Fundraising is more art than science, and relationship building — key to raising major gift support — requires creativity. 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 discovered that the campaigns surpassing goals are those built by entrepreneurial staff, creative fundraisers, and highly personable board members.
We may all wish to think philanthropists are present only because of the mission, but too often we minimize the other personal reasons they are engaged. These also must 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, and it usually takes going beyond the expected.
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 for giving. 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 thank-you. 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 to a “Yes.”
- Understanding competition is key. Say your organization is competing with the food bank in feeding hungry children. If your donor is savvy — and most all are — you will be asked about it. Embrace this reality and contour your message so the donor understands your organization is just as important. Point out how yours differs and 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 with whom you embrace and involve. Their reputations will become part of yours 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 the most important, anything received in exchange for the gift, such as naming rights, a 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 to offer may be: hosting a reception at your country club; inviting three high net-worth couples to your home for a parlor meeting to hear the presentation; introducing the development staff to key prospects; sending the newsletter with a personal note to several friends. You must make these processes easy and smooth for the donor.
- 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. This 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 provide it. You will form some remarkable relationships that bear many fruits.
Ben’s Takeaway: Often overlooked by fundraisers are the commonsense approaches to anchoring donors. These include 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 is key.