How Not to Muddle the Middle

In the non-profit world, big scores -- or the biggest donors -- get major attention, as they deserve. Another key to success, however, is building capacity to steward the vitally important and often-overlooked group in the middle. In reality, donors who give moderate amounts on a steady basis are the lifeblood of the philanthropic world. They are the ones who sustain organizations through ups and downs, and the ones who are most likely to proselytize about a group's core mission. Take a look at the lifetime giving of mid-level donors to see their real value.

Unfortunately, the mid-sized donor base has reduced its nonprofit support in recent years. The good news is that there are ways to reverse this trend and prevent core donors from drifting away.

To address this issue, we must first ask ourselves why mid-level support can wane. One key reason is that in the wake of the recession, donors have focused more on a smaller number of charitable causes. With less to give, mid-level contributors are more discriminating about where their money goes, and are likely to limit their gifts to three or five groups at the most.

As a result, philanthropic organizations are doing everything in their power to get on peoples' all important "Top 5" lists, making an already competitive landscape even tougher. Adding to this challenge is high donor turnover (the rate at which donors stop giving), which shows no sign of decreasing.

We in the philanthropic space also are responsible for the downturn in mid-level giving. Technological advances -- while certainly valuable -- have allowed organizations to, often unwittingly, overwhelm their potential donation base with emails, texts, calls and other modes of communications. This can tire even the most loyal core contributors, and even lead some to cut off involvement with organizations entirely. With increasingly effective email spam filters, and the growing popularity of "do not call" lists, nonprofit entities face more hurdles than ever when it comes to fundraising.

What's more, as nonprofit leaders seek to maintain their programs and fulfill their groups' missions, they tend to focus the brunt of their attention on high-level donors, the ones who can fund a year's worth of operations with a single gift. Others spend their energy going after smaller funders who are attracted by a momentarily popular charity or a timely cause that receives widespread media coverage. Given less attention, if not completely ignored, supporters in the middle tend to stray and channel their resources elsewhere.

This is obviously a tough dynamic, as we must fight to keep the support of our mid-level donors without alienating our biggest (and smallest) givers. Fortunately, it is possible to reach this valuable group by, well, meeting them in the middle.

One approach to doing this is investing, building organizational capacity, and strategizing to meet people on their terms. Central to this tactic is bolstering volunteer, staff and communications infrastructure -- either through hiring or recruitment -- to increase the ways your organization can reach people. This is obviously easier said than done -- especially for smaller entities, but with more "feet on the street," a nonprofit can increase its face time with potential funders and communicate its message in a welcome manner.

Elevating junior and mid-level staffers is particularly useful, because they tend to be very optimistic and energized about their mission. At its core, mid-level giving is based on relationships, and presenting the most enthusiastic people to your donor base is a reliable way to strengthen existing connections and forge new ones, even as givers become more and more fickle.

In the midst of all the noise, philanthropic organizations must showcase to mid-level contributors tangible, positive results. Instead of simply sending an email soliciting a donation, nonprofits would be wise to invite patrons for an on-site visit, so they can see a group's mission in action and feel confident that their gifts are going to good use.

As the world becomes more digitally connected, and quarterly newsletters give way to up-to-the-second tweets, there remains no substitute for in-person interaction. The fundraising axiom is true: People give to people, not organizations. Putting personal interactions first leaves no one in the middle.

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