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A quick YES to your proposal may not always be the best answer.

Reflect on your last meeting with a prospective donor when you asked for $25,000 over five years (or $5,000, everything being relative to the size of your organization). Receiving a YES response was terrific news – or was it?

Would it bother you, after you received the gift, to have learned any of the following about your new donor?

  • He owns a $1.3 million IRA.
  • She is about to inherit $860,000 from her late father’s estate.
  • They are getting ready to put the lake house up for sale.
  • He is planning to retire and sell the family business, including the building in which it is located.

Most major gift fundraisers tend to focus only on Part One of a successful gift discussion —  what will motivate the potential donor to say YES. Far too few pay much attention to Part Two of the conversation —  how the gift plan might be structured —  when the gift might be made, with what assets, in conjunction with what other considerations and priorities. The sad result is that much is left on the table.

I want to encourage you to intentionally introduce both parts of the conversation you’re inviting, to give yourself the opportunity, once you have established gift motivation, to intentionally invite the second part of the conversation, to help your prospect find the best way – for both the donor and your organization — to say YES.

But how to start this vital conversation? Start by drafting your favorite triggering question/invitation so that, when the time seems right, you can say something like:

  • What thought have you given to what sort of lasting legacy you might want to establish at (organization)?
  • I appreciate this opportunity to thank you for your past generous support. I want to invite you to begin a conversation with me about how you might perpetuate that support.
  • Why do you give to (organization)?
  • What about (organization) is most important to you?
  • How did you first get involved with (organization)?
  • What’s your vision for (organization)?

Once you have broken the ice and gotten to the point your immediate priority is to respond to any stated gift interest or, if the prospect doesn’t express any, to proactively offer possibilities based on your organization’s funding priorities.

Here comes the important Part Two. With gift motivation (Why) and designation (for What) established, you might offer something like, “Thank you for sharing that interest with me. I would like to explore with you How you might make a contribution focused on that. At the same time I want to offer to help you explore how you might best make your gift by discussing such issues as triggering life events, asset allocation, and any tax related issues that might be associated with your gift plans. Where would you like to start?”

What you’re doing here is putting the full array of hot buttons in front of your new possible donor and inviting her to choose which ones to push. Could you possibly hope for a better starting point?

Far more often than not you will spend considerable time on the first part of the conversation, identifying and deepening gift motivation, and that’s as it should be. Without gift motivation there isn’t going to be a conversation. But the second part of the conversation – identifying giftable assets and triggering life events – is where the big gifts lurk.

When given the opportunity to describe the conversation you are inviting, introduce this part confidently. And don’t be surprised when your new prospect replies by saying:

  • “I hadn’t thought of that; thank you.”
  • “Please tell me more about how I can use my IRA in giving.”
  • “I’m thinking of selling my company. Is that an example of a triggering life event?”
  • “My lawyer just told me I’ll probably have to pay a death tax when I die.”

Your explanation is in fact an invitation to deepen the conversation.

Let’s not overlook the fact that this approach invites you to learn more about charitable gift planning strategies, and about pertinent tax law. I want to motivate you to learn and grow in your work. As you practice and study you will gain more competence and more confidence; you will be increasingly capable of inviting and participating in this part of the conversation.

Until then I introduce you to a special tool – The Magic Answer. It’s the answer to any question you could possibly be asked:

“I don’t know but I’ll find out for you” or “I don’t know, but I want to introduce you to my colleague who will be able to provide that answer.”

Believe that your prospective donor will respect your honesty and that you will earn his trust. Never hesitate to use the Magic Answer, and always follow up on your offer. By the way, that colleague, your gift planning expert, will love you for it.

What makes the Two Part Conversation distinctive — and effective — is that you’re not asking for a contribution, you’re asking for a conversation.

This is not a solicitation. It’s an invitation.

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Major gift fundraising

Dan Shephard
Dan Shephard has served as a frontline fundraiser in Planned Giving and Major Giving positions for the Florida State University Foundation, Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech, The Citadel Foundation, and Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University. His 27 years of varied experiences, first in the performing arts, then in higher education, help form the philosophies that guide his workshops and coaching programs.
Dan Shephard
Dan Shephard

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