After 25 Years and Thousands of Donor Visits, Here are the Realities I've Learned

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I’ve fundraised for almost every size and age of institution and nonprofit.  I've personally asked for gifts as well as coached others to make asks.  Looking back, I’ve learned a lot and I’d like to share some truths about asking for funds.

First off, lighten up

When you think about your relationships with major gift donors, do you think of them as uncomfortable, for you and the donor?  You need to realize that asking for support for your nonprofit is just like any other job.  Yes, you’re committed to the cause, and your institution or nonprofit is making a positive difference every day in people’s lives.  Still, it’s a job like any other job, with certain tasks. If you are fundraising, asking people for support is one of those tasks.  And, if it's something you believe in (I'm sure it is) and you think the donor believes in, then it's just a discussion of what you think they'd consider.

And I can say, after thousands of discussions with major gift donors over dozens of years - sitting across the table, on the phone, or occasionally over email - I’ve learned a few points that could help you.

Think about the primary task

Your primary job as a fundraiser is deceptively straightforward: meet people (online works, but in-person is better) and ask if they’ll consider support.  So why is this so difficult? Because those who are asking make it into a much bigger deal than it should be. Often, we can project our worries, fears, anxiety, and all sorts of unnecessary emotion onto the conversation. This is not helpful.

Instead, lighten up.  Discuss what excites the donor about the mission, your institution or nonprofit, or who you help.  Then think about where funding could help, or maybe where it can’t? Point is: have a conversation and not a confrontation.

Stop taking it personally

The truth is, most donors are NOT interested in giving more immediately, others are, and some may someday but not for many years.  Don’t think that your batting average needs to be 1000. In fact, most of the time you’re merely helping the donor learn more, and that's okay.  Should they not have an interest in learning more or feel like what they’ve learned is not among their philanthropic interests, that’s okay. Again, THAT IS OKAY.

Besides, donors want professionals, not desperate calls or pleas.  When they’re ready, they’ll respond. And if they’re not, that is OKAY. 

So what should you do?  Ask if they’d like any more follow up and then move on.  That one relationship should not make or break you. Instead, talk to the next person and then the next.  Move on.

Be open, transparent, and willing to discuss challenges

Donors want you and your institution to be open and willing to share what’s going on.  Yes, there are things donors should not know that are confidential (personnel matters, anonymous donors, etc.), but 90% of what’s happening you should be willing to share what you know and what would help them be confident about making a gift.

And no organization is perfect.  So yes, they may want to discuss a challenge, perceived or real.  Don’t dodge it but also don’t dwell or “pile on” with agreement. Instead, listen and acknowledge.  Offer to follow-up. But go back in the conversation about what the institution or nonprofit meant to them and if they want to help others similarly.

Not too long ago, I needed to talk to a donor about $250,000 gift that sat in a bank account for several years, despite the donor being told it was urgently needed.  After meeting with the donor about the unfortunate screw-up (can’t think of a better term, that’s what it was), I returned with the dean of the institution to apologize (though not either of our faults). We discussed how we’d fix it as well as institute changes to prevent such a mistake from happening again with them or others.  And yes, you guessed it, they continued to give and even made a larger gift later.

Stop trying to make friends, make connections

If someone’s ready and willing to make a major gift, they shouldn’t need to know you that well.  But they should know the organization well. Furthermore, you’re a professional and not developing the relationships to further your social network or theirs.  They should have an interest in the nonprofit or institution. If not, you’re wasting both of your time.

Let me be clear: you need to be friendly and helpful, but you don’t need to make new friends by having endless lunches or coffees with donors who are not interested in further engagement with the nonprofit or institution.  That time should be used for people interested in your institution or nonprofit.

And yes, I’ve become friends with donors over the years but always careful to separate the worlds.

Learn

No matter what you do or what’s done to you, you can learn.  If a donor visit goes bad, learn from it. Don’t dwell, but genuinely learn.  If a gift is allocated to the wrong fund, fix it, and figure out how to head off the same problem down the road.

Take every opportunity to learn about fundraising for you and your organization. Discuss with colleagues constructively what’s working and what can be improved.  Ask donors, who 90% of the time want your institution or nonprofit to succeed.

You’re not a miracle worker

So much of what a good fundraiser does is understanding donors' expectations, or uncovering a dream or two.  But you can’t grant every wish. Fact is some donors have unrealistic expectations of the institution, nonprofit, or even you and your ability to make a change. Of course, be that person that goes above and beyond.  Just realize in many cases donors really do ask for outcomes and impacts that are impossible or not aligned with your mission. In those cases, you’re spinning your wheels and wasting time with someone or a situation that will not result in a gift or one that can be useful to your organization.

Take a step back, and realize it’s a game

Yes, you heard that right! Fundraising, relationship-building, and all the work you do is a bit of a game.  So have fun with it. If you screw up, learn from it and move on. If you do well, don’t take that too seriously either. Every visit I had with a donor helped me with the next one.  Every proposal or ask helped me understand donor motivation. And every success or failure was feedback to make adjustments so I could help my organization raise more funds.

 

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