I am a big believer in basics. I think the most direct path is generally the best. At least I think that when the destination and not the journey is my goal. And as a fundraiser, since I was always judged by how much money I raised, the destination was paramount. For that reason, it is critical that fundraisers practice clarity and honesty. When you are calling/meeting with a prospect for the purpose of them to make a gift, now or in the future, be up front and tell them that.
Similarly, don’t be afraid to discuss money early on in the relationship. While research, wealth screens, information from others can be truly useful, only the donor him or herself can actually tell you how much they feel your organization and/or this project is worth to them.
A few years ago, one of my clients was out on a campaign call with one of their most loyal supporters. The stated purpose of the call was to ask these supporters for their campaign gift. During the meeting, however, the Executive Director felt that she was receiving signals loud and clear that the amount they had decided to ask for was way, way to low.
“We had decided to ask for $250,000,” she told me. That would name a nice-sized, fairly visible room. “But as they were talking, it seemed that they were thinking 7-figures at least, and I didn’t know what to do. I had no alternative naming opportunity that I could offer off the top of my head, so I just thanked them for the meeting and left without making an ask. They must think I am a total idiot.”
Perhaps, but it would only be fatal if she didn’t immediately follow up. “But how?” she wailed.
I thought that the best thing to do would be to immediate call and explain exactly what happened and why—after asking for an appointment to make an ask, that ask was never made.
Once you’ve told them the situation, I suggested, “Ask for another meeting to talk about what would be an appropriate gift—and the right recognition for that gift.”
The Development Director did not like my recommendation, feeling that it would be awkward to ask the prospect what they thought their gift size should be. I, however, thought that things were already awkward because they hadn’t asked the prospect that question before deciding for them.
Yes, best case scenario is going in to a solicitation with a solid number for the gift. But that cannot be one that comes out of thin air, or even through screenings. That can help you identify a starting point—the one where at meeting one or two you say, “While I am not asking now, as we move forward, I am hoping that you will consider a gift of around $X for this project. Does that sound about right?”
Back to my client. Ultimately, they took my advice. “It was far more comfortable than I thought it would be,” the ED told me on our debriefing call. “In fact, they seemed to appreciate my honesty—and my including them in the conversation about the amount.”
I have this conversation a lot with Board members. I strongly advise that they be upfront when they are calling their friends for gifts. Tell them you are calling as a Board member AND a fundraiser, and that you are hoping you can count on them to support your organization.
I’m not completely sure why this seems so hard. We’re not asking anyone to do something we wouldn’t—don’t—do ourselves. We are simply asking them to support a cause, an organization or institution, a program that we (that’s us and them) truly believe does good and important work. We should, therefore, keep our asks simple.
Yes, a major gift may take a long time from first identifying and qualifying a prospect to the actual yes—but that time should be spent in crafting the best gift, for the donor and the organization, and not in skirting around the issue and being too afraid to talk about money and what you hope they will do with theirs.