A local nonprofit board is implementing a major gifts program. They started by setting a financial goal for the first year and encouraging board members to become involved in making personal asks. I hold a position on this board, and recently gave a short presentation on how my fellow board members and I might approach this task.
The definition of a “major gift” will vary from organization to organization. It’s a term that often invites the automatic response: “I don’t know anyone who can give a major gift, so it’s not my responsibility to get involved at this point.”
The fact is, many board members of small to medium sized nonprofits in this area believe they don’t know personally anyone who can give a “major gift.” What I have learned is that many of these same people are surprised at their own capacity to give large gifts to their favorite causes, and surprised again when they realize their ability to motivate others to do.
A couple of things are generally true about “major gifts:”
– They are likely not the first gifts the donor has made, but the largest in a succession of increasing levels of giving over time.
– They are most often result of asks that are strategic, considerate and personal.
If your organization doesn’t have a large enough pool of leaders taking responsibility to make personal asks, you are likely going to miss opportunities to cultivate donors that may eventually make major gifts.
So, for this presentation, rather than focusing on the term “major gifts,” I asked my fellow board members to focus on “personal asks,” and outlined the specific steps of my own “personal ask” strategy for the organization.
Step 1: Visualize a specific goal – Lewis Carroll said “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
If I’m going to improve my fitness level, save money, or improve my life in any way, I find it’s helpful to outline specific results and a timeline: “I’m going to run a half marathon in June,” for example. My “personal ask goal is to contact at least three prospective new or upgraded donors on behalf of this organization by the end of the fiscal year. Note that I didn’t say I was going to get three new or upgraded donations. I can’t set goals based upon what other people are going to do with their money. But to make the most of my efforts, I’ll do my research, strategize, communicate what it is that I’m passionate about, and make direct asks of each of my prospects.
Step 2: Define my personal case statement – I’m never going to remember a specific mission statement, how many people are served, etc. But I know what makes me passionate about the organization. I can carry a brochure with me to outline the rest of the story. When I’m talking about something I care about, I’m a much more compelling speaker than when I’m concentrating on spitting out a canned speech.
My fundraising committee chair at the Girl Scouts, when asked why he was passionate about the organization, held up pictures of his two little girls. “The more I learn about what they need,” he would say, “the more I realize how much they will gain from these programs.” He was compelling because he cared deeply about the subject matter.
Step 3: Think about my prospects – The most efficient use of my time is going to be in approaching people who want to spend time with me and already have some connection with the organization. Since I’m going to ask people to join me in making a gift similar to mine, I’ll try to pick people who I think are socioeconomic peers. While I’m at it, I’m going to strategize with a staff member or fellow board member to identify what it is about the organization that will be of most interest to them. I’ll try to draw some conclusions based upon their giving history with this organization, their involvement with other organizations, what they do professionally, their family situation and what they do for fun.
Step 4: Plan to ask for a specific gift – I already mentioned I plan on asking my prospects to join me at upgrading their current giving to a new level. Everyone loves to be invited to join. I’m going to hedge my bets by looking at established donors with regular giving histories first. Someone who has been giving a modest gift on a regular basis as a response to an annual letter and no other contact is someone who very likely will give more if shown what his past support has helped accomplish. I might think about suggesting the donor consider giving on a quarterly basis what he has given on an annual basis in the past. While I’m thinking about this specific ask, I’m going to get information from the organization that helps me define what that additional support will help accomplish.
Step 5:- Outline possible objections and how I’ll respond – Once I make the ask, I’m going to have to sit quietly and listen. I know from experience that shutting up and listening is the most difficult thing in the world for me, as it is for many people. If my prospect isn’t prepared to say “yes” right away to my request, they might begin the process of thinking through making such a gift. To many of us, this process might sound like the prospect is trying to tactfully say “no.”
In fact, many of us have been conditioned to not jump in to big purchases or make big money decisions on the fly. In deciding on a big purchase, my husband and I will think through all the reasons we shouldn’t spend the money. If, after all the cons are listed, the impulse still exists, we’ll know it’s important to both of us and make the commitment. If your prospect starts this process with you there, this is a great opportunity. First, you get to know how others might respond to your direct asks (testing your message), and also to have the opportunity to respond directly and answer questions. A letter or other passive approach to fundraising doesn’t give you this opportunity. Before my first meeting though, I’m going to list all possible objections and how I might respond. Then I’ll go over them with a staff or fellow board member and identify some others, or answers that might be more respectful and positive.
“It’s not a good time for us to make a gift of that size right now.” When do you think it would be easier to think about a gift?
“That’s too much for us to commit to right now.” That was my first thought when I thought about giving at that level, that’s why we’re paying off our gift quarterly. What about making an arrangement like that?
“I’m paying off a large pledge to another organization right now.” I appreciate that you have other priorities right now. Maybe we could talk about this again when you’re done with that commitment?
Notice I didn’t list anything extreme in these objections. That’s because in thinking through this process rationally beforehand, I have the opportunity to examine my worst fears and realize that no one on my list is likely to burst into flame, fly into a rage, refuse to speak to me ever again, or even stomp off as a result of my ask. I know that, for me, thinking about all the variables in advance of the ask is going to go a long way in calming any anxiety I have about performing this task.
Step 6: Follow Up – With large enough asks, it’s likely that prospects will be unable give a direct response in the actual ask meeting. Possibly several follow ups will be necessary before a decision is made. In my case, the gifts I’m asking for may fall into that sweet spot where enthusiasm for the organization makes the gift upgrade I’m asking for seem reasonable enough to make a decision right there. If not, I’ll encourage my prospects to give the request some thought and ask if I can call the following week to answer questions. I’ll certainly send a thank you note right away (via snail mail rather than email, because I know that’s exponentially more personal), thanking them for their past support of the organization, their friendship, and the opportunity to talk with them about something for which I have a personal passion.
Statistically, I know that a personal approach to fundraising such as this is 65 to 70 percent likely to garner additional support from the organization (as opposed to 1 to 5 percent odds of more passive approaches, like sending a letter). The people I’m asking, while not currently major gift prospects, have the potential to one day be in a position to give a major gift when asked. By asking personally, strategically and thoughtfully, I am playing a major role in securing the future financial health of an organization that is very important to me.