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.
A client (who runs and organization that does social science research for non profits) told me he had met with the head of a major foundation. The Foundation Guy suggested setting up an advisory committee. Eyes rolled. The last thing I need, my client thought, is to have an advisory committee telling me what to do. But when Foundation Guy explained what he meant, it became clear how brilliant this idea was.
Several of the organizations that commission research from my client also get funding from this foundation. So why not set up an advisory committee that will include Foundation Guy, researcher, and the organizations that are (a) asking my client to do research and then (b) asking Foundation Guy for funding to implement the strategy that arises from the research? That way, Foundation Guy is in on the discussions from the beginning, and everyone wins.
When my client told me this, I told him that he was moving from being a fundraiser to being a power broker. That’s a way to turbo-charge your donor relationships!
I met a development director in a one-person fundraising shop this morning. He had been in his job for 11 years. He said that he and his boss had spoken many times about starting a major gifts program, but it kept getting swept away by more urgent (though less important) things. He asked me where to start. Here was my advice to him:
Begin with a manageable prospect list. If you can only handle 5 prospects, that’s a great beginning.
Measure success before the money starts coming in. Building relationships takes time. It can’t be rushed. So avoid discouragement by tracking your progress in non-financial terms. Getting board members to do thank you calls. Getting a board member to host a house party. Getting program staff to describe their work to donors at a tour. Getting 100% giving from your board. All of these are important prerequisites to the first big ask. So celebrate when they happen.
Look at your calendar through a donor cultivation lens. Do you do an annual gala? Invite prospective major donors to come as your guests, and assign a board member to escort each of them through the event. Do you have in-house celebrations, like graduations, that you could invite prospects to witness? Could your prospects address your students/clients on an area of their expertise? Using the opportunities presented by your existing calendar, you can draw your best prospects closer without a lot of extra effort.
I hope this is helpful. Start where you are. Do what you can. Use what you have.
It is never a good idea to startle a donor by asking for something outrageous without warning him or her first. But if you are asking for something incremental, the fundraiser’s motto above applies. For instance, maybe the donor has offered to send a letter to 20 of his or her friends, asking them to donate to the organization. You know that a letter is not going to accomplish much, but you are grateful for the donor’s willingness to help. You might want to say, “That’s great. I appreciate it. And are there two or three names on that list that you might be willing to invite to come to an open house?”
It’s rude to take a mile when someone offers you an inch. But if you ask for an inch and a quarter, you gradually expand the circle of the donor’s engagement.
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.
There was a story in the 11/11 New York times about some Wall Street hotshots who have a new idea for supporting charities: a stock market for non profits. I don’t know what that means. I couldn’t get past the first paragraph in the article:
What if? That’s the way Lindsay Beck, a two-time cancer survivor and the founder of a successful charity, started thinking about how the world of finance and Wall Street could revolutionize the staid nonprofit industry.
The word “staid” stuck in my craw. I wondered if the writer of the article has any idea how vital and varied the world is that the innovators propose to revolutionize.
I have seen a magnificent variety of organizations serving humankind. Some non profits struggle to meet their budgets every year, and some make it look easy to grow existing programs and sprout new ones. The successful organizations have found some way to become conduits for the generosity of people who are inspired to accomplish good things. They know how to craft the organization’s story in a way that a donor can see his or her own story merged into the next chapter. It is not a new idea.
A stock market for non profits – let’s wait and see. In the meantime, non profiteers, keep doing what you do so well. And if your problem is staidness, let’s shake things up before your organization gets bought out (hostile takeover!) by a Wall Street tycoon.
Superman, that great icon of American male power, is a cartoon version of the Leadership prototype. The square jawed guy in the corner office works tirelessly, makes correct split-second decisions, and inspires the enthusiasm of his followers. I know that when I compare myself to him, I am slow-tongued, wracked by anguish, and sometimes rumple-suited. But maybe, for us who are not Superman, we can get more mileage out of honoring our limitations than trying to live up Mr. It’s-a-bird-it’s-a-plane.
The fund raising profession is crippled by that the Superman mystique. Lots of people believe that succeeding in fund raising requires nerves of steel, telepathy, and a Kryptonite handshake. The truth is, good manners and a little ambition will get you far.
If you find that Superman’s Textbook for Fund Raising doesn’t help you so much, here are some alternative ideas.
Superman is self-reliant. As my mentor Andrea Kihlstedt is fond of saying, “every organization is perfectly configured to be itself.” That means change is hard. If you want to be an instrument of organizational transformation, find allies.
Superman is never insecure. Pay attention to your insecurity. Once you recognize that your nerves are made of some material more like pliable than steel, you can tune them to signal that something is off kilter in your relationships with your donors.
Superman is unerringly persuasive. Your donor has assigned your organization to a certain groove in her brain, and that determines her decision to give $X instead of ten times $X. Your job, as a fund raiser, is to try to move the organization into a different brain-groove. This is nervous-making. You can face this nervousness by asking permission to propose something bold, by acknowledging that you are going out on a limb, or by any one of dozens of other ways of humanizing the encounter. Once you admit you are not Superman, all kinds of possibilities open themselves.
Superman, go catch a flying train or something. We have work to do.
I would guess that in your organization the fundraising equivalent of the 4 minute mile is waiting to be conquered. It could be a gift of $25,000, or $100,000, or $1,000,000 – enough to make jaws drop, hearts skip a beat, and feet to float off the ground. When that gift comes, it does several things.
• It gets the attention of other donors. Most donors are cautious, and will be more inclined to “step up” after someone else has lead the way.
• It gives confidence to the staff. For people immersed in the daily work of the organization, it gives a huge morale boost to know someone cares enough to give that much.
• It inspires board and staff leadership with visions of new possibility. It is natural to slide along in the groove of current reality. A big gift will elevate them out of the incremental doldrums.
So who are the possible “Bannister donors” on your prospect list? Make it happen. I have always found it helpful to start by envisioning the donor writing a big check, and then working backwards to figure out how to get there from here. On your mark….
SMALL ORGANIZATION/BIG GIFT. It does happen. If it has happened to you, please share here – and check out the Jump Start Contest at www.jumpstartgrowth.com
On November 15 in 2002, at Poetry Magazine’s 90th anniversary dinner celebration, Ruth Lilly’s $100 million pledge was announced. The Poetry Foundation pre-Lilly was a modest magazine publisher with a staff of four and $1.3 million budget.
If it does your heart good in this sober financial climate to imagine a gift of 77 times your operating budget, enjoy a blissful moment of dreaming about your own Miracle Gift Day.
If you know who that person is, make a goal of spending an hour with him or her in the next six weeks without asking for a gift. Talk about your dreams for the organization in 5-10 years. Listen. Listen. Listen. And ask if you can come back for another conversation in six months as your plans crystallize.
Sometimes, good things happen to good people. If your organization has benefited from big gifts, please share the story. And be sure to enter the Jump Start Contest, Prizes include a $2,500 cash prize, recognition in the fund raising press, and free board training. Details at www.jumpstartgrowth.com/contest.
Conventional wisdom holds that only big organizations can secure significant gifts from individual donors. But that conventional wisdom is wrong – I have seen it over and over: small, smart organizations securing gifts of five or six or seven figures. Let’s collect those stories about organizations with a budget of less than $2.5 million who does things right. Tell your story, get some publicity in fund raising publications, board training, and a cash prize of $2,500. The deadline is May 15th.
Five judges, all development professionals in small organizations, will choose the winner based on:
The size of the top 10 gifts
The growth of the top 10 gifts over the past three years
Creative and effective engagement of board members in fund raising
Creative and effective cultivation strategies
The top 5 entries will receive a board training workshop and publicity in fund raising publications. The top winner will also get $2,500. Apply by May 15th at www.jumpstartgrowth.com/contest.
Please spread the word about the Jump Start Contest. Thank you.