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Three Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face

Excerpted from the second edition of Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face: A 1-Hour Crash Course on Raising Major Gifts for Nonprofit Organizations

For board members, the essence of big-gifts fundraising can be distilled into 43 "realities." In my book, Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face, I explore each of them. Here, let me single out just three.

Wealth Alone Doesn't Determine

The Guinness Book of World Records memorialized her as the world's greatest miser.

Hetty Green, known as the Witch of Wall Street, made her millions through real estate, banking, and railroads. Her frugality was legendary. Hetty didn't use hot water, didn't heat her home, wore the same black dress, even refused to pay the doctor to treat her son's leg (which later had to be amputated).

Moral of the story: Regardless of income or assets, most of us find it hard to thin out our wallets.

In terms of giving, we all think alike: Who's asking and for how much? Why me? For what purpose? Why now, and how soon again?

Things would be so easy otherwise. The World Wealth Report pegs the number of U.S. millionaires at just over three million. If giving depended solely on wealth, all you'd have to do is drop each one a line (or place a call for the personal touch).

Regrettably, it doesn't work that way. Regardless of their means, donors follow a logical progression. First they become interested in a cause, get more closely involved, then deepen their commitment with a gift. That's the normal course of events.

You'd like it to be otherwise. But as Harold Seymour colorfully put it years ago: "You can't make a good pickle by squirting vinegar on a cucumber—it has to soak awhile."

A Few Contribute the Most

Pea pods tell you a lot about fundraising.

If you're a gardener, you know from experience that 80 percent of your peas come from 20 percent of your pods. The first person to observe this, at least on record, was Vilfredo Pareto (born 1848), a gardener in addition to engineer, sociologist, economist, and philosopher.

Today, the "Pareto Principle" is an accepted rule of thumb in business. It states—and your retail friends will confirm this—that 80 percent of a company's sales come from 20 percent of its customers.

Only in fundraising, the ratio's more skewed.

As borne out by decades of experience and literally thousands of campaigns, 90 percent of the funds raised in a typical campaign come from just 10—percent of the donors. A recent study by CASE (higher education's professional association) reaffirmed this ratio as the "canonical rule."

What it means is that to reach your goal you'll need to devote most of your time—as much as 90 percent—to your top prospects, relying on sizable gifts from them.

Only don't ignore everyone else or you may come to regret it!

Consider that Mary Jean and Frank Smeal's first gift to Penn State's College of Liberal Arts was $5. More than 30 years later their $10 million gift ranked as the largest in the school's history.

Or take William and Joan Schreyer. Their $30 million gift built the Schreyer Honors College, also at Penn State. Their first check to the university 37 years earlier? That would be $10.

Last, listen to what Teresa Eyring, former director of the Children's Theatre of Minneapolis, told Minnesota Public Radio: "One day in the mail we received a check for $12 from a young girl who attended the theater on a regular basis." Attached was a note saying this was "part of her savings and she thought it was very important for the children's theater to have this campaign."

You just know that 30 years from now you'll pick up the paper and read about a $5 million gift from a woman who scrimped as a child so she could donate $12 to a nearby theatre she absolutely loved.

The Secret to Success

If you've been to New Orleans's French Quarter, there's a good chance a hustler came up to you, pointed to your feet, and said, "Two dollars I know where you got those shoes." Figuring only the clerk at Sock 'n Soul knows for sure, you bite. "On your feet!" says the con man, holding his hand out to collect.

Here's a similar trick question. The last time you gave to a cause—$20 says I know what motivated you. ...

Because somebody asked!

Donors give for an assortment of reasons. According to a study by the Colorado Nonprofit Association, the top three are:

  • they believe the organization is trustworthy (98 percent),
  • they believe the organization is well-managed and effective (96 percent), and,
  • they feel the organization supports a cause they believe in (96 percent).

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 are willing to do anything but ask.

Maybe we don't fully believe in the cause. Or we're afraid we'll be turned down. Or we question our persuasive powers. Or we worry we'll be asked for a gift in return. Or the cumulus clouds are foreboding today.

The truth is, there will always be a knot in your stomach, which, funny enough, is all the more reason to feel proud. "Courage is being scared to death ... and saddling up anyway," said John Wayne.

You won't ever quell the fear, not fully at least, but it can be controlled if you:

  • are well-prepared,
  • are genuinely enthusiastic about the cause,
  • have some leverage with the prospect,
  • communicate a sense of urgency, and,
  • are a generous giver yourself.

Here's something else to remember; some donors like to be asked. Jeff Brooks, a noted copywriter, is one. A few years back, his mother succumbed to Parkinson's. And now Brooks is a regular donor to organizations fighting the disease—and happy to be asked.

"There's a way I can strike back at Parkinson's," he says, "I can defy it, take back some of what it stole, by giving to a nonprofit organization. It can't bring my mother back or erase the pain, but giving re-orients me. I'm less a victim, more in control."

Keep Jeff in mind as you're about to knock on your donor's door.

David Lansdowne
© 2013, Emerson & Church, Publishers. Excerpted from Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face: A 1-Hour Crash Course on Raising Major Gifts for Nonprofit Organizations; excerpted with permission.

David Lansdowne 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: Fundraising