Is Cultivation Dead?

By Claire Eason-Bassett,

In the creative and charitable sector, we talk a lot about cultivation and I don’t think we’re alone. By cultivation, I mean cultivation of leads, of donors, of anyone who might have some kind of use to us in pursuing our business objectives. This frequently takes the form of in-kind benefit to the individual we are cultivating such as tickets or hospitality.

It’s all very friendly and enjoyable but the reality is that in “cultivating” a prospect, we are seeking to manipulate them to give us some of their resources in exchange for benefits. We are seeking to make a sale.  And they know it. So, does cultivation have a role to play in our lead generation strategy or is it just smoke and mirrors hiding the ‘ask’?

Prospects don’t want to be cultivated like crops in a field. We are human beings and, particularly for high value goods and services, we need to be made to feel that we are in a unique relationship with that supplier. As suppliers then, we need to focus on how we manage our stakeholder relationships that enables us to create trustful, positive partnerships that have a significant lifetime value.  Building trust requires openness and honesty from the beginning so the manipulation of cultivation activity can be detrimental to our efforts.

On its own cultivation will not generate leads or donations or direct benefit to the organization. Cost benefit analysis can be useful here in evaluating the tactics we might use and in undertaking this analysis, we can appreciate the return on the investment that we need or anticipate from each tactic.  It is also important to consider tactics as a network approach which means we need to make sure our messaging is consistent across all our activity.  Again, the concept of being friendly in order to get something out of someone undermines the fledgling relationship so cultivation activity needs to be handled carefully.

In practical terms, there are two primary restricting factors on lead generation: data and cost. With the requirements of GDPR, more time needs to be spent on researching and approaching prospects with legitimate interest.  Whilst this is a time and cash cost, it should also mean that our approaches are more likely to be successful.  It is important to manage our data accurately in order that we don’t breach the law or waste our time approaching unviable prospects repeatedly.

Cultivation activity can be a black hole into which we throw cash in the hope that we generate a contract or donation from it.  Irrespective of our sector, no-one can afford to do this so the return on the investment needs to be clear.  From an events perspective, we think of this as value-for-time as well as value-for-money.  If all we are doing is asking for money/resources, why should anyone come?

A word of warning: aside from ensuring return on investment, be careful with how much you cultivate prospects and clients with in-kind benefits. The development of the Bribery Act in 2010 specifically addresses cultivation of those in public office and the consequences of offering in-kind benefits.

Considering this, the old ways of cultivating leads are dead and the gauntlet laid down for us to find more effective and efficient ways of building relationships with prospective clients and stakeholders.  This makes cultivation a strategic process and one that needs to resonate and inform all areas of an organization.

Claire Eason-Bassett is Head of Business Development & Events at the English National Ballet.

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