate your identity. Ensure you stand out in the mind of your partner by using your unique marketing position statement to highlight your agency and its work. If you live up to the promise of your brand, you will maintain a good reputation in the community - your brand will increase. And as your brand increases, so will the community’s awareness of you.

In your interactions with supporters, be authentic, honest, and forthright. Your integrity is your biggest asset. Do what you say you’re going to do. Communicate progress, including delays and failures. Address changes in circumstance, either theirs or yours. Communicate regularly and often. With consistent messaging. And with a reference to the benefits they are receiving from the partnership in language and concepts that are important to them and they will easily comprehend.

Be Direct

When you make your request for support, whether it be for a donation, volunteer service, referrals, advocacy, employment, or promotion of you or your cause, be succinct and direct. You want to be clear and concise so there is no doubt about what you are asking them to do. Most of us say too much. The focus should not be on us. It should be about them and their needs.

And then be quiet and wait for them to respond. Even if it seems like it’s taking forever, let them think and be the first to respond. 

They will either say, “yes,” “no,” or “maybe.”

Responding to Yes

If they say “yes,” congratulations. You now have a measure of community support you didn’t have before. Go on to talk about the terms and benefits of the partnership and get ready to nurture the relationship. Your goal is to have them involved with you long past the current interaction.  It is important that you fulfill your side of the bargain, so they realize the benefits you have promised. You want them to feel satisfied in their in their efforts on your behalf. Over time, you want to be able to deepen the relationship, both getting and giving more.

Responding to No

If they say “no,” thank them for their feedback and start asking questions as to what their obstacles are. Problem solve with them on how you might be able to help them remove their obstacles. DO NOT try to change their minds. You don’t want to come across as argumentative or pushy. Just see if there is anything you can do to help.

 If you can’t remove the obstacles, ask if there is another way to support you that would be of interest. Brainstorm with them. Especially if they want to help. Our experience is that when you’ve gotten to this point, they want to help. You have approached them in the basis of whatever your similarity. They know what you stand for and what the benefits of partnering with you are. And you are coming across as humble with an attitude of graciousness, helpfulness, and respect.

 If the obstacles cannot be overcome, thank them again for the feedback and ask if they would still like you to communicate with them in any way. If they way “yes,” discuss what type of information they would like how often. And then tell them when you will check in again. Then do it. Perhaps the “no” they are giving just means not now. If it does mean not ever, thank them for their time and feedback, tell them you hope your paths cross in the future and leave. Always leave on a gracious note because you never know what will happen in the future and if you will ever have any interactions with them again. Leave that option open, just in case.

Responding to Maybe

If they say “maybe,” ask open ended questions. Have you provided them with enough information? Do they foresee obstacles they will have to overcome in order to move forward? Are the benefits to them enough? Is there anything else they are looking for? Or is the timing off? Are the processes outlined to fulfill the terms of the partnership acceptable? Is the timeline off? Or have you asked them to do something their system can’t accommodate? Keep asking questions and providing answers until they have all the data they need to make a decision, time enough to make decisions given their priorities, and they’ve figured out the processes they want used in both giving and receiving from you.

Before you approach the people and organizations you have targeted for partnership, do your research. Come armed with the knowledge that will important to them. Always present a polished, professional image. Go in with a good attitude. In conversation, people tend to respond to you in the same effect as how they are approached. Be direct and concise in making your request. Wait for them to respond. Then follow up appropriately.

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