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Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The Three E’s of a Successful Patron Program

One of the more popular development strategies that non-profits use is up-selling donors into special giving circles or patron programs.

I belong to two programs like this—one with an art museum, one with a cultural institution. During the last few years both programs have struggled.

Development offices across New York have wrestled with high turnover and low morale since the economy softened in 2001. Anecdotally, I hear that the average tenure for directors of development at New York-based cultural organizations has shortened to only two years.

Special patron programs are difficult groups to run successfully, even in the best of times. They need to produce high touch programming for their members, but most organizations can’t devote adequate resources to do it correctly. Each of the groups to which I belong (admittedly, the lowest rungs on the development ladder at both organizations) is managed by a single development officer, with some administrative and volunteer support.

Both these programs have suffered in recent years from the departure of managers. (Yesterday one group actually announced the appointment of its fourth manager in the last three years.) When a critical staff member like this leaves an organization—taking knowledge of the group and its members with him or her—the organization takes a hit. After the search for a replacement is complete, the new hire has to reestablish relationships and rebuild a program schedule that will engage existing members and entice new prospects.

There’s no easy or quick way for a new hire to connect with the existing membership of a patrons group. That takes time, research, and effort. But building a program of events doesn’t have to be that hard. The more successful programs give their members what I call the three E’s:

A season’s schedule should be sure to contain a healthy mix of events that are designed to provide all the E’s. Individual events should be focused on one area, but the event should be coordinated so that the others are present as well. Successful development department programmers make sure their members get all three E’s in each event.

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