You can’t just call someone up out of the blue and ask them for a major gift to your campaign. Period. Full stop.
This won’t work any better than building a house before you’ve found the right location, created a blueprint, laid a foundation and brought in just the right crew to build according to your specifications.
In both cases, first you must lay the groundwork. I like to think of this as making sure all the pre-conditions to a successful ask are in place before I make someone an offer I know they won’t be able to refuse. And I’ll know I’m ready to pop the question because first I’ll have answered “Yes!” to all of the ten questions that follow.
10 Critical, Powerful Questions to Lay the Groundwork for Successful Asks
1. Is this the right prospect?
Just because someone has capacity doesn’t mean they’re interested in your cause, or even that they’re philanthropic. If I had a nickel for how many times I’ve sat in a campaign screening session and folks in the room have named the wealthiest person in the community as the “go to “ prospect, I’d be a wealthy woman. Seriously! Similarly, just because they’re passionate about your mission doesn’t mean they have the resources to make a major gift. You need three things to make someone a viable candidate: (1) linkage to your cause (e.g., they’ve given before; they’ve been a client or patron; they know one of your board members, etc.); (2) interest in your cause, and (3) ability to give.
TIP: When figuring out what prospects to bring into a screening meeting, don’t just start with the rich folks in your community. Look at anyone who makes a gift higher than your average gift. They may not have the capacity to make a larger gift. Perhaps they’re just extremely generous and give more than the average bear on a per capita or percentage of income basis. You may not know, but that’s what you’re screening for. What you do know is that they have linkage and more than a passing interest. Two out of three ain’t a bad place to start.
2. Will the prospect readily understand why you’re asking?
The prospect must feel their gift is essential. This is best done through storytelling. Your story should demonstrate what would happen if your nonprofit ceased to exist. Or if the program for which you’re seeking funding doesn’t come to fruition. Show them the impact of their gift. Put a face to your story. If they feel you’re simply asking for “money” they cannot make a passionate gift. There is nothing more essential to successful major gift fundraising than clarifying your story. Your job is to show the prospective donor how they can prevent the unhappy ending [See 4 Secrets to Inspiring Philanthropy through Storytelling].
TIP: The prospect must feel the amount you’re asking is the right amount. I love borrowing from a concept in Judaism known as t’rumah. It comes from the story of the delivery of the Ten Commandments. Beforehand, Moses came to the people and asked them to donate to build an ark worthy of receiving such a gift. They were told precisely what was needed. Nothing more. Nothing less. It was a gift from the heart that was “enough” to get the job done. Your donor wants to know what will be enough. What will your entire project cost? Then they can figure out where they fit within the scope of the impact you want to make possible. Which brings us to the next pre-condition…
3. Do you know how many prospects and donors you’ll need?
Most organizations simply do not have a large enough donor base (or mailing list) to be sustainable without major gifts. You can ask for major gifts all year long; not just during a formal capital campaign. So while you don’t necessarily need a formal gift chart (a capital campaign construct), you do need to know at the outset how many donors you’ll need, and at what levels, to reach your goal. If you have a $500K annual giving goal chances are good you’re not going to get there with 50,000 $10 donors. You’ve probably heard of the Pareto Principle (aka the Rule of 80/20) as it applies to fundraising. It states that 80% of your fundraising will come from 20% of your donors. These days, I find it to be closer to 90/10. In some cases it can be as much as 97/3. A serious successful major gift fundraising program has goals and prospects to meet those goals. Simply asking random people for big bucks is not a major gifts strategy. It’s a shot in the dark.
TIP: It’s not a bad idea to share your gift chart with your major donor prospects regardless of whether you’re in a capital campaign. Annual campaign donors also like to know where they stand. And your board members should understand this as well. They’re your leaders. If they aren’t leading, how can you expect others to give passionately? If you need board members to give $1,000 gifts, and they’re giving $100 gifts, you’re dead in the water. Nothing demonstrates this quite as simply and clearly as a gift chart. The fundamental reason you need to have this gift chart is the same as the reason you need to have any type of plan. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll very likely get there (to paraphrase Lewis Carroll).
4. Is the prospect ready?
If you haven’t been getting to know them through a planned series of cultivation “moves,” then how will you know? If someone has an interest in a cause similar to yours, but knows nothing about you, it’s a bit too soon to ask. Even if someone you know referred them personally, it’s still too soon until you’ve taken some time to build a relationship. Would you take a first date on an overnight to a ski lodge? Enough said. So let’s move on to the next question.
5. Do you have a cultivation plan that adheres to the Goldilocks model?
The Paul Masson wine brand had a great 1970s marketing campaign that said: “We will sell no wine before its time.” How do you know when it’s the right time to make your ask? Your prospect won’t be ready if you’ve done too little. People generally move along a continuum, from interest… to awareness… to engagement… to investment. But folks can get to the investment stage fairly quickly, so you don’t want to do too much. That’s where many nonprofits go awry. They cultivate, and cultivate and cultivate… and never get to the ask. This is something you want to avoid at all costs. It’s a waste of your time, and it’s very confusing to your prospects. At some point, they expect to be asked.
TIP: Put in place a just right plan. Consider this your “Donor Love and Loyalty Plan.” Brainstorm a number of ways you can meaningfully connect with and engage your prospects. The more you get to know them, the more tailored they can be. If you can get a donor behind the scenes meeting with someone they admire (e.g., a scientist, researcher, artist, dancer, animal keeper, doctor, child educator, etc.), you’re very likely to stoke their passions. When you’ve made all the “touches” and “moves” you planned, it’s time for the major gift ask.
6. Do you have the right person to make the ask?
Does the prospect know who the asker is? Will the asker be perceived as important, authoritative, credible, or otherwise persuasive? Will they be perceived as friendly? Is the asker someone who is hard to say “no” to? Should more than one person be involved?
TIP: Sometimes one person can be perceived as all these things. Sometimes you have one person serving as the “educator,” another as the “philanthropic advocate,” and still another as the “asker.” The former may be a knowledgeable staff member (e.g., doctor, teacher, researcher, program manager, executive director, development director); the latter may be a volunteer leader or peer with a relationship to the prospect, or perhaps the development staff person who introduced the prospect to this process. There are no hard and fast rules on who should play these roles. You just want to know, going in, which role is being played by whom. Otherwise you run the risk of leaving the room without ever getting to the solicitation.
7. Are you asking the right decision maker?
Should you include a spouse, child, significant other or philanthropic advisor? Consider who the decision maker will be. Also consider who the donor will likely want to confer with before coming to a decision.
TIP: You’re preparing a bit of a dog and pony show; you may as well have everyone there who needs to see the show. Otherwise, you’re counting on the person you meet with to convey what you said to someone else. This is a bit like the game of telephone. Something gets lost in translation.
8. Are you (or is your volunteer or staff member) prepared for the ask?
Are you psyched? Are you prepared physically, mentally and emotionally to put your organization’s best foot forward? Do you have all the information you need about your prospect? About the project for which you’re asking? Do you feel you’ve got a super good chance of success?
TIP: Years ago when I trained to be a lawyer I took a trial litigation course. Rule #1: Don’t ask any question to which you don’t already know the answer. Going into the solicitation, you should know your prospect is ready to give you a “yes.” It may be a conditional or provisional yes. It may not be for the amount you ask. But you want to be confident when you go in that you’ve done absolutely everything within your power to prepare for the question you’re about to ask.
9. Are you being honest about what success will look like for your organization?
Going into the ask, you must be crystal clear what a successful outcome will look like. Sometimes you may have 25 prospects and need only 10 gifts at a particular level. So if one prospect gives less than what you’d hoped for, you may be okay. Other times, especially at the top of the gift chart, you may not be able to be so sanguine. And this holds true in annual campaigns as well.
If your kid comes home from school with a grade of “F” I’m guessing you won’t be telling them how proud you are. Yet too often we’ll walk out of a donor solicitation meeting and pat ourselves on the back for having elicited a $25K pledge when we asked for $50K. That’s 50%. That’s an “F.” This may sound harsh, I know. We’re trained to be grateful, no matter what.
TIP: The one phrase I hear solicitors utter that makes me wince is: “Any amount you can give will be helpful.” That’s just plain not true. You need a gift that is enough to meet the need. If you don’t raise enough you’re not going to reach your goal. You’ll help less people than need help. You may even have to close down programs or shut your doors. “Any amount…” is a wing and a prayer strategy. That’s not what you want.
Let me tell you a true story:
I once worked with a small nonprofit hoping to dramatically grow their annual campaign so they could expand their services. The board had approved an ambitious growth plan; yet they had not each been giving passionately. We had a retreat and talked about the importance of board leadership in this regard. The staff made a gift chart and came up with suggested ask amounts for each of the board members. The E.D. kicked it off by asking the board chair to commit. The board chair doubled his previous gift, and the E.D. came back ecstatic. I looked at her and said, “How much did he commit?” She said, $2,000, which is twice what he gave last year!” I said, “How much were you supposed to ask for?” She said, “$4,000, but when I walked in he told me right away that he and his wife had decided to double their giving and he was so proud; how could I ask for more?” I patiently explained that if the board chair gave only that amount he could not reasonably ask his peers to give more (this happened to be a board comprised primarily of members in the same profession, so their circumstances were relatively similar; they were true peers). I also noted that while $4,000 might be a stretch for this individual, it most certainly was something he could afford without affecting his lifestyle in any way. He was in the habit of giving well below his means. The organization needed to break this habit if it wanted to grow. The E.D. saw immediately what needed to happen next. She went back to the board president and asked again. Only this time, she was clear what would constitute success. She showed him a table of where gifts needed to range. The board president did not head for the hills. Instead, he talked to his wife again and came back with a $4,000 commitment. Not only that, he told this story when he asked other board members so they would understand what was expected of them as well. The board rocked the campaign and reached their goal. Now this organization is growing by leaps and bounds.
10. Do you know what success will look like for your donor?
This question is important because all effective fundraising is donor-centered. Each individual has different values and motivations. The more you understand them, the better able you are to shape an offer that will provide the donor with the value they seek. The entire process, after all, is a value-for-value exchange. The donor offers monetary support in return for something, usually intangible, from you. It may be their name in lights, or it may be simply knowing they’ve given back or fulfilled a moral obligation. Or it may be giving at a level that puts them with their peers (or those they’d like to become their peers). Cultivation, in part, is your opportunity to figure out what has meaning for your prospective supporter. Find out what would incline them to give. Then find out what would incline them to give more. When you’re ready, incorporate everything you’ve learned into your ask.
Once you’ve answered all the questions, and all the preconditions are in place, you’re ready to proceed! Seek ye answers and ye shall find fundraising success!
Want to Learn More Major Gift Fundraising Essentials?
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