Episode aired May 27, 2020: Building Lasting Relationships

Mary Cahalane has over 30 years experience with hands-on fundraising. She knows what’s needed to strengthen trust and relationships with donors. In this episode, Mary discusses 

  • why retention in the NPO sector remains alarmingly low
  • why gratitude, reporting back to donors and soliciting feedback are key to building relationships with donors
  • the importance of building relationships with foundation partners
  • direct mail and why “trying to appear official” is the wrong way to go.

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.


Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host, Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us one of the nonprofit sectors top smarties, my friend Mary Cahalane. Mary how you doing?

Mary: I’m doing great, thank you.

Ephraim: Good. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers. Mary is the principal of Hands-On Fundraising, a Connecticut based firm. After more than 30 years in the nonprofit world, Mary still approaches her work hands-on. She’s a consultant, copywriter and blogger. Mary helps organizations put donors at the center of their fundraising with effective donor communications and smart planning. Learn more about Mary and the work that she does on her website, In today’s episode, we’re gonna discuss building lasting relationships. So let’s dive right in. Mary, why has the nonprofit sector retention rate hovered around 40% for so long?

Mary: I think we’re paying way too much attention to getting donors and not nearly the same kind of attention and care to keeping donors. It’s sort of all about the chase and not about that sort of daily work of sustaining those relationships. Too much getting the conquests, getting that gift in and not enough time and focus on all the stewardship work that is usually seen as less important but really is the key. You know, with retention rates like that, you’re just watching money going in one side and go out the other of a revolving door.

3 Ways To Build Relationships

Ephraim: Yes, absolutely. So given that answer, let’s look at today’s actionable item. Could you please tell us three things we should all be doing to build relationships and strengthen the trust we have with our current donors?

Mary: Yes I can. First thank your donors well. This is a funny one, where oftentimes the small organizations do this better than the big large international and national organizations do. So if you’re a smaller organization, this is where you can really shine. They shouldn’t sound like corporate communications, they shouldn’t sound like formal letters. These are heartfelt, emotional, gushy even ways of showing your donors they matter. So don’t hold back on the emotion. Tell donors that they’re really important. Thank them effusively and and don’t thank them just once in that thank you letter that they get after their gift. Keep thanking them all the way along, keep showing them they matter to you.

Second, reporting back to donors. This mystifies me. My favorite way to do this are donor newsletters, print newsletters and they’re kind of fundraising magic because they can hit… they can hit thanking donors, they can hit reporting back to donors and what their gift me possible and their chance to ask again, in a soft gentle way that doesn’t even feel like an ask. So work one of those into your interior communication calendar, because done right they’re wonderful ways to let donors know that you’re doing with their money what they told you… what you told them you would be doing with their money. So often that step is missed and that’s where you really build the trust. You know, I was supposed to be saving the penguins and you’re writing to me about the giraffes. What’s this about?! You know, it really has to… it has to tie tie right back to what you asked the money for.

And thirdly, feedback. Ask what donors think and really actually care what they think. Don’t do it, don’t create feedback just because you’re supposed to do it on your checklist. But if you want to really know your donors and keep them, there’s got to be something of a two-way conversation going on.

So build feedback in wherever you can, you can build it in on the tech side of things with, you know, little questions as people visit your website about the user experience there. You can do donor surveys for your donors. You could do those in a print survey or you can sprinkle questions every time you send an email, asking them a little bit more about what they think. Don’t just focus on certain demographic info and you know, there’s probably things you’d love to know like.. what’s your net worth, that you’re not gonna ask. But find out what they think, find out what matters to them, what they care about, why they gave. That’s my favorite question of all! If you’re talking to donors in person or on the phone or even you know written communication, what made you want to give? It’s golden! Knowing that from a bunch of donors? There, you just got your communication strategy pointed in the right direction.

Ephraim: Yeah, that feedback is critical and so many nonprofits just kind of pass it over or fail to do that, because they might not want to hear the answers.

Mary: But even bad comments are coming from people who care enough to share bad comments, so they care!

Ephraim: It’s gold.

Mary: Really good stuff.

Get To Know Donors Better

Ephraim: So you just mentioned surveys which is a good one. What are some of the other ways we can get to know our donors better?

Mary: Well, as I said, build that feedback in and don’t make it just a one shot ‘we’re gonna ask you everything they want to know all at once kind of thing.’ Build it in, as you go, every time you’re communicating. You know, actually DO get to know them. Call donors, talk to donors. You don’t have to have a gift in hand within the last week in order to have the right to give them a call and ask how they’re doing, especially right now, what you can do for them. And once we’re able to do this again- events are a great way. Thank you events, not pay a ticket events but just casual come over to the office for a tour or we’re gonna get a bunch of donors together and just have a little speaker about our mission or something. Just a place where you can one-on-one communicate with your donors and get to know them. We talk about relationship building a lot but as long as we’re keeping it only at a distance, we’re missing the most important part of that relationship building. Anything you can do to bridge that is good.

Relationships With Foundation Partners

Ephraim: Alright. So since you talked about relationship building… if we’re talking about tactics around the relationship building, do foundation partners differ from individual donors and if yes, how?

Mary: Their decision-making process is obviously more complicated than in individual donors. You know, if I want to write a check to somebody, I can just do it. But the thing to keep in mind I think and it’s easy to forget is, institutions, corporations, foundations are run by human beings and those human to human relationships still matter. Yes, you’ll have to go through prescribed steps. You’ll have to fill out forms, you’ll have to fit certain qualifications but if you’ve got that relationship, you’re much more likely to get the information you need to do better when you’re making a grant application. You’ll know better what their interests are and funding and be able to pick up the phone and call and ask, we’re thinking of doing this. Would this be possible? It all really comes down to personal relationships.

Be Human!

Ephraim: Which is why we’ve got you here telling us how to build those up. Now besides knowing how to build relationships, you are a fantastic copywriter. What do you make sure every direct mail piece includes?

Mary: Oh, that’s a great question. Well, depending on what it’s for. So talking about an appeal, a really direct ask, a really clear idea of why and what you’re asking for. But if we’re talking in the more broad sense, humanity! Stop trying to appear official and perfect. Some human emotion, even human flaws and feelings especially are okay. I mean, it’s okay to be a human being writing to another human being. You don’t have to make yourself look polished and glossy. Real does better. Sincere is better than fancy.

Learn More About Mary Cahalane

Ephraim: Sincere is better, totally agree. Let’s move on to the lightning round and learn a little bit more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Mary: I from young childhood was a performing theater… desperately wanted to be a ballerina when I was little. Singer, dancer, triple threat baby! Continued through college, did some summer stuff, did some theater after college, had a stupid awful job in New York City that was just pointless. And when my now husband decided he was going to go to law school and we moved to D.C., asked me to come and I did. I found a job in a theater. You mean like I could have that as a job?! So I started in the box office at Arena Stage, which is one of the country’s biggest regional theaters. Meant I got to work near well Zelda Fichandler and Tom Fichandler were still there, sort of the founders, giants in that field. Quickly, you know, moved up to run the box office. So you know, in my mid-20s, I had 30 full-time people reporting to me. What were they thinking?! It was a great experience. Left no time to do theater but I saw some amazing stuff and that got me started in the nonprofit world.

When we moved to Connecticut and I was looking for jobs, the regional theater up here had a development spot open. Entry level for that. I started at the beginning again and within a few weeks the development director left. I was the only other development staff person. So the marketing director and I learned how to do it. Just called everybody else in the country and asked them what they were doing, got a consultant for a little while and together we made it made work. And we learned, which is really a fabulous experience in that way.

Ephraim: I love that story.

Mary: We didn’t have to unlearn the bad stuff. We were just figuring it out as we went.

Ephraim: Oh man, that’s the best. If you don’t have to unlearn stuff, that’s the best position to be in. If you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world what would it be?

Mary: There’s so many, I’m sorry. Let’s see… well, since this is my special love and area, again- can we please stop communicating so poorly and so infrequently? Just be human please! I opened the mail and what I see coming through the mail with my house just makes me want to cry most days. It’s just so organization focused and formal and let me give you all the rational arguments for why you should send us money and none of those things work.

Ephraim: Just listen to Mary, gold, absolute gold. Exactly what you just said. Just listen to that and then start writing based on that and you’ll do much much better. What was the first concert you ever attended?

Mary: Okay, well it comes down to really really close and I cannot figure out or even research which was first. But it was either singles and cross at Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey or Jackson Browne at the Garden State Arts Center. And I’m gonna go with Jackson Browne because that one was kind of cool because it was their Running On Empty tour, which was recorded… like it was a live album most of it. And the song ‘The Road’ on that album was recorded half in California and half in New Jersey. And between the two halves in the recording, you hear three screams and that was me and two of my friends, because the darn audience was… all they did the whole night was ‘Doctor My Eyes.’ They didn’t want to hear any of the new stuff and we were tired of them being so quiet and unappreciative. So we screamed back from the long seats and you can hear ach of us, one two three right in the middle of the song. So if you’ve got Running On Empty around, go to ‘The Road’ right in the middle when they switch and you can hear three teenage girls screaming and one of them was me.

Ephraim: You’re famous Mary!

Mary: There you go! Brushes with greatness, right?

Ephraim: Amazing. You’re very active on Twitter. Three words you’d use to describe that platform.

Mary: Connecting. So many amazing people, so many friends from Twitter. It really is just a wonder. Informative. You know, you want to learn things? Zip through your feed a few times a day and there’s just a world of good information there, if you know where to look. And addictive. I can’t stop. There’s that part.

Ephraim: Yes there is. Your favorite thing about living in my home state of Connecticut?

Mary: Well it’s not too crowded, yet compared to my home state of New Jersey. There’s still lots of green space and open areas, which is very nice. Made it a nice place to raise our kids. And if you live in the middle of the state, as we do, you can pretty much get around the state in an hour. You know, you can get your arms around the place. But probably the most is it’s not too far from New Jersey and my beloved beaches. My heart’s still there.

Ephraim: The important stuff in life. Let’s turn the table. You can ask me a surprise question. I have no clue what’s coming. Go ahead.

Mary: So early on when we got to know each other, we bonded over 80’s music and your love for the same. But I was wondering, what’s your favorite guilty secret 80s song that you don’t want to tell anybody about?

Ephraim: Wow because I’m trying…I now have to go through this rolodex of hundreds of songs that are guilty pleasures, that if I were to say out loud I listen to them… You know what? Even the soft rock songs there’s… there’s a song by Carl Anderson and Gloria… wow, I can’t believe I’m totally blanking on her last name now, called ‘Friends and Lovers.’ Now it is a slow song, it’s a duet. She was a star on the soap opera Days of Our Lives for a bunch of years. And I had watched Days of Our Lives when I was a kid. Gloria… forget it, I’m never gonna remember. It’s all good. That’s one of those songs that you know what? Everybody’s gonna be like, oh my god you listen to that? And I’m like, yeah I listen to that. Now look, the same could be said about Toto’s I bless the Rains Down in Africa.

Mary: RIGHT?!  

Ephraim: Yup but everybody who listens to it is like that’s the worst song. But if there’s a guilty pleasure, that song is really really it and I’m fascinated with that song. I happen to love it.

Mary: Try to get it out of your brain. You can’t, right?

Ephraim: You cannot. That’s why… I’m just fascinated with it because it’s just a really bad song but it’s a really great song all at the same time. So yeah. I don’t know if that’s considered a guilty pleasure but we can go with either one of those songs. But yes, there’s guilty pleasure 80 songs? Oh my god, that’s huge. There’s no end. It’s okay. I’m not… I would I would take a lot of flack for some of the songs that I would say but I wouldn’t care. It’s 80s, it’s what I grew up with. I’m happy with it. It makes me happy.

Mary: The 70s too. If we put on one of those 70s stations, I remember because I just always had music on. But you know the stupidest pop song from 73 will come on and I will sing right along. I got it, I know it!

Ephraim: You know what? Those lyrics, they’re never gonna go away. Songs you learned as a kid and as a teen those songs aren’t going away. Ever.

Mary: That’s amazing, isn’t it?

Ephraim: Yes. I mean my brain might not have capacity for anything else but throw me the odd 80 song and I will start rambling off the lyrics from start to finish without a problem. Thank you very very much for joining us today. Really appreciate it, learned a lot and I encourage everybody to follow Mary on Twitter, to subscribe to her Hands-On Fundraising blog which is an excellent excellent blog and to engage her because Mary loves talking shop and she’s always happy to help people. Thank you very much for appearing on the podcast. I really really appreciate it.   

Mary: Thank you.

Ephraim: Have a great day.

Mary: You too.    

Ephraim: Bye.