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Questions I'm Most Often Asked About Raising Major Gifts

I'm not sure who first engaged in organized fundraising. Some say a trio from Harvard College in the 1630s, others point to Charles Ward and Frank Pierce, who in the early 1900s spearheaded the Y's early campaigns.

Regardless, many of the same questions have persisted through the decades, if not centuries. I touch on many in my book, Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face. Here, let me address a half-dozen questions I'm persistently asked.

Do askers have to give first?

Without question. Before you can persuade someone to support your cause, you have to believe in it yourself. And what demonstrates your own commitment better than anything? You guessed it: writing out a generous check.

Not only does giving make you a more enthusiastic asker but it also provides leverage during your visit. I have credibility if I can say to the person across from me: "Tom, I've given $5,000 to this project myself. That's how important I believe it is. And I'm asking you to join me with your gift." What a disconnect if Tom asks about my level of support and I hem and haw and I say I haven't given. "Why in the heck not!?" will surely be Tom's next question.

My volunteers find it hard to ask for a specific gift. Do they really have to?

I'm afraid so.

Say someone knocks on the door here and asks you to pitch in for the bookkeeper's going-away gift. What's the first question you ask? If you're like me, it's "How much do you have in mind?" You want a context, a frame of reference.

It's the same when you approach prospects. They want a sense of what you're looking for. Are you seeking $50, $500, or even $5,000? How will they know unless you're specific? It can be unnerving, I'll grant you. Rather than cite a figure, most of us prefer to blurt out, "Anything you can give" or "Whatever you can afford." But that tells the would-be donor nothing. You won't upset your prospect if you're tactful with your phrasing: "I'm hoping you'll consider a gift in the range of $5,000" or "Will you consider joining me in giving $10,000 to this worthy cause?"

Is there a "best way" to approach prospects?

Yes, a disarmingly simple one. I'm not saying you'll always secure the gift, but this "can't miss" strategy is sure to put you AND your prospect at ease. All you do is ask yourself this simple question: "How would I feel if I were in my prospect's shoes?" That's it.

What you realize almost instantly is that despite any differences in your means, all of your prospects share like-minded concerns. Just like you, they're interested in helping. Like you, they want you to be candid. Like you, they respond favorably to well-intentioned volunteers. And, most important, like you they'll give to a worthy cause.

Do we really have to rate our prospects before approaching them? I'm sure it'll turn into a gossip session.

Let me answer this way: In this country an ophthalmologist makes roughly $250,000, a college professor $110,000, and a head custodian maybe $40,000. In other words, potential donors come in all sizes. It's crucial to identify which ones hold the most promise for you.

The lion's share of your support—as much as 90 to 95 percent—will come from the top 10 percent of your donors. These are the people who will make or break your effort. These are the folks you need to identify—hence a rating session.

Rating isn't quantum physics. You do it to uncover three simple pieces of information: the right amount to suggest to the prospect, his or her areas of interest, and who the best solicitor will be.

If you're worried about gossip, suggest to your raters that before they say or write anything they ask themselves one question: "Is this something I'd be embarrassed to have the prospect see or hear?" If so, they should withhold that piece of information.

How can I get board members to a solicitor training?

That's a tough one. And I seem to get this question more frequently than any other. What I suggest, as I say in Fundraising Realities, is to offer your volunteers a quick quiz. Ask them how they would respond to a donor who says any of the following:

"Before you say a word, here's my gift."

"I'll gladly give that amount. I thought you'd ask for more."

"I have next to no interest in your cause."

If a volunteer pauses even slightly, tell him or her that he/she needs to attend the training. It's during this training session that solicitors will become comfortable with these kinds of tricky questions.

Is cultivation necessary or can we just approach our donors quickly?

Do you like cold showers? Personally I don't. When I turn on the faucet I step back and wait for the water to heat up. And that's a pretty good description of cultivation. It warms up your potential supporters. Very few people will give—give meaningfully, that is—without being familiar with your cause. I recall a study by the University of Pennsylvania's Center for High Impact Philanthropy. It found that, for major donors, involvement in an organization is an absolute precondition to making large gifts. Sure, we can wait for a windfall gift. After all, if we cool our heels long enough that monkey in the San Diego Zoo will eventually type a copy of Hamlet. All we have to do is be patient, say the statisticians.

David Lansdowne
© 2014, Emerson and Church, Publishers

David Lansdowne is author of Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face: A 1-Hour Guide to Raising Major Gifts.

Topics: Fundraising