The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

Board Misperceptions and Other Issues Related to Major Gifts: Interview with Fundraiser David Lansdowne

David Lansdowne, the author of two books on fundraising, recently spoke with his publisher about raising major gifts. GuideStar has published excerpts from Mr. Lansdowne's books (see the links below), and we're pleased to be able to share his additional thoughts with you.

Let's start with a few misunderstandings boards may have about fundraising. First: Publicity raises money. True or false?

I think it was an Irish poet who said, "All publicity is good, except an obituary notice." So, certainly, publicity can be helpful sometimes. Just don't expect all your well-placed stories to raise money unless yours is an extreme case like the Boston Marathon bombing. To raise significant sums, you have to visit your prospects in person—sit right across from them and ask. Hear your heart thump. Those who think publicity raises money tend to be novices or mildly committed volunteers. They hope the media will do the heavy lifting. When it doesn't, they blame the failure not on themselves but on the lack of exposure.

Next: Special events as fundraising vehicles—are you pro or con?

That's too general a question. But let me answer it this way. It's easy for board members to get excited about a dinner dance or gala. It seems like fun, especially if you ignore all the attendant costs—banquet hall, catering, printing, flowers, decorations, music. But those who've done special events know how those costs rise quicker than champagne bubbles. A gala to benefit the local museum might raise $10,000 and consume literally 300 volunteer hours. Often you could devote a fraction of that time to identifying, cultivating, and soliciting a handful of high-potential donors and raise the same amount, if not more. Sure, there are valid reasons for holding an event, calling attention to your cause, for example. But as a method for raising money, special events—in general—aren't terribly efficient.

Any other fundraising misperception come to mind with respect to boards?

I'd say the "one size fits all" strategy. A board member will say, "We need to raise $100,000. Let's just find a hundred people who'll give $1,000 each." Easy, right? But anyone in fundraising knows that doesn't work. To begin with, not all of those 100 people will give. You often need to ask three of four people to secure one gift. And of those who do give, not everyone's going to contribute $1,000. And, finally, asking for $1,000 limits those who could or would give $5,000 or even more. That's why we seek gifts proportionate to the donor's means.

We all know that asking a prospect for a specific amount is important. But some board members still balk at that—they'd rather ask for "whatever you can give." Any help you can offer?

Say someone walks into this office and asks you to pitch in for a colleague's wedding gift. If you're like me, the first question you ask is "How much do you have in mind?" or "What's everybody giving?" I'm looking for a frame of reference. Should I give $5 or $50? It's the same with donors. They want to know, are you talking $500, $5,000, or $50,000? Or take another example. When you bring your car in for service, the mechanic diagnoses the problem and gives you a quote. What if instead he said nothing? You wouldn't know whether you could afford the repair or even if your car is worth fixing. It would make you uncomfortable. You'd also question the mechanic's ability. Don't treat your prospect like that. Suggest the amount you have in mind, a "quote" if you will. He or she won't slam the hood on your fingers.

In a way, this ties into the previous question. Too many of us seem to be apologetic when asking—as if we're asking the donor as a personal favor to us rather than seeking help for a good cause. Any advice on how we can stop this?

Kay Grace calls it the "tin can" approach, and, yes, it still dogs us. In Fundraising Realities I tell the story of Wes Autry. Here's a construction worker, standing with his two young daughters at a New York subway stop. A college student in front of him suddenly goes into convulsions and falls from the platform. He lands right on the tracks. AND there's a train barreling in! What does Autry do? He jumps down—doesn't hesitate for a second—and throws himself on the student. They're both nestled between the rails now. Soon the 100-ton train thunders over them. I'm not saying every solicitor is as selfless as Autry, but asking on behalf of a good cause—whether it's a hospital or a college or a Y—is a selfless act, too. If more people understood it that way, they wouldn't feel the need to apologize. By the way, Autry and the student walked away from the incident, saved by a clearance of two inches.

You mention hospitals and colleges—they're a bit easier to raise money for. But what about, well, let's call them ancillary causes?

Of course you're right. Cancer touches so many of us, with such devastation, that it's easier to identify with than, say, restoring a local historical house. But even with that narrow cause you can make a case. For example, the historical house will be important to surrounding shop owners—they'll benefit from the increased traffic. Nearby homeowners will have a stake because their property values will rise. Even Jane Doe, who lives on the other side of town, will benefit. Now the town will have a great place for weddings or gatherings or concerts. It's not as easy, but 9 times out of 10 you can make a valid case for almost any serious organization.

You alluded earlier to the solicitor's thumping heart when asking for a gift. Is the only answer Xanax?

Hmm, maybe worth a try. But seriously, donors give for a variety of reasons. The Colorado Nonprofit Association did a study a few years back and found the top three reasons are: donors believe the organization is trustworthy, that's it's well-managed, and the cause is something they support. But even so, what sparks a gift in the first place is the fact that there you are, in the flesh, asking for it. The problem is that many of us will do anything and everything but ask. Maybe we don't fully believe in the cause. Or we're afraid we'll be turned down. Or we question how persuasive we are. Or we need to reset the shower tiles that night. There will always be a knot in your stomach. At least for 99 percent of us. The best antidote is pretty simple: be prepared, be enthusiastic about your cause, communicate the urgency of the need, and make your own gift first. It's wonderfully effective when you can say to your prospect: "John, I've contributed $5,000 to this project myself. I believe it's that important. I'm asking you to join me."


© 2013, Emerson & Church, Publishers

David Lansdowne is the author of Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face: A 1-Hour Crash Course on Raising Major Gifts for Nonprofit Organizations (now in its second edition) and The Relentlessly Practical Guide to Raising Serious Money. He has spent his professional life in the nonprofit sector, serving in a wide variety of development and administrative positions for educational, cultural, and health organizations throughout the United States.

Topics: Board Development