Before asking, begin by assuring you and your donor are on the same page.
The major donor journey is generally a long one. It’s important to craft a blueprint for the process and take time, along the way, to assure the journey is sparking joy and bringing energy. If you’ve never asked for a major gift, it can seem scary. Even if you’ve asked in the past, the process can still seem daunting. This article is designed to help take the worry out of asking for a major gift. How? By putting it in context and framing it as an opportunity, not a burden.
As long as you’re providing value to the donor, you’re in a good place. Value can take many forms.
- An opportunity to feel noticed and special.
- An opportunity to offer feedback.
- An opportunity to share wisdom.
- An opportunity to learn new things.
- An opportunity to get behind-the-scene information.
- An opportunity to meet someone new.
- An opportunity to create connection.
- An opportunity for a fun and friendly chat
- An opportunity to find meaning and purpose.
Lead with the value you provide and the benefit they’ll gain if they meet with you. The value you offer at any point in time depends on the donor and where you are in the process of wooing. Provided you’re generally (1) clear, (2) compelling, (3) courageous and (4) careful, you’ll surely succeed.
Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these important components.
4 Elements of Successful Major Donor Visits
1. Clear Reason for Visit
Set shared expectations by clarifying why you’d like to meet in person. Donors must trust you; transparency matters. That way you’ll be sure to make the most of your time, both yours and the donor’s. It’s always wise to go into your visit with an outline of how the conversation will proceed. The two basic purposes for donor visits are the (1) Ask, and the (2) Get to Know You. “I’d like to meet with you to talk about your philanthropic interests” OR “I’d love to check in, find out what you’re up to, and see if you have any feedback that will help us better serve the needs of the community.”
Avoid saying you want to “update” them. Most people have no need to be updated, and they’ll fear you’re simply calling to ask for more money. This won’t make them feel good, so they’ll likely respond with “no need” or “send me something by mail.” People will do what’s in their own best interest. If they feel it’s genuinely helping you, swell. If they feel it’s just you coming to lecture or sell, not so fine.
“When you meet with a donor, you’re not there to sell the gift, you’re there to listen to the donor and hear their story and FIND the gift.”
— Krishan Mehta, AVP for Engagement, Toronto Metropolitan University
Always listen to your donor’s story and make people feel their input is just as important to your cause as their monetary gift.
2. Compelling Offer
An offer is a direct invitation to engage. Once you’re face to face, take this occasion to reiterate the purpose of your meeting. If it’s to get to know them better, begin by flattering them first. Tell them how grateful you are to them for all their support, for taking this time, and for being such an awesome person. A person who understands this issue. A person who has their ear to the ground. A person who has an amazing network, and has already introduced you to so many helpful resources. A person who [fill in the blank.]
If the meeting is to make the major gift ask, make sure you’ve prepared to include all key elements of a compelling offer (see more below). Don’t be vague with veiled asks like “I hope you’ll support us” or “whatever amount you can give will help.” In a nutshell: describe a relevant problem, suggest a specific solution, and explain how the donor can help. Be as specific as possible so the donor can really wrap their brain around it.
Vague offers get vague responses.
3. Courageous Ask
Hockey great Wayne Gretzky said “100% of the shots I don’t take don’t go in.” Never leave a visit without asking for some type of active engagement or investment. Every interaction with a donor should lead to the next.
When asking for a monetary gift, ask for something that will cause the donor to stretch. If you’re new to this, or timid, a good guideline is to ask for more than you’re comfortable with to encourage passionate philanthropy. Start with what you think the donor might be comfortable with; double it. This is not supposed to be a comfortable, forgettable transaction. Aim for a memorable, transformational vote of confidence. If you aim too low, you’ll miss the goal.
Take your best shot.
4. Careful Pause
Whenever you ask an important question, wait for the answer. This takes care and discipline. Veteran fundraisers Steven Screen and Jim Shapiro calls this pause the “sip of coffee” or “deep breath.” I say it’s maybe even a bit longer than that. Try counting silently for 17 full seconds (only once have I not had someone respond to me in this timeframe; trust me, it seems like a long, long time).
What might you miss if you shut people down by rushing in before they’re ready to put words to their thoughts? The donor may have been about to utter an uncomfortable truth – something you really needed to know. Or they may have been about to offer what you asked for, or maybe even more than you asked for!
If you don’t pause, you’ll miss out.
4 Steps to Craft a Compelling Donor Offer
Let’s assume you’ve established the reason you’re there is to discuss the donor’s philanthropic interests and ask for a gift. You know enough about the donor to have a reasonable understanding of what floats their boat. Here’s how to craft your offer.
1. Specific Problem
Always have an incomplete story of need on hand to tell the donor. Don’t rush to the end by boasting how your organization saves lives. Allow the donor to see themselves in creating the happy ending. Suggest a solution that’s like a donor-sized doughnut hole the donor can see themselves filling. A hole they’d likely want to fill, because you know this problem has relevancy to the donor.
Make sure the problem is one of human scale, and not impossible to envision. If the problem seems too overwhelming, no one will want to tackle it. It becomes like the proverbial pissing in the ocean to raise its level. Your mission may be to end hunger, but the donor knows they, individually, can’t end hunger. They need a smaller problem to tackle. Tell a story about one hungry person.
2. Specific Solution
Make sure it’s human sized and believable. The suggested solution must be specific and related to the problem. When the donor gives, can they logically envision making an impact? Or do too many other pieces have to fall into place; things about which the donor feels they’ve no control?
No one wants their money going into a black hole. Does the scope of this problem seem hopelessly unsolvable? There’s a big difference in hearing about 2 million at-risk refugee children and hearing the story of one sick child, separated from their parents, living in a refugee tent colony and in need of medical care.
Donors must feel confident the solution will work.
3. Specific Value
Highlight the impact the donor’s gift will make. Be specific. Everyone likes a good deal, so if the gift leverages other impacts, that’s persuasive. For example, “Your $50,000 challenge gift will leverage an additional $50,000 from the community, enabling us to create one new food pantry in an area currently underserved.”
You can also show ripple effect. For example, “Your leadership gift will inspire others to follow in your footsteps, demonstrating this program is needed and viable.” You can even describe the psychological principle of social proof to your donor, explaining how much their show of faith and trust will mean. Or you can show the gift now will lead to future benefits. For example, “Your gift today will save a child’s life, so they can go on to live a happy, healthy and productive future.”
Impact can be concrete today and envisaged tomorrow.
4. Specific Urgency
The offer must have an explicit deadline that’s meaningful to the donor. If they don’t act now, there will be negative consequences for people you help, the broader community or the world. Good deadlines are: You’ll fail to leverage a matching grant to double all donors’ gifts. Families will be evicted next month if you don’t raise funds now. A building won’t get built if you don’t raise enough to get the ball rolling in a timely manner. Not your year-end fundraising deadline; only you care about that.
While you may be used to including urgency in a written appeal, you may not have considered it when meeting face to face. Set a deadline when you conclude the meeting to give your would-be donor a reason for staying in active engagement with you. Don’t say “get back to me when you’ve had some time to think about it.” That allows the donor to run out the clock. It also allows you to run out the clock on your donor’s interest by putting you into a passive, waiting mode. Instead, try something like “we’re hoping to raise $300,000 by the end of this month so we can plan whether this season will be a “go” or “no go.” Can I get back to you next week? How is Tuesday or Thursday morning?”
Urgency is a way of keeping the ball in your court so you can pass it back to the donor – maybe with an extra little topspin to pique their interest even more!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this two-part series to learn “10 Obstacles to Successful Major Gift Asks.”
Want to Learn More about Major Gift Asks?
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