Fundraising is more art than science. Creative relationship building is key to successfully raising major gift support. Overwhelmingly, philanthropists gravitate to organizations based on personal relationships, not because they received an unsolicited appeal in the mail.Working in some of the most competitive fundraising markets in the United States, I have discovered the campaigns surpassing goals are those built by entrepreneurial staff, creative fundraisers, and highly personable board members.
Although we may all wish to think philanthropists are present only because of the mission, far too often we have minimized the other reasons they are engaged. These must also be given equal weight. An unintentional slight, the misspelling of a name, and even problematic table seating have soured fundraising relationships. Little things mean a lot.
Fundraisers are constantly at work — they do not quit at 5 p.m. or work only weekdays. Stellar fundraisers often begin their most invaluable work after hours when they invite donors to a family meal, accompany a socialite to a gala affair, or spend a Saturday consoling a philanthropist experiencing a heartbreaking event. Major gift fundraising includes a lot of hand-holding.
Here are some of my most invaluable lessons learned after three decades in the fundraising arena.
- “You must get on the donor’s agenda before they get onto yours.” Donors have many options. Unless you know what is important to them, you will not be able to entice them to your organization. Focus on their agenda first. Who are they, and what makes them give?
- “If you need to raise big money, do not spend time talking to people who don’t have big money!” Rich DeVos taught me this. He challenged me to spend my time wisely. Put your time into viable prospects.
- People do not give money to projects they do not understand. If the donor cannot fully understand the mission and results, they will not donate. Everyone involved must understand the mission and be able to articulate it. Communication must be straightforward and visionary.
- Fundraising and “friend-raising” should never be mixed. Either you are hosting a fundraiser or a “friend-raiser.” They are two different messages that should be delivered to two audiences. Mixing messages and audiences is a recipe for disappointment for all involved.
- Show your appreciation and be generous with it. Philanthropists become one-time donors when they are not properly acknowledged and appreciated. Ask the donor how they wish to be acknowledged and give them a five-star round of applause. Treating them with VIP status ensures they know how valued their philanthropy is to the organization.
- Prepare your responses in advance. When asking for a financial donation, you will get one of three answers: Yes, No, or Maybe. Be ready to respond accordingly with more information. Listening is key. Both “No” and “Maybe” can be turned around by removing obstacles for those answers.
- Understanding competition is key. Say your organization is competing with the food bank in feeding hungry children. You will be asked about it if your donor is savvy — and most all are. Embrace this reality and contour your message so the donor understands your organization is just as important. Point out how yours excels and is focused on long-term relief.
- “Your friends are your reputation.” I think everyone heard this growing up. The same works for nonprofits, and their leadership. Be careful whom you embrace and involve. Their reputations will become that of you and/or your organization.
- Always get commitments in writing. Gift Agreements and Pledge Forms protect the organization and fundraiser as much as they do the donor. Stipulating all terms of the agreement is absolutely necessary — amount, payment terms, project, and most important, anything received in exchange for the gift, such as naming rights, signature listing, etc. If the donor is promised anything, it must be in writing with all parties in agreement. Everyone is protected this way.
- Fundraising does not come naturally to most. When asking others to assist in development efforts, be specific and showcase ways in which they can help. Some key examples may be: host a reception at your country club; invite three high net-worth couples to your home for a parlor meeting to hear the presentation; introduce the development staff to key prospects; send newsletter with personal note to several friends. You must make this process turnkey.
- Be wary of the shiny people. Fancy cars and big diamonds are not always indicators of big money. In some cases, those things can indicate big debt and little cash. Even a Rolls-Royce can be leased for less than $3,000 per month. Simulated jewelry is difficult to distinguish from the real thing these days. Some of the biggest diamonds I have seen on donors have been worn by those with the least ability to donate. Flashy people generally require a flashy involvement with your organization. Which means they may wish to be a gala chair, but never have an interest in a solid capital campaign.
- Respect and acknowledge your donors. Southern hospitality and good manners are necessary for strong fundraising. Ensuring your donors are warmly welcomed, graciously invited, respectfully solicited, and properly stewarded go hand in hand with old-fashioned hospitality. Learn what your donors appreciate — and perfect it. You will form some remarkable relationships that bear many fruits.
Ben’s Takeaway: Often overlooked by fundraisers are the common-sense approaches to anchoring donors by building relationships, networking and connecting peers, and stewarding those involved. Learning about the donor, showing you care about them personally, and establishing trust in a solid organization’s plan are key.