The big ask and the big answer

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.”



Fundraiser’s motto: give me an inch, I will take an inch and a quarter

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.

New fundraising idea!

Can I be a curmudgeon for a minute?

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 newsuccessful 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.

Fundraising and the flexible ego of Winnie the Pooh

“Well,” said Owl, “the customary procedure in such cases is as follows.”

“What does Crustimoney Proseedcake mean?” said Pooh.  “For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me.”

— Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One

“Without Pooh, said Rabbit solemnly as he sharpened his pencil, “the adventure would be impossible.”

…Pooh went into a corner of the room, and said proudly to himself, “Impossible without me!  That sort of Bear.”

 — Kanga and Roo Come to the Forest

A fund raiser can learn a lot from Winnie the Pooh.  First lesson: keep your ego flexible. Pooh has a remarkable ability to slide between self assurance and modesty.

There are times when our profession requires us to submit ourselves to almost-secretarialpooh bear support of a CEO, board member, or donor.  (I realize that this creates more complexities for female than male fund raisers, but discussing that would exceed my self-imposed word limit.)   There are other times when we are the creative force of the organization, with mind-blowing expanses of responsibility.

We sometimes work fundraising for months behind the scenes.  Other days, if we are fortunate, we return triumphant from a donor visit and are greeted by astonished acclaim from our colleagues.  If you can continuously increase your territory at the Important end of the spectrum, and still be comfortable at the modest end, you will serve your organization well.

Thoreau and fund raising

Henry_David_ThoreauCast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.  – Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience.

If democracy requires the whole influence of citizens – and it has never needed it more than it does today — a non profit organization requires the whole engagement of its supporters.

What does whole engagement mean?  Of course there is the usual checklist of ways a donor could help an organization: giving money, introducing her friends, soliciting corporate gifts from her employer, adding the organization to her estate plans, volunteering, and so forth.

But in a donor-centric universe – have you noticed that is where we live? – whole engagement means that she is giving what she is able and willing to give at this time, when asked appropriately.

How do you know whether you are inviting the whole engagement of your donors?  Here is a simple test.  If, when you are talking to your donors, do you listen in order to respond, or do you listen to your donors in order to understand?    

Each of your supporters is, to quote Thoreau again, a majority of one, worthy of your inquisitive attention.

How can a fund raiser talk less and listen more?

There is a wall that divides good fund raisers from bad. It is the wall of our own voices.  More times than I care to remember, I have sat in the living room or office of a donor, hauling newsletters and annual reports out of my briefcase, talking about programs, accomplishments, plans.  Blah, blah, blah.  I am waiting for a signal from the person across the desk to show some interest, and he or she is waiting for me to stop talking.

listenOn the other side of the wall is an actual conversation.  Give and take.  Back and forth.  Of course, most donors want to learn more about programs and accomplishments and plans.  But there is a very personal and specific reason that the donor selected your organization to support, a very personal and specific reason that the donor invited you into his or her space.  If you can stop talking about programs long enough to find out what that motivation is, you will have crossed the sound barrier.  Asking the right questions is the key.

How do you get across that wall and invite the donor to speak?

Announcing the Jump Start Contest for SMALL organizations that receive BIG gifts

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

Please spread the word about the Jump Start Contest.  Thank you.

If you are not the prototypical Leader…

As a culture, Americans cultivate a mystique about leadership. The Leader is a The Leaderrecognizable type.  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, prone to second-guessing, and sometimes rumple-suited.  But maybe we can get more mileage out of honoring our limitations than trying to live up the Leadership Mystique.

The fund raising profession is crippled by that Leadership mystique.  Lots of people believe that succeeding in fund raising requires nerves of steel, flat abs, and straight, white teeth.  The truth is, good manners and a little ambition will get you far.

If you find that The Prototypical Leader’s Textbook for Fund Raising don’t help you so much, here are some alternative ideas.

  • The Leader 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.
  • The Leader 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 when something is off kilter in your relationships with your donors.
  • The Leader 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 discuss her priorities with her, 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 The Leader, all kinds of possibilities open themselves.

Anyone else out there find the Leadership Mystique unhelpful?  How do you deal with it?



Be kind to gatekeepers

Let’s celebrate the personal secretaries, family foundation staff, attorneys and bank London - Buckingham Palace guardofficers known collectively as “Gatekeepers.”  They play an important and under-appreciated role in the philanthropic ecosystem.  I have a great gatekeeper story from when I worked for The Wilderness Society.  Do you have a story about a successful relationship with a gatekeeper?

Every year. an entity called Canyon Investments sent a check for $5,000.  The return address was a post office box in Chicago. Responsibility was batted back and forth between the foundation team or the corporate sponsorship team.  Once, when I was planning a trip to Chicago, I sent a letter to “Dear sir or madam,” expressing appreciation and inquiring whether a visit would be welcome. I was delighted to get a phone call from an attorney representing Canyon, and inviting me to join him for coffee.  He explained to me that the donor preferred anonymity, and that he would be happy to pass on literature.  He also mentioned that there was some extra money in the account, and that a request for $10,000 would probably be granted.

The gifts grew to $35,000 a year. Every time to flew to Chicago, I visited the attorney.  Every time I saw him, I asked if I could arrange a visit between the donor and the Wilderness Society’s president.  He always smiled and shook his head, and offered to deliver any literature I wanted to leave with him.

When you are looking for a donor and, instead, find yourself face to face with a gatekeeper, take a deep breath, introduce yourself, and thank him or her for being an intermediary.

Please share your gatekeeper stories!