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Secrets Of A Billion Dollar Fundraiser: An Interview With Linda Kronfeld

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Discover the 42 Questions to Ask Major Donor Prospects

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Key Strategies for Successful Major Donor Fundraising

Ever wonder what it takes to raise millions of dollars from individual donors? What do frontline fundraisers whose portfolio includes high capacity major donors do differently than those who rely primarily on foundation grants? What strategies do they use to get a high net worth prospect from the introduction phase to saying “yes” to a multi-year, game-changing gift? 

I put these questions and more to one of the most successful fundraisers I know. Linda Kronfeld is the former Senior Philanthropic Advisor for the University of Pennsylvania, where she was responsible for raising money and managing relationships among individual alumni and friends at the $5 million and above level across the university’s twelve schools and six centers. In addition, Linda developed and managed The Academy of the University of Pennsylvania, a unique major donor society that stewards the university’s most important constituency – those who have made cumulative lifetime gifts of $1,000,000 or more. Over a career that spanned 32 years, Linda’s fundraising for the university totaled nearly one billion dollars.

Think this is way out of your league? Perhaps you don’t have a built-in constituency of potential donors — like alumni or grateful patients. Maybe you work with a small organization that relies solely on foundation or corporate grants. Still, it’s probably worthwhile to consider a strategy that includes individual donors, as they are not restricted by application guidelines in determining when, how much, and to what activity they can give. Learning to raise money from individuals will likely not only increase your organization’s revenue, but will enhance your own professional fundraising skills, too. 

But you have to start where you are. The initial step may be simply getting over your fear of face-to-face fundraising. It was the first thing I asked Linda about at the start of our conversation.

What mindset does a fundraiser need to get over the fear of raising money from individuals?

One way to lessen the fear of face-to-face fundraising is to find at least one person—perhaps someone on your organization’s board – who you would feel safe talking to about it. You know, go to them and say, we’re starting to think about major donor fundraising. Ask the volunteer leader, “Why are you involved with us? What do you think would make other individuals interested? Would you be willing to brainstorm to see if together we might identify potential prospects and, if you know them, help us open the door?” 

The other thing that people at smaller shops who are just getting started need to keep in mind is that you should never feel defensive or apologetic. Donors who are going to emerge in this arena want to get to know your organization and how they can help. You have to really embrace and believe in the mission of wherever you work. Talking authentically and passionately about your organization oftentimes turns out to be quite contagious.

When you first started, did you get handed a list of prospects? How did you build your prospect tool?

Nobody handed me a list of prospects and another tool that exists today — prospect research and database software — was in its infancy. I could access the names of living alumni but that was an enormous number and I had to be strategic to figure out who to focus on and who had the greatest potential. For me, the ones who bubbled to the top were successful and seasoned entrepreneurs who owned a majority of their business as opposed to those who were working for big organizations. If, however, I was reviewing individuals in major corporations, I looked for those who were at the very top. 

I did a lot of cold calling and, just like with sales, you need a lot of “no’s” to yield a “yes.” During these “discovery” visits, I rarely if ever raised the topic of their financial support. Individual fundraising is all about building long-term relationships and I first needed to learn about the person so I could gain their trust and tailor follow up and continued cultivation around their interests. 

How do you cultivate a relationship with a potential major donor?

Significant, transformational gifts don’t happen overnight. It’s a strategic process that involves clear communication, transparency, honesty, and creativity. You must be able to match the prospect’s interests with the institution’s priorities. Plus, people give to people and that’s why relationships are so important.

The frontline fundraiser has to see things from the perspective of the people they’re talking to and suppress the urge to initially focus on what the fundraiser wants and the organization needs. It’s important to identify things that will engage this person. You know, it’s the rare person who won’t open up and share when they sense the person who is asking the questions is truly interested. Listening skills are key! After establishing an authentic connection, it’s then okay to ask a lot of questions — but you need to be careful that you don’t come across as being too nosy or crossing a line. Questions should be in the context of, “I’m excited to learn about you and your interests so I can identify personally meaningful ways to engage you with our organization.” 

The first gift I ever closed was in 1991 – about one year after I started working at Penn — from a Class of 1967 alumnus who hadn’t been back to campus since graduating. His first pledge was in the low six-figures, payable over five years. Over the next three decades, I worked to engage him on a deeper level and to develop stronger ties with the university. His giving not only continued but doubled with each new gift.  

When it comes to development, there’s a lot to be said about staying with one institution. Relationships develop over time. Over time you meet their spouses and children, see them through career changes, celebrate life events and hang in there when times get tough. That’s how trust grows and that’s how you learn what is most meaningful to them.

What do you need to know about a person to qualify them as a potential major donor? How do you research their capacity to give?

I find out as much public information about them as I can before I even make contact. Where they live and the value of their home(s), what boards they sit on, their careers, their families. I’m trying to determine what they are like. What motivates them? Are they philanthropic? If so, where have they given and how much? You would be surprised how much of this information is available on the web.

That being said, there can be a big gap between somebody who has the capacity to give a major gift and somebody who has the willingness to do so. A frontline fundraiser has to find their own comfort zone for asking the right questions to get the information they need to move forward. If someone was giving me the message that they weren’t interested, instead of just accepting it at face value and leaving, I would ask a follow up question to see if perhaps it was just a matter of timing.  For example, “I understand that now isn’t a good time but may I send you some information and follow up in a few months (or whatever the appropriate time seemed to be)?”  For me, being direct yielded the best results. I wanted to leave with both of us having the same understanding of next steps, even if they were firmly saying “no, no follow up necessary.” This is equally valuable information to elicit so you don’t continue to invest time in something that is not going anywhere. In that case, I made sure to graciously thank them and to convey how appreciative I was of their time. 

What would be one of the most important strategies for getting a positive response from a major donor prospect?

It’s usually the frontline fundraiser who qualifies prospects with the capacity to make a gift of $25,000 or more and develops the cultivation and solicitation strategy. If it’s a large ask, the prospect most likely will want to meet and get to know the organization’s leadership. The process will involve working with the president or executive director or chairperson and introducing them to the prospect. This is where the preparation and strategy is most critical and it is incumbent upon the fundraiser to prepare a cohesive briefing for leadership. This document lays out the purpose of the meeting, background on the prospect, what’s been done already, and specific talking points for leadership to make in the meeting. In many cases, the fundraiser will schedule time to do a run through with the president, executive director, or board chair to walk them through the document, anticipate objections and discuss possible responses to overcome them. This briefing and pre-meeting run through is what separates the professionals from the ones who are just winging it. The results always speak for themselves.

Does the fundraiser start with a lesser ask in hopes of building up to something more substantial?

That’s not how I operated. My primary focus was getting them excited about the project and I would put a lot of work into getting them to that point (i.e., inviting them to campus for a tour, meeting with faculty/students, etc.). Once they had signaled they were interested in being supportive, I would say, “I want this to be a positive and fulfilling experience for you. As the next step, I would like to develop a proposal outlining several options that address the areas of interest we have identified. In order for me to tailor this to you, would you please share the dollar range you would be willing to consider for the right project.” That way I’m not insulting them or putting them on the defensive by including a project that is priced either too high or too low. I’m getting their permission in advance so there are no surprises.

I never saw the conversation as a negotiation, like, “I’ll give you this if you do this.” Philanthropy is not a business transaction. When you give philanthropically, you have to trust that the institution will fulfill their stated obligations and be honest stewards of your funds. That’s why gift agreements are important for major gifts. These documents outline the parameters of the gift and what’s expected, identify benchmarks needed to achieve, and include donor recognition and stewardship expectations.

How important is stewardship to major gift fundraising?

I can’t overstate the importance of stewardship. Stewardship of the donor’s first gift is maybe even more important than the process of getting there. A happy, informed and engaged donor is likely to be a repeat donor and subsequent gifts usually increase in size.  

Smaller organizations may only be seeking one lump sum gift for that year. To ensure continued giving on an annual basis, good stewardship throughout the year is essential. Otherwise, why would the donor continue their support? So it’s critical for any organization, large or small, to figure out creative ways to engage individuals and major gift donors. This could be in the form of written communications, videos, photobooks, invitations to special events, etc.

After every meeting with a prospect I would make meticulous notes that I put into a  “contact report” and referred to all the time—children’s names, birthdays, pets, where else they’re involved, why they got involved, where they grew up. All these things gave me so much to work with. Then I maintained those touch points. For example, anytime I came across an article that reminded me of something they were interested in, regardless of whether I was in the cultivation or stewardship stage, boom—I sent it to them. “Thinking of you.” That’s stewardship in a small but meaningful way.

Will 2023 be the year you get started with face-to-face fundraising? Do you aspire to engage that next significant donor whose gift can make a transformative difference to your organization? Wherever you are in the process, let these strategies from a billion dollar fundraiser inspire you to achieve your next-level goals.

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