It is typical of fundraisers that we are over-responsible. We are conscientious problem-solvers, and so we often try to solve problems that are not ours to solve. I spoke to a fundraiser recently who was struggling with how to generate the content for a monthly email newsletter to major gift prospects. The problems she was talking about were very real: program staff are too busy to write stuff down, she is too busy to pursue them, program staff don’t tell her about upcoming events until too late, the communications team is preoccupied with action alerts, and so forth. BUT, when we talked to the executive director a few days later, and all the problems melted away. The ED recognized that monthly emails to major gift prospects were a good idea, and said she would make it happen.
Remember — that sense of hyper responsibility is not always your friend. Other people may be better placed than you are to make things happen. Go forth and delegate, upward, downward, sideways — whatever it takes to get the job done.
Is your organization in a revenue-sharing arrangement, like national/affiliate partnership? If so, you probably have stories like this one. Local fundraiser tells donor “please don’t give more than $4,999 because if you do the national office will swoop in and steal you.” That was from the ACLU before they worked out a brilliant sharing formula. Sometimes the locals have all the power, like at NPR. Fundraisers from the national office are forbidden from soliciting gifts from donors who are committed to local stations. Please describe to me how a donor could be interested in NPR and not in a local station. Crazy, isn’t it? And sometimes it’s just a food fight, with local, state, and national offices of the same organization competing for the same gift.
If your plan for collaboration is based on some kind of we’re-all-in-this-together hope that everyone will share nicely, forget it. I can guarantee there are a lot of fundraisers out there who didn’t get the memo. There are ways to make sure that it is in everyone’s best interest to do the best job of donor cultivation and stewardship possible. As Tina Turner sang, “What’s nice got to with it?” (Or something like that.) You have to make sure that everyone benefits from a larger gift, no matter which office gets the check. Call me if you want to talk about how to make it work.
I was talking yesterday to the fundraiser at an environmental organization with staff all over the country. We were talking about sending a monthly informal email monthly to their top 200 donors and prospects. Because the staff is scattered (literally and figuratively) she is having a hard time getting the content for those emails. We came up with ten sources. Part of her job is to run around with a butterfly net and collect the stories.
- The executive director’s sporadic reports to board members
- Staff members who are good storytellers: make sure different programs and regions are represented
- Comments in staff meetings
- Profiles of board members
- Profiles of staff members
- Profiles of heroes of the movement
- Historical notes
- Newspaper articles circulated by communications staff.
What’s important is for donors to feel like they are part of the “inner circle” — they don’t need a ton of information (who does?) but just an occasional stroke to remind them that we think of them as part of the family.
I was recently speaking with my colleague Tina Yoon about a tour of a health clinic in a poor neighborhood. The tour inspired her to start supporting the clinic. I asked her what made the tour so special, and she said, “The doctor who spoke during the tour was a pillar of the community. I felt honored that he would spend time with us.” This was many years ago, but it made a big impression on Tina.
A major DC philanthropist did a tour of a major multi-faceted social service agency, and promised $20,000 — $10,000 unrestricted, and $10,000 for whatever the man who ran the tour (director of a teen drop in center) wanted. The executive director had a conniption fit, as you might imagine, about a staff person several rungs down the chain of command being empowered to direct contributions. Nonetheless, something that man did captured the heart of the philanthropist, who wanted to empower him to do more. That’s a good thing.
Who are the people in your organization who have the power to make donors feel special?
Fundraising is the business of soul development. For this phrase I am indebted to LindaGottfried, development director at Calvert Hospice, and one of the leading lights of the growing non profit support network in southern Maryland. Sure, it’s a little pompous, but why not? We are offering people the opportunity to be their best selves.
I have limited patience for semantics. (If I never hear another discussion about the difference between fundraising, advancement, and development, that’s soon enough for me.) But when I heard Linda use the phrase soul development, I realized that it perfectly captures what I aspire to in my work.
I was videotaping one of my first clients yesterday talking about her first visit with a couple who had given steadily increasing gifts every year, as much as $5,000. After a lovely conversation, mostly about their family, the husband was driving her back to her hotel. He mentioned that in at his first job, he was required to buy Berkshire Hathaway A stock, and he got a big stack of them. Before she got out of the car, she said, “I am going to ask you for a gift, and it’s going to be a large amount.” His response: “you can ask me for anything you want, and how we respond, we’ll see.” She sent a thank you note when she got back home, with a $100,00 ask. They said yes. And they have been giving gifts in that range for the past 8 years, totaling $1.4 million. The big ask paid off.
The thing that jumped out at me was his response to her pre-solicitation. “You can ask me for whatever you want.” Isn’t that liberating? When we ask for a gift, we don’t have to know how a donor will answer. There are dozens of factors, and we can’t even imagine many of them. All we can do is produce the best ask we can. After that, “we’ll see.”
I recently met a senior fundraiser who works in a large organization where he is surrounded by others who don’t share his enjoyment of meeting with donors and prospects. We speculated about why they are sitting in their offices. Some are experienced fundraisers who have lost the fire. Some are young fundraisers who are insecure or don’t realize how fun (and important) it is to meet with the people who write the checks. Some are lost in internal politics. Some are overwhelmed by their in-the-office responsibilities. Some are lazy. Some are uninspired. It can happen to any of us. Don’t let it happen to you. Get out the door.
For an excellent model of how to tell your organization’s story as if it will have a dramatic, global impact, look at Smith College’s campaign case statement.
This week a client asked me how to squeeze major gifts fundraising into her busy schedule. Here is what I told her. The threshold gifts will of course be different in different organizations. What would you add?
- Personal thanks to donors of $5K+, as well as first time donors of $500 or more beyond usual mail-merged thanks — phone call, email, note.
- Review top donor and prospect list, beginning with (a) prospects for largest gifts and (b) prospects for gifts of $5K+ in the next 3 months. What does it take to move those relationships forward? Write proposals, coordinate with board members and colleagues about contacting prospects, sending notes with recent reports, clippings, etc.
- Review upcoming cultivation events: what do you need to do in the next week to keep plans on track?
- Upward management & building development team: what can you do to celebrate board and staff members investing time in strategic fundraising? What can you do to learn more about the skills and interests of board and staff members in fundraising? How can you make fundraising easier and more rewarding for them?
- Create materials: how can you create or perfect the materials you have for telling the organization’s story in a compelling way?
A fundraiser once told me that the Executive Director he worked for was going to LA, and she wanted to meet with donors. She got a couple of appointments, but most of the people she wanted to see were too busy, or uncertain about their schedules, or just unwilling to commit. (Please refrain from making jokes about the flakiness of Southern Californians.) So she did something unique. She wrote to all those indecisive Angelinos, naming a coffee shop in a central location: “I will be there from 9:00 to 11:30. Drop by if you have a minute.”
I never got a chance to follow up with my friend to see if she got any takers. But I thought it was a great way to deal with the difficulty of getting appointments. Have you found any ways of breaking through that barrier? Please share.