Robert and Patricia had been married for many years. He was a high powered finance guy; she was a stay at home mom. When the kids private school launched into a capital campaign, they identified Robert as a potential leadership donor and the director of development quickly set up a meeting with him.
What is wrong with this picture?
After several meetings, the Head of School asked Robert to consider making a lead gift. Robert nodded noncommittedly and said he would “think about it.”
Is it becoming more clear?
In my family, my husband and I each make our own philanthropic decisions. But for Robert and Patricia, they decided as a unit. It wasn’t “his” money, it was “theirs”—and how to spend it was most definitely a family activity.
So often, I find when my clients review unsuccessful asks, the main reason is that the right people are not in the room. Even if, as in my family, there is no real need for say me to be there when my husband is being asked, not having me there makes it oh so easy for him to say, “I have to check with my wife.” That he doesn’t need to check with me is irrelevant. If he did have to check with me, however, it would be more than just a delaying tactic; it would be telling you that you hadn’t done your appropriate due diligence. And I, the unthought about wife, might just nix the possibility of support.
When people talk about donor research, the focus is typically on a prospect’s capacity. How much are they able to give?
But capacity, as anyone who has done this work for seventeen seconds knows, is actually the smallest indicator of a charitable gift. So much depends on interest, inclination, involvement. A great deal has to do with general philanthropic intentions.
One of my friends has a great deal of capacity—he could make any number of 6 and 7 figure gifts annually. But he does not believe that nonprofits have a model that lead to success, and therefore, there are few that he would even consider supporting. To get his attention, you would have to show that you have a sustainability plan and that you are working that plan. And yeah, his husband should be part of the mix.
Knowing what matters to the donor helps you to design a cultivation and an ask that will resonate.
Beyond that, you need to know where you fit on that prospect’s philanthropic scale. If they even havea philanthropic scale—something else you really need to know. During a recent conversation with the prospect my client was sure would make the lead gift for a proposed endowment campaign, I discovered that the organization was way down on his priority list.
“They are number 172,” he said, laughing when I asked where they fit on his philanthropic list. “No,” he amended, “maybe not that low; but they are definitely NOT in my top 10.” That did not bode well for getting a lead gift.
It is also helpful to know who else your prospect supports. Knowing how those organizations recognize his or her support is even better. Better still—how does the donor feel about the recognition? Is it appropriate? Would he or she prefer something else? In my fundraising days, I often asked prospects about their very best gift. And their very best, most memorable thank you.
I remember one donor fuming to me when I became the chief development officer that if we couldn’t get her name straight, she was no longer going to be a donor. She had long been divorced from the man whose last name we insisted on adding to hers. And another donor who was incensed when it was suggested that we hold a press conference to announce her very substantial gift. “Do you want every nonprofit in the world to come knocking at my front door?” she asked as she explained why this was a terrible idea.
We should have known this before we approached her.
It’s also helpful to know how a donor likes to make a gift. Finding out early if you are talking about a multi-year payout is important. It may change what you are asking for. Likewise, if the gift is going to be “planned”—that is, given out of their estate rather than current assets. I recently helped a client get over the shock of having the $100,000 gift she was expecting to get her out of the red turn out to be a gift of bequest, from a healthy 40-year-old donor!
In short, it is as important for you to understand how someone gives as it is to carefully read the guidelines for a grant proposal before submitting something to a private or corporate foundation. It’s unfortunate, perhaps, that our individual donors don’t publish a list of do’s and don’ts, but that would take the fun out of our jobs.And it is fun and interesting to learn about your donors. It’s also a very smart thing to do.