In Part 1 of this two-part series delving into the topic of major gift fundraising asks, we looked at a number of Proven Strategies to Take Charge of Major Donor Asks. Specifically, we covered (1) four elements of a successful visit and (2) four elements of a compelling offer. Feel free to refresh yourself before we move on.
Other Things You Need to Know about Asking
Now I want you to truly think about the offer from the recipient’s perspective.
As insiders, we often don’t stop to think about the outsider perspective. It’s just human nature to become so absorbed in a topic it starts to seem obvious. To us.
When crafting your compelling fundraising offer however, it’s important to stop and consider how it may be received. As noted in Part 1:
- If it’s too general or vague, it’s unlikely you’ll get the donor’s most passionate gift.
- If you offer something of little interest or relevance to the donor, they won’t give you their full attention.
- If the problem you describe is broad in scope, the idea of addressing it in any meaningful way may seem too daunting.
You can’t ask the donor to address your entire mission.
- “Ending hunger” sounds awesome to you, but impossibly unrealistic to the donor.
- “Curing cancer” sounds splendid to you, but too huge in scope to the donor.
- “Eradicating poverty” sounds vital to you, but absolutely overwhelming to the donor.
- “Becoming a world class symphony” sounds grand to you, but grandiose to the donor.
- “Saving children” may be your priority today, but you also serve seniors and that’s what the donor most cares about.
2 Vital Things to Keep in Mind Going into Asks
When crafting and making a major gift fundraising ask, make sure you incorporate the following into your planning:
1. Pitch in a manner to which the donor will be most receptive.
Review everything you know about them so you can match your offer to whatever they most hope for. Don’t be too concrete. In ‘marketing 101’ I learned people don’t buy a drill because they need a drill. They buy it because they need a hole. But there’s even more to it. Maybe they’re buying hope for the future, as they use the drill to build a crib. Maybe they’re buying peace of mind – attaching the bookcase to the stud so the toddler doesn’t tip it on to themself. Maybe they’re buying nostalgia – a way to hang pictures of the child on the swing for when they’ve left for college.
What intangibles does your donor yearn for? If you have no idea, you’re not ready yet. You can’t craft an offer that will give them the sense of hope, peace, nostalgia or legacy they want to buy from you. Do some research and set up a “getting to know you” visit. When you return from the visit, make a list of no more than five key things your donor is hiring you to do. Then make your offer all about those things (e.g., find a cure for cancer; get homeless people shelter; stop sex trafficking; ensure equal access to legal services; create and deliver anti-bullying programs; bring art into the schools, etc.).
2. Prepare to deal with hesitations and objections.
There are common ones, so it’s easy to anticipate them in advance. Prepare, so you don’t run into trouble. Find important guidelines, below.
10 Obstacles to Successful Major Gift Asks
1. Not Asking for a Specific Reason
Many donors will give more passionately if they can choose where the money goes. Don’t get stuck on the idea giving must be “unrestricted.” It’s smarter to divide your operating budget into large slices which, combined, constitute the full pie of your functional funds. For example, a human services agency might offer donors the opportunity to give for (a) at-risk children; (b) vulnerable seniors; (c) families on the edge; (d) low-income single adults, or (e) where most needed. In my experience, about half the people will let you make the decision, while half will make their own choice.
Always offer an example of how the gift will be used. If you fear you’ll raise more money than needed for this purpose, use the word “and.” Say “your gift will go to help Mary stay off the streets, and to help other vulnerable people with emergency assistance and supportive services.”
Another benefit flowing from enabling donors to earmark their gift is it enhances follow-through. Outcome reporting becomes easier for you, and more meaningful for the donor. Donors feel more connected when you send them tailored, personal reports than when you send a lift note attached to a generic annual report.
2. Not Asking for a Specific Amount
Give the donor something specific to chew on. If you’re too high, they’ll let you know. If you’re too low, they won’t; you’ll miss out and they’ll feel a bit deflated. If you’re too vague, they’ll feel uncomfortable – never a good outcome.
Some recommend multiplying a donor’s annual gift by a factor of five when asking for a major or capital gift. If they give $5,000 annually, ask for $25,000 for a special campaign. If you’re simply asking for an upgraded annual gift, increase the ask more gradually. For example, ask them to move to your next giving level (e.g., to go from $1,000 to $1,500). Another way to go is simply to say: “I can’t presume to know how much you can give towards this project. I can tell you we’re aiming to raise $1 million. It that’s something you could do, we would be over the moon with gratitude. If you were thinking of something less, that would be greatly appreciated as well.” (Legend has it that this is how Rockefeller handled his fundraising asks).
3. Not Actively Listening After the Pause
The donor won’t always say yes right away. Sometimes they’ll say “No,” meaning a whole variety of things. What does the “No” really mean? Have you explained things well enough? Have you used the information they’ve shared to be respectful of their interests in your ask? Have you listened to what else is on their plate right now? Did you notice when they name dropped the name of your board president, saying “I do whatever Bill tells me to.” Assess what their “No” signifies. It could mean:
- Not interested, ever.
- Not this project.
- Not this amount.
- Not at this time.
- Not you asking me.
You can work with all of these except the first one. And even then, if you ask “what it is about this project that fails to interest you?” you can often find another project that better matches the donor’s passions. See more on the handling of “No” below under “No Means Not Now” (#5).
Sometimes the donor will offer up what I call “delaying tactics” or “excuses.” All is not lost! A delay may manifest as “I need to talk with my significant other (or legal/financial advisor),” or “I need to think about this.” Sometimes you’ll get the excuses you’ll see below (#4). These are all handled through understanding, empathy and the offer to help them get to the other side of the delay. Hear them, relate to them, and show them another way to be helpful. It’s imperative you stay in conversation and sit by the donor’s side, rather than simply saying “okay, thanks for your time.” End of story.
Active listening requires reading between the lines so the story continues to unfold.
4. Allowing Excuses
Often you won’t get a “Yes” or “No,” but some type of objection to even considering the matter at this point in time. Here are three of the most common:
- “I’m poor.” Sometimes donors will respond with how their finances are a bit shaky right now. It’s generally a way of saying “I don’t want to talk to you now.” If they use this excuse on you, it likely means you haven’t intrigued them enough with your offer. You didn’t get to know them well enough. You asked for something too general. You didn’t listen to them and show you care about more than their money.
Major donors generally have plenty of wealth. The events of the past several years haven’t touched them financially. In fact, many have seen their taxes cut and their portfolios lifted. Remind them you’re finding other major donors are feeling generally well off, you’ve been experiencing an outpouring of generosity to respond to cutbacks and/or increased demand, and you hope they’ll want to join their peers in solving some of today’s most pressing problems. Remind donors how the problems of today (those they hear about in the news) relate to your mission.
- I’m overcommitted right now. If you get this response, you’re in luck! You know the issue isn’t lack of interest; it’s merely timing. Perhaps next year, when they finish their five-year capital campaign pledge to their alma mater, will be a better time. Maybe it will be when their company goes public in six months. Work with the donor to see when they might be more receptive.
- I just gave a lot of emergency response money. Congratulate them on being so caring and civic minded! Tell them you share how they feel, have felt that way yourself, and (and this is the important part), have found a way to give both to your cause and to crisis response. Maybe the gift they’ll ultimately give you will be less than you’d hoped for, but show them you value their giving at whatever level feels comfortable. You don’t want to break the bond between you!
5. No Means Not Now
“No” is more often than not a maybe. Maybe, if… [you asked for another project… asked for a different amount… allowed me to pay over a period of years… had someone else ask me.]
Turn a “No” into a follow-up question. A teaching moment.
- “Claire, can you tell me more about why you’re saying “no” today?
- “Is it something I didn’t explain well?”
- “Can I ask if your answer relates to a concern you have about whether the program will come to fruition?”
- “Is this just not a good time for you?”
Just be genuinely interested, and let them know it will help you with other community fundraising if you can learn about what they didn’t find persuasive. Don’t push them to change their answer right now.
6. Don’t Shoot Yourself
“No” is not personal. Jim Shapiro, a fundraising colleague, says “You’re just the messenger.” Your offer is a message about the problem, solution and how the donor can help. Your offer is a specific example of how the donor can seize an opportunity to make a difference. If they take a shot at you, let it roll off your back. You can’t be shot down – because… you’re just the messenger!
Handle this response with innocence and interest. “Hmmn… what an interesting perspective. That’s really useful to hear. I’m going to pass that on and get back to you, if that’s okay.”
Be gentle, both with yourself and your donor. It’s the best way to live another day!
7. Matching and Challenge Gifts
Donors are often receptive to ways to leverage their giving. Don’t forget to offer these opportunities. Seek matching gift challenges from businesses who may benefit from the publicity, foundations who like to leverage their grants, your board as a group, or another major donor or group of donors who’d love to see their money doubled.
Often when you do the legwork to find other donors to join in on a challenge, this is compelling. “Claire, I’m looking for five donors to each give $50,000 so we can offer a $250,000 matching challenge to meet our $500,000 goal for this project. Would you consider becoming one of the leaders of this initiative?” Again, this allows their gift to be increased beyond the amount they themselves give. They’re not on the hook for everything, but their gift will unlock the generosity of others so they’ll likely be more motivated to give.
Make sure to report back, both to donors who offered the challenge and to those who met it. Don’t leave anyone hanging, wondering what happened.
8. Know Your Donor to the Best of Your Ability
As you get to know how your donor identifies and behaves, you’ll be able to adjust your approach accordingly. For this reason, “getting to know you” meetings with donors you don’t know well are a must. Everyone is different. Some are introverted/extroverted. Some are conservative/liberal. Some are religious/agnostic. Some are new supporters/loyal donors. And so on.
Major gift fundraising takes time. If you put in the time, it will be well worth your effort and patience. Donors must be moved to act (this is my personal definition of the purpose of what we call “Moves Management”).
Don’t rush to the “ask.”
9. Keep Your Goal at the Forefront
Your purpose is to generate a gift; don’t wait too long to ask. You’re looking for the just right “Goldilocks moment” to make your pitch. Don’t forget the “best of your ability” part of the relationship building equation. You’ll never know your donor fully; there’s always more to learn. But you can come up against the law of diminishing returns with donor cultivation. “I need to know them better before I ask” can be a trap leading to never get around to the ask. Not only is this fruitless for you, it is annoying for donors. They know why you’re meeting with them, and after a reasonable amount of time they’re going to expect you to ask them for a philanthropic investment. If you don’t, they’ll wonder what’s going on. Are they not good enough? Do you think they don’t have enough money to help you? What’s the deal?
At some point they’ll feel their time is being wasted, and will stop returning your calls.
10. Virtual Meetings Work!
Discovering this has been a huge silver lining of the pandemic. You can no longer fall back on the excuses (1) they live too far away, or (2) it’s impossible to set up a convenient meeting time.
Check in. Begin with brief small talk. Maybe notice their background and ask a question or two. Notice body language and facial expressions. If they’re seeming bored, switch your topic. If they seem excited, probe further. Ask open-ended questions like “tell me more,” “could you describe that further,” or “how might you envision that working?” The best questions begin with “what” and “how;” avoid “why” as this can seem threatening.
As with all donor meetings, make sure you have clarity on your purpose going in. Here are a number of possible strategic objectives that merit personal, focused attention:
- Upgrade major donor
- Renew major donor
- Elevate mid-level donor to major donor level
- Secure first-time monetary gift at a major donor level
- Reinstate a lapsed major donor
- Secure an additional gift for a special project or campaign
- Renew and/or upgrade ongoing mid-level donor
- Renew first-time mid-level donor
- Convert one-time giver to a monthly giving schedule, thereby upgrading their giving
- Introduce a legacy giving ask
Treat the meeting much as you would were you in person.
Be a Philanthropy Facilitator
My mantra is “philanthropy, not fundraising.” The former is about love, the latter about money. One is warm and human, the other is cold and analytical.
Your job is to deliver happiness. Remember, you’re a messenger, not a fundraiser. Carry the message of opportunity, purpose and greater meaning, all delivered through a lens of love. Most people, if they’re able, really do want to make a positive difference. The donor is free to seize the opportunity or not. You’re free to make additional offers to better meet their interests and feed their hopes and dreams. This is great, because it enables you to not take rejection personally. Just focus on making it easy for the donor to feel good about joining you to make the word a better place.
Offer. Listen. Guide. Repeat.
Take this wisdom, go forth, and make the world better. Carpe diem!
Want to Learn More about Major Gift Asks?
Check out my step-by-step Guide, Anatomy of a Major Gift Ask. You’ll get clearly explained tips, pointers and even sample language, to help you succeed (in spades!) when making a major gift solicitation. I call it a “Cheat Sheet” because you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. This will walk you through some of the common pitfalls so you can avoid them, and will arm you with tools to help you put your best foot forward.
As with all Clairification products, this comes with a no-questions-asked, 30-day, 100% refund guarantee plus a free 15-minute Q&A session. What are you waiting for?!?!
Want to Dive into the Major Gifts Pool Deep End?
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