Today I want to talk about the heart of successful major gift fundraising.
It’s about reframing what you may think of as a “pitch” into what your donor would like to consider a “promise.”
The pitch is one way: You deliver a monologue about everything you know about your organization, how great it is, how pressing the need is, how you know this is what the donor cares about (maybe based on a computer print-out of the donor’s past history with your cause)… and then drop this bomb into your donor’s lap – often leaving them feeling like they didn’t get a chance to get a word in edgewise and/or they’ll be a ‘bad’ person if they don’t respond as you suggest.
The promise is two-way: Your donor promises to make a gift to accomplish something near and dear to their heart; you promise to put that gift to work effectively and report back to the donor on what their philanthropy accomplished.
The difference between these approaches is the difference between success and failure, especially over time.
For donors to give at their most passionate level, and to stick with you over time, they have to see and feel the promise. They have to believe and trust in you. They have to feel good about their giving.
If they give because they felt coerced or guilty by your perceived sales pitch, they aren’t likely to want to do this again. When you make giving transactional, you fail to build a relationship. Ultimately, these donors will evaporate.
Which brings us to the heart of effective major donor fundraising:
You know what a conversation is, right? Merriam-Webster defines it as an “oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas.” It’s an informal exchange. Not a formal recitation or presentation.
The informality is what breeds success. Because it creates a level of comfort that opens people up. To listening and considering.
Have you ever been asked for a gift? How did you feel? Often I hear stories from board members that being asked gives them a knot in their stomach. They’re afraid for the ‘ask’ to drop. That’s awful! And it means the fundraiser used a pitch, not a promise.
The ask conversation should be warm, friendly and fun. Yes, fun!
Begin with Your SMIT x 3
Your SMIT is your ‘single most important thing.’ In a written appeal, this would be the main reason you’re writing. It would be your most desired call to action. You want to be crystal clear about this, and get to the point.
In a donor meeting, I like to extend the SMIT to three single most important questions to include in your conversation template in order to connect with the donor. All good things come in threes!
NOTE: I give the same advice to public speakers. Know the three points you want to make, and whatever happens be sure you make them. If you have additional points to make, plan to cover them in the Q & A. And limit these to no more than three points as well. Whatever you’re asked, pivot your answer to cover these three important points. More than that and you’ll dilute the core message you with which you want to leave folks.
ANOTHER NOTE: When you guide people towards where you want them to focus, that’s likely what will happen. An interesting study of behavior at breakfast buffets revealed the first item in the buffet was taken by 75% of the diners (even when the order of the items was reversed) and two-thirds of all the food taken came from the first three items, regardless of the buffet’s size. So… restaurant marketers who want to optimize profits put the things with the best margins at the front of the line. This applies to more than food.
Carefully Consider What You Want to Learn
I usually want to come away from a major donor conversation knowing:
- A bit more about the donor than I knew before; something upon which I can continue to build the relationship.
- More about the donor’s philanthropic interests and priorities as they relate to what my organization does; this way I can talk with them about the issues nearest to their heart.
- Whether the donor is interested in making a passionate investment in one or more of the areas we’ve covered in our discussion; this way I can prepare a proposal and we can talk about the nitty gritty next time.
Once you have clarity on your visit’s purpose, you can prepare yourself by writing down three open-ended questions that will move you towards your goal. Open-ended questions keep the conversation open and flowing. The donor can’t respond with a curt “yes/no,” which will absolutely close the conversation.
What Makes a Good Open-Ended Conversation Question?
For openers, channel the quintessential reporter’s questions and begin your sentence with: How, What or Why.
You can also follow up with what I think of as quintessential therapist questions:
- Can you tell me a little more about that?
- Can you elaborate?
- How does that make you feel?
- Why do you think that’s happening?
Use your own voice and relate in your own manner.
Be you, just as you would in any other conversation.
OPEN THE CONVERSATION
There’s a reason we have the term ‘small talk.’ Transitions are important in conversations. They put people at ease. It’s jolting if you try to go from 0 to 60 in two seconds. Ease into things by showing your interest in your donor. If you think of them as a friend with whom you’re hoping to connect and maybe do something with later, this will come easier.
- How are you and your family doing?
- How are you handling this crisis?
- What’s your favorite thing to do to take care of yourself?
- What gets you out of bed in the morning these days?
- What keeps you up at night?
- Why do you feel that way? Can you tell me more?
CONNECT THE CONVERSATION TO YOUR CAUSE
Try to get inside the donor’s head by thinking about what they’re likely to want to know.
- If you’re an arts organization, a donor is likely to be concerned about when you’re opening up again to the public. Or how you’re managing to pay expenses with no ticket sales.
- If you’re a food pantry, a donor is likely to wonder how much the need has increased, and what you’re doing to address this. Or how you’re distributing food in a socially distanced manner.
- If you’re a school, a donor is likely to wonder if you’re opening or pivoting to digital learning. Or how you’re planning to take care of both faculty and students.
- If you’re an animal welfare group, a donor is likely to wonder what you’re doing to meet the special needs of this population right now, and maybe also assure humans stay healthier by connecting with these animals.
- If you’re an environmental organization, a donor is likely to wonder what you’re doing to fight rollbacks and address quality of life issues exacerbated by the times we’re in.
- If you’re on the front lines addressing issues of health, safety, social justice, equity or anything else in the news, a donor is likely to want to know specifics of what you’re doing and how things are going in that regard.
Explore how you might put together what they said and what your organization is up to these days. Discover their areas of greatest concern and interest. Maybe there’s a way you can work together to meet both of your needs. Yours for money; theirs for meaning, purpose and joy.
ASK FOR ADVICE
Have you heard the old fundraising adage: “If you want advice, ask for a gift. If you want a gift, ask for advice?” Everyone likes to be asked for advice. This engages your donor and makes them feel you care about their opinion, not just their wallet. You can ask their advice on some of the topics you think they’re likely wanting answers on.
- You know what we do, how would you imagine addressing this issue?
- Why do you think that might be the most/least effective solution?
- You’ve been supporting us for a long time; what have you been wondering in terms of what we’ve been up to in the face of this crisis?
- How have your philanthropic interests changed during this period?
You simply need to listen and confirm to the donor you heard them. Ask them for their thoughts on the solutions you’ve landed on by asking which of several options they’d like to learn more about. You don’t have to follow the advice. Offer to pass the advice along. Or offer to think about it and get back to them. Thank them for caring so much. Then… move on to the next part of the conversation.
USE THE CONVERSATION TO INSPIRE PHILANTHROPY
Passion inspires; not need, guilt or coercion. Remember, your job as a philanthropy facilitator is to master what my mentor and founder of The Fundraising School, Hank Rosso, called: “the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.” Which of these approaches would make you more comfortable if a friend invited you to dinner?
- I really need to get out of the house and, though I’m a little afraid of going inside a restaurant right now, I need to find someone I can go with. Can I twist your arm? Please?
- I’m excited to tell you about an amazing restaurant I went to last week that totally had their act together. I felt completely safe! The entire atmosphere was lovely, and the food was just delicious. I know you would love it.
Hopefully, you picked #2. It’s obvious when you look at the two approaches side by side. Yet, somehow, we lose sight of the obvious when we get nervous about asking for a major gift. There’s a way around approaching a major donor solicitation from a place of need – which makes you feel like a beggar. No one enjoys being in that position. So, instead…
Channel your own passion and connect it to your donor’s passion. Don’t think so much in terms of having to persuade. Think in terms of having to inspire. And whatever you do, don’t think “I’m going to hit him up” or “I’m going to twist her arm.” If you think you have to coerce or manipulate, you’re going in the wrong direction. These motivations won’t make your donor feel good. Quite the opposite in fact.
Begin with something genuine. If you’re nervous, it’s okay to say: “I have to confess I’m anxious about asking for a gift.” Remember, donors are people before they’re donors. They may be nervous too!
Don’t worry, you’ve got this. I often find solicitors are fearful they’ll be asked a question for which they don’t have an answer. So they end the conversation without offering an investment opportunity. That’s not fair to the donor. When they agreed to talk to you, they knew what this is all about. They’re expecting to be asked. If you don’t asked, they may wonder “what was that all about; why did they waste my time?” If your donor asks you a question, you’ll probably have the answer. If not, you can tell them you’ll be happy to find out.
CONTINUE THE CONVERSATION
Persistence is next to passion in terms of what makes a successful fundraiser.
Remember, they were willing to meet with you in the first place. So their hesitation to give right now, or for the purpose you suggested, or at the amount you were considering, may not mean “no, never,” but “no, not right now.”
If you get a hesitation, simply ask more open-ended questions to overcome the donor’s resistance.
I like to use the following four questions:
- Is it the organization?
- Is it the project?
- Is it the amount?
- Is it the timing?
Sometimes you’ll uncover the fact they (1) love your organization; (2) even like the project; (3) are even okay with the amount, but (4) they’re overcommitted to other organizations this year. Or maybe they’d rather talk about another project. Or a different amount. You can work with all these answers.
When you close, be sure to lay out the plan of action for next steps, as you’ve discussed.
When you know where you’re going, you’re likely to get there.
Acting on Your Promise to Partner with Your Donors
When you ‘pitch,’ you treat donors almost as objects. They’re ‘marks.’ Or ‘whales’ to be reeled in. This doesn’t feel so good.
When you make a ‘promise,’ you treat donors as you would want to be treated. You think about what they need. You promise to meet that need. And then you follow through.
Treat your donors as partners in reaching successful outcomes.
I want to close with some advice from capital campaign and major gift fundraising sage, Andrea Kihlstedt. She suggests you might even call up donors, tell them you’ve made a commitment to ask three donors for a gift every month, and would they let you practice on them? I love this idea! It’s a great tactic with donors who’ve already made their annual commitment for the current year. The donor doesn’t have to be nervous, because this isn’t ‘real.’ You’re asking them for advice on your approach, and donors love this. And no outcome is a bad one. They’ll either tell you your approach was perfect, and you should use it on them next time (which you should!) or they’ll give you useful suggestions, which you should also use next time you ask them, or… they’ll give an additional gift on the spot because they enjoyed this conversation so much!
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Image by Cheryl Holt from Pixabay
Beautiful writing, powerful content. Now I remember why I subscribed to your blog, some time ago. It is too bad I did not have the discipline to read everything you write. But thank you. Your articles are inspiring. Saludos from Costa Rica. Víctor Naranjo
Thanks for your kind feedback. I’m glad you found the time to read this one. 🙂