Like so many of you reading this today, I never thought that I would become a professional fundraiser. I started my career in law and business consulting and one day an opportunity presented itself to work with my alma mater on a major capital campaign. That university put me through testing to see if I had the right DNA to be a good fundraiser, and soon thereafter, I found myself as a Regional Director of Development raising major gifts for a $450 million capital campaign. My training came from some great people on the team and hands-on experience.
Throughout that time, I worked with the University President and our Advancement team to cultivate and close gifts. My experience was not to go out and ask board members to make calls nor even to ask them who they knew. If you think that universities have extensive databases to make this job easier, you are correct. My point, however, is that I started with what I saw and learned. In our consulting practice we use the teaching model that some medical schools use of “see one…do one…teach one.” I didn’t see board members go out and ask for gifts as I started my fundraising career.
After that I transitioned into a consulting firm with several members from my fundraising team at the university. We started conducting campaigns for secondary education, churches, economic development and the arts. The model we created for success never included engaging board members in fundraising. Our success came from engaging them in the process of fundraising, whether it was taking a leadership role in giving, helping with case development, providing input for the screening and rating of prospects or hosting a function for a small group of potential donors for the project.
The firm I worked with knew that the majority of firms simply managed a process of fundraising. Success was traditionally found in a model where volunteer teams of fundraisers created and solicited certain constituent groups. In a school it may be alum by class or parents, in a church it may be people that are in a certain ministry with you, or for a symphony it may be some patrons asking others to make a gift. This works sometimes but what we found, along with other firms, is that volunteers often leave money on the table. They are not skilled in making an ask nor do they spend time, as you do, in putting together a strategy based on prospect research. The other problem is that unless you are on that call, you have no real way of knowing what actually transpired during the visit.
One campaign I remember, in particular, is where we were hired after another firm had ended their contract short of the $6 million goal by $3 million. In gathering all the names of people who were supposedly seen, we found that there was never any follow up. Most of the volunteers left voice messages with prospects. We worked with the President and Development Director of the school to follow up and closed the gap on the remaining $3 million to reach goal. The board’s only involvement was the expectation of 100% financial participation in the campaign
My counsel is for internal leadership to put more energy in learning and to be skilled at identifying, cultivating, soliciting and stewarding donors. Over the last 30 years technology has changed many things about how we do our work. One thing, however, has not changed and that is having personal relationships with people who want to have an impact on the world. They want to know you and trust that you will be a good steward of their investment. It makes great business sense for you to know the people who support you and why it is important to them.