Let’s begin with the too-often dreaded process of major gift solicitation.
Whenever I conduct a board session on philanthropy, I come across big-time resistance to fundraising. People have a lot of deep-seated, negative beliefs when it comes to asking people for money. When asked to give one word that comes to their minds when I say the “F” word, I’ll get:
- Necessary evil
You get the idea.
People really do think of fundraising as an “F” word.
You can’t move folks to adopt a different position until you acknowledge where they are.
It’s important to let folks vent and get all their negative feelings about fundraising out on the table. It’s equally important to gently move them to a different place.
When you allow folks to continue to feel negatively about fundraising, they never forget. It burns into their brains. They’ll say things like “Oh, fundraising, that’s not for me!” “I’m not good at it, so it’s better if someone else does it.”
As well intentioned as you may be, you’ll go wrong if you agree with folks that fundraising is distasteful and don’t try to reframe it as something joyful. Here’s what I mean: Does this sound like something you or your staff may have said to reluctant fundraisers?
- “Sure no one likes to ask for money, but it’s a necessary evil.”
- “No worries; You can do something else, like help open doors.”
- “We can train you so it’s not quite so painful.”
When you say these things you’re being complicit in the ‘fact’ that fundraising is awful. This attitude won’t take you where you want to go. You can NOT be this way if you’re going to succeed in joyful, meaningful, successful nonprofit work. Nope. Nope. Nope.
You need to do something proactive to overcome people’s prejudices about fundraising.
ASK: “When did you give when you felt bad afterwards?”
I encourage folks to share all their stories about guilt, peer pressure, strong arm tactics, etc. and get all their bad energy about fundraising out on the table. You can ask people individually, or do this as a group session where you write everyone’s answers on an easel or white board.
Generally, you’ll find everyone’s answers fall into a few categories of poor fundraising practice:
- I was coerced
- I gave because I felt guilty
- I didn’t really care about the cause
- I wasn’t thanked; didn’t feel appreciated
- I didn’t see the impact of my gift
- I felt it was just a drop in the bucket
- I didn’t feel they really needed the money
When fundraising is framed as ‘arm twisting’ and ‘hitting people up,’ it’s only natural that those who are approached feel a bit wounded. Assure folks you are definitely not going to engage in this negative manner!
Ask folks what comes to their mind with the word “philanthropy.” When I do this with boards, an entirely different story emerges! Answers include:
This exercise enables folks to see there can be a positive way to look at asking for and giving major gifts. You’re making progress!
Now, pose a positive question to them.
ASK: “When did you give when you felt joyful afterwards?”
I’ve found people’s answers tend to fall into categories having to do with:
- Giving back
- Feeling part of something important
- Enacting cherished values
- Fulfilling a moral or religious obligation
- Leaving a legacy/paying it forward
- Feeling appreciated
- Seeing the gift’s impact
This exercise helps you solidify the progress you made when you reframed fundraising as philanthropy. Now, remind folks these are the same joyful feelings other donors have when they make a passionate philanthropic investment.
In other words, asking enables donors to become a partner in a cause that is bigger than themselves. Asking enables donors to find a way to be the change they want to see in the world.
“The person seeking the gift should never demean the asking by clothing it in apology. Solicitation gives the prospect the opportunity to respond with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ The solicitation should be so executed as to demonstrate to the prospective contributor that there can be a joy to giving, whether the gift measures up to the amount or not. Fundraising professionals must teach this joy by asking properly and in a manner that puts the potential contributor at ease.”
— Henry A. Rosso, Achieving Excellence in Fundraising
Not asking major donor prospects for gifts denies them the joy of giving.
Which brings us to the process of major gift philanthropy.
Begin by exploring what brings your individual donor prospect joy. If you don’t know what floats your donor’s boat, you can’t help them set a proper course to reach their preferred destination.
Major donor fundraising begins with ‘getting to know you’ conversations and visits.
You’ll know your donor’s time for solicitation has come only if you’ve been getting to know them through a planned series of cultivation “moves.” People generally move along a continuum, from interest… to awareness… to engagement… to investment. [I delve deep into this in my “Winning Major Gift Fundraising Strategies” online course].
Here’s what you want to endeavor to uncover.
What lights your major donor prospect’s fire?
First find out a bit about their personal history with passionate philanthropy.
- What philanthropic gifts have brought your donor the most joy in the past?
- What was it about those experiences that were so joyful?
- What does it mean to them to follow their bliss?
You also want to uncover what most ignites their personal passions:
- What are they currently most passionate about?
- If they could solve one problem today, what would it be?
- If they could leave one lasting legacy to the world (or community), what would it be?
Whatever lights their fire, see if you can find the right kindling to get it started.
Consider what you can offer to bring your major donor prospect joy. From the answers to the first three questions above, you’ve learned quite a bit about what motivates your donor. Think about what you can do to similarly inspire them and arouse their interest. For example:
- Do they like to be actively involved with a nonprofit before making a passionate investment? If so, consider inviting them to join a task force, committee or even your board.
- Do they enjoy hands-on engagement? If so, consider some direct service volunteer opportunities you think may be of interest. Or perhaps they can be your ambassador at a community gathering.
- Do they like to attend events? If so, invite them to be your special guest at whatever is upcoming.
- Do they like receiving impact reports? Creative thank you’s? If so, send them one that shows what their past giving has accomplished and how much they mean to you. In fact, put a donor love and loyalty plan in place to send them several expressions of gratitude over the course of the year.
- Do they like seeing their name in lights? If so, consider ways you might recognize them publicly.
Whatever they’ve shared, see if you can find an angle into their passion.
From the answers to the last three questions above, you’ve learned quite a bit about their priority areas of interest. Think about what your organization does that matches your donor’s values and addresses their chief concerns. For example:
- If you’re an arts organization, and they’re most interested in helping at-risk kids, rather than talking about your performances and exhibitions, talk about the program you offer to bring arts experiences to underserved youth.
- If you’re a legal services organization, and they’re most interested in helping veterans, rather than talk about your comprehensive legal clinics, talk about your specific veterans outreach initiatives.
- If you’re an environmental organization, and they’re most interested in helping seniors, talk about your program to bring seniors into the outdoors to experience nature.
Don’t forget to get up close and personal.
There’s sadly not much joy to be found in asking questions via mail or email. You’re ultimately not going to learn all you need to know by simply sending a survey.
Major donor fundraising is a contact sport.
PERSONAL is how you relate to and treat particular people in a manner that is different from everyone else. It’s really the only way to build a true relationship.
So ask folks for a visit, not an appointment. Appointments are serious and too-often dreaded, like going to the doctor, dentist or tax preparer. Visits are fun! Visits are friendly! And visits make the donor feel important.
Ask open-ended questions that draw your donor out. Follow up with open-ended questions that show you were listening. Use friendly open body language (lots of smiling, head nodding and leaning in; no crossing of arms, leaning away, eye rolling or scowling).
When you leave, your donor should be smiling and thinking: “That was so nice. They really seem to want to get to know me. They seem to like me and value what I have to offer. Cool!”
Want to Delve Deeper into Major Gift Fundraising?
- Learn more about getting up close and personal by downloading this free template: 30 Easy “Get the Visit” Major Gift Strategies.
- Learn more about major donor fundraising A to Z by enrolling in Claire Axelrad’s 8-week course: Winning Major Gift Fundraising Strategies for the small and medium-sized shop.