Is Relationship Building an Art or a Science?

The Art of Relationship Building 

Why do we always refer to relationship building and relationship fundraising as an art?

Of course it is. You can’t teach personality, charisma, or make people like you. Relationships take time and are cultivated over years. Right?

But what if it weren’t just an art? What if there were a science to building relationships? What if you could build trusting relationships quickly? Is that something that might be important to study and we might want to talk more about in our field?

The Science of Relationship Building

Dr. Jack Schafer, former behavioral analyst for the FBI, is the author of The Like Switch: Attracting and Winning People Over. This incredible book provides a framework for relationship building. He outlines and details the science of relationship building.

Relationships take time, of course, but depth and closeness can be accelerated. As a behavioral psychologist for the FBI, part of Dr. Jack Schafer’s job was to accelerate the process of building trust in relationships so that spies could be recruited (or to make those who might be recruited by foreign governments aware of the process so they might “defend” against it). How do you build trust so deeply that you might even convince someone to betray their own country? Schafer tells us how.

We can use that same process to build relationships and trust quickly with our donors. The foundation on which Schafer’s theory rest are as applicable in every day life and in our work as they are to spycraft. “The friendship formula” consists of four steps in the development of a relationship.

The Friendship Formula

    • Proximity – Being around. Being noticed.
    • Frequency – How often you are together.
    • Duration – The amount of time you spend together.
    • Intensity – What you talk about when you are together.

Fundraisers have opportunities for proximity at events, sometimes our own and sometimes events of other charities. Either way, the first step in developing trust is getting a new prospect to lower her guard by recognizing you as a familiar face.

Familiarity starts with proximity, seeing you multiple times in comfortable surroundings. If you want to recruit a new donor to your charity, you start with proximity. This step is not about getting to know each other beyond getting to know each other’s face. It is merely about recognition as the subconscious accept you as a new and nonthreatening presence.

Frequency, is the next step. The more often you are seen, the more likely they are to want to spend more time with you. Frequency is the partner to both proximity and the steps that follow. Unfortunately too many fundraisers substitute frequency for intensity, never taking the relationship to the high levels needed to secure the largest commitments.

Duration is where the development of the relationship really starts to deepen, but it only starts to happen after you’ve developed frequent proximity.

Duration is the amount of time you spend with someone.This is the area where most Relationship Fundraising happens, at lunch, over coffee, in face to face meetings. Frequency in this area if strategized well leads to intensity.

And finally, intensity is about the depth of conversation you have, the kind of conversations you have. You can think of your own relationships with your friends, your relatives, and you can see how duration and intensity relate to each other.

The more intense the relationship, the less duration you need in order to maintain the relationship at the same level and vice versa. If you have more duration, you don’t necessarily need the intensity. It’s all about the time you spend and the conversations you have with your donor.

Schafer tells a number of stories about developing trust quickly using the friendship formula. Schafer’s job was not only to recruit spies but to make sure our people were not recruited. The best protection was to make sure the targets knew the system being used on them.

One story he relates tells the tale of a U.S. scientist invited to give a talk on his unclassified research in China. As Schafer debriefed him after the trip he realized that in one short week the scientist had developed a deep personal relationship with the person who was his assigned translator and guide. They had spent the entire week together, found they had much in common (true or not?), and the scientist had developed trust in his new friend quickly. It was not surprising that the Chinese followed up quickly with positive reviews of his talk and he was invited back to lecture again the following year, and this time to bring his family! 

In one short but intense week, the beginning of a trusting relationship was created. Those of us who have traveled with our major donors understand the power of duration and intensity toward becoming close quickly,

In my next article we’ll explore the next steps in the Science of Relationship Fundraising by studying the research of two other professors who have committed their careers to studying the art and turning it into a science.

To see how you can marry the science of engagement to the art (and science) of relationship fundraising using email and online to raise more major gifts and legacy gifts, join us for our next webinar on e-gagement™ at