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Asking for more: Perspective on major gifts

Major gifts require major work: It’s something we all know intuitively, even if we have never had any experience going after a significant donation. In fact, those contemplating a major gifts solicitation for the first time might find themselves at a loss for where to start, how to cultivate prospects, and what form the ask should take.

For those reasons, I sat down with a few seasoned development pros at a recent GCN member-exclusive event to discuss major gifts, the people who give, what brings contributed dollars in, and what keeps donors giving. Several dozen nonprofit leaders, gathered at the Society for Biblical Literature’s Luce Center, spent an hour hearing from myself and three of my long-time colleagues and friends: nonprofit consultant Amisha Harding, Bobby Dodd Institute Chief Advancement Officer Lisa Kennedy, and Atlanta Ballet Chief Advancement Officer Steven Libman. In the following excerpts, we have set out a few of the discussion’s most important points.

On changes in major gift fundraising.

Steven Libman: Over 30 years, the biggest change I’ve seen is a growing understanding that we have a responsibility to establish a meaningful, ongoing relationship with our donors, one that is more than transactional. The other big change comes as a generation gets older. Without interest from their heirs, it becomes more of a challenge to attract major gifts. Venture capitalists or individuals from a high-tech arena tend to be very focused on ROI: What’s the return for my investment going to be? So the onus is on us, when we recruit board members and talk to donors, to explain what it means to be part of a nonprofit.

Lisa Kennedy: One of the good things is that major gifts work has become more professionalized and specialized. Something else I’ve seen is a growing understanding of the importance of metrics – and not just performance indicators – and their correlation with outcomes. There’s also been growing understanding that you have to have a robust annual fund in order to succeed in major gifts. If you’re not retaining your donors on an annual basis, it is going to be very difficult to develop a major gifts program that’s successful over the long term.

On finding prospects.

Libman: In the performing arts, people who are going to donate begin as participants. Ninety percent of the time, our major donors started out as ticket-buyers, or enrolling their kids in the school. We research those people, and we start getting in touch – writing them personalized letters, making phone calls – to start the process.

Kennedy: It’s a little different in human services, where the people you’re raising money from aren’t typically consumers of your services. I’ve relied on board members and fundraising volunteers to introduce people to the organization and build the annual fund over time, and events – acquisition, cultivation, and stewardship events – have been important as well. It is a very distinct challenge if you don’t have something like an alumni base or a parent base.

Amisha Harding: Tapping into the networks of board members is so important. If you ask a board member to get five people to give $1,000, they might say they don’t know how; but if each has a few hundred Facebook friends, they can get people to give as soon as they post something online. That’s especially true for organizations run by founders: Founders have made a serious sacrifice of time to start an organization, and their personal networks will recognize that sacrifice by giving. It’s also important to make giving a family affair. When we engage just a single donor – not the donor’s spouse or children – we miss opportunities to make giving an event that transcends generations, and meets the challenge we’re all facing as a generation of donors gets older.

Kennedy: A 25-year-old once gave a very modest donation, and then a $1,000 donation followed from their parents. That happened organically, but now that we know about that effect, we can pursue it. At the same time, it’s important to prioritize your efforts where you’re most likely to see the return on investment – I don’t know about y’all, but I’m not running out of things to do. There’s very good data to support the notion that today’s big gifts are coming from Boomers, and that Generation Xers are the mid-level donors who need to be moved along the pipeline with fulfilling philanthropic experiences.

"It’s important to make giving a family affair. When we engage just a single donor – not the donor’s spouse or children – we miss opportunities to make giving an event that transcends generations."

Libman: Any of the search engine software programs that identifies prospects from an existing pool can be helpful, but they can also be very expensive. I’ve had mixed results – they often tell me things I already know.

Kennedy: The important question to ask when deciding whether to invest in one of those programs: What am I going to do with the information? Do I have the organizational bandwidth to act on it? Otherwise it’s like an accusation sitting there – all that information you can’t use.

Dennis Hanthorn: Wealth search programs are just roadmaps. At GCN we have a program that can help an organization identify prospects, but we never say that it is the end-all. Amisha and I are working on that kind of a project right now for an organization where 80 percent was information they already knew – but we did find a few sleepers, and it’s worth it for the sleepers.

Libman: Board members are also very helpful for identifying new people in the community who have propensity for giving major gifts. One of our board members found out that a very wealthy family had recently moved to Atlanta, and upon further research we discovered that one family member had an affinity for ballet. They would have never showed up in a software program.

On courting prospects.

Libman: If you do it the right way, closing a major gift could take anywhere from six to 24 months, with six to 12 calls over that time period. It’s like dating – a process that takes time. The key is to do less talking, and to ratchet up your listening skills. They’ll tell you what’s important to them, and you’ll be amazed over what they will reveal about themselves as you get to know them. We’ll also do research in advance of meeting someone. One person on my team is a sort of Facebook ninja, and the information she uncovers is incredible. We can use that information to connect with them: “I understand you have a wine collection,” for instance.

Harding: It’s important to go into meetings with a goal – Is this a stewardship call? A cultivation call? – but also to pay very close attention to what the donor is saying. I sat in on a meeting with a client where, at the end, the donor asked, “Well, what can I do for you?” And the client said, “Would you like to come visit us?” The donor was so moved by what they heard, they were ready to write a check – but the client didn’t expect it, and didn’t take advantage. So you have to pay attention to those cues.

Libman: We bring pledge forms to every meeting just for that reason, whether we’re expecting to close or not. Regarding paying attention: One time, the CEO and I were meeting with a current donor, asking for $50,000. The donor’s response was, “I was really thinking of a much larger gift,” but the CEO didn’t catch that – he was still talking about the $50,000 until I intervened.

Hanthorn: That is why it’s important to have two people at the ask: While one is talking, the other is thinking.

Harding: You’ve also got to be prepared to answer the question, “What would you do with X amount of dollars?” I once let a client know well ahead of a meeting that I would be introducing them to a billionaire. One of the first questions this gentleman asked was, “What would you do if I gave you $250,000?” The client started stuttering. If you want to meet with folks who have deep pockets, you need to know how you would leverage their investment.

Kennedy: Your organization has to have a case for support: Why do we need this money? What is going to be better about the future because of this gift? Those are hard questions to answer for any organization – it’s not something you can throw together right before a meeting. 

"Your organization has to have a case for support: Why do we need this money? What is going to be better about the future because of this gift?"

Libman: The words you use can be very powerful. Use language about co-creating a better future, and making the world a better place – not tax deductions or getting a name on the wall. You’re not just raising money, you’re talking about the essence of generosity, finding deep connections, and helping people create meaning in their lives.

On managing a donor portfolio.

Harding: You need to make sure you know exactly where you are in relationship to every donor, which can be very difficult. That’s why the science part of fundraising is so important: building the pipeline and capturing the information from every interaction. Your database is only as good as the information you put into it. I’ve used Salesforce for this, but even a simple Excel spreadsheet can work, if you make sure it’s set up to capture the information. And now, with Google Docs, you can update a spreadsheet right from your phone, as soon as you finish a meeting.

Hanthorn: Another program that is an option for smaller groups is DonorPerfect. This is an out-of-the-box program, as opposed to Salesforce or Blackbaud, which require tech savvy to set up.

Kennedy: The key is to make sure it’s the right product for where you are in your organizational development, and where you see yourself going over the next few years. It’s a traumatic experience to change these systems, so you want to make sure that it’s something you’re really going to be able to use – that it’s intuitive and that you’ll be able to pull the right reports.

Libman: The other key, as Amisha said, is to be diligent. When we come back from a meeting with a donor, current or prospective, we make sure to take notes on it, including all the idiosyncrasies. We put it two places: in Tessitura, a computer database program for performing arts organizations; and in a hard file, because sometimes the computer crashes.

On stewarding major gift-givers.

Libman: Once you’ve done all the work cultivating, asking, securing the gift, and saying please and thank you many times, you now have the opportunity to create deep, transformational experiences for your donor. At the ballet, we invite donors to watch rehearsals, to go backstage, to meet the artists, to join us on the outreach programs that they have helped fund. Cocktail parties and galas are important, but we must also make sure to create a special intersection between the donor and the organization. Absent those transformational experiences, why would they give again? Ongoing donor stewardship is where major gift departments are aiming resources – it can take up more time than finding new prospects.

Hanthorn: In my experience, I have found that the more they give, the more they demand of you. However, there’s much power in a thank-you call, especially if it’s from a board member at the upper level of your organization. 

"We must make sure to create a special intersection between the donor and the organization. Absent those transformational experiences, why would they give again?"

Harding: Thanking can also be a great opportunity for those who aren’t necessarily comfortable interacting with donors. I’ve put together “thank-a-thon” events, where we brought all the board members into an office with staff, food, and a little bit of wine. We gave them each a script and had them make thank-you calls. They became comfortable because they weren’t on their own, and were able to engage with donors and begin building relationships – what they found was that the donors wanted to have a conversation with them.

Hanthorn: You can turn this task into a research project. Ask donors what their interests are or what they liked about this year’s programs.

On managing expectations.

Harding: Sometimes leadership doesn’t understand that courtship process – they think you’re going to go to lunch with somebody for the first time and come back with a check. I always ask, “Would you go on a first date and ask someone to marry you, pay your mortgage, and give you a baby?” While we want to meet our benchmarks, we also have to advocate for our donors.

Kennedy: As development professionals, we need to be able to practice politics with a capital P, moving the culture in a way where those tough conversations happen in easier ways. If you don’t understand how systems in the organization are working together, that is going to be a barrier to major gifts fundraising. Investing time in internal relationships – communicating with colleagues about challenges, empathizing with them, discussing conflict management – goes a long way toward getting everyone to work together on the long-term commitment required.

The ask: how it goes down

1. Prepare by role-playing.
Libman: We role-play in advance of the ask. The CEO, any board member accompanying us, and myself will get together and decide on the things that are very important to say, and when to toss the ball to the CEO. But we don’t overscript it – you want to speak as you would in a normal conversation – and we make sure to bring props, like brochures, that we can pass out and refer to in the conversation. We also like to conduct the ask over a meal, so it’s relatively calm and comfortable, and we can all enjoy ourselves.

2. Choose a leader.
Kennedy: It is important to clarify who is going to make the ask during role-playing, because otherwise you’re just waiting for the other person to do it. Typically, I’ll script out the key talking points for everyone, so people feel comfortable about what’s expected of them. It’s also important to let people know that things won’t always go as planned, and what the options are for various scenarios. Whatever the outcome, everyone should feel good knowing that there is a next step.

3. Bring a friend from the board.
We often bring a board member to help, but the close is always done by the CEO or myself – we never ask board members to close. They speak from the heart about the organization’s importance to them and their families, and about how much they give.

Kennedy: We bring a board member when they have a strong relationship with the donor, and can play a key role in sharing their own experience. But unless they have really enjoyed asking people for philanthropy – and some are great at it – we make the ask ourselves. People have a difficult time participating in asks if they’ve never been asked for a gift like this. It can be overwhelming! The best fundraisers are people who have given at that level – they have a comprehensive view of the experience and what it’s meant in their lives.

4. Exert confidence.
Libman: The key is to be comfortable and confident. You’re not getting to the ask until you’ve known them for a long time, so they usually know why you’re meeting. You’ve been talking about the importance of philanthropy at the major gift level, and they know the point of these calls is to deepen their relationship with the organization. They are savvy individuals: With very few exceptions, this is not their first rodeo.

5. Make a specific ask.
During the course of the conversation – I’d say about three-quarters of the way through – we will refer to documents we brought and our past conversations, and make an ask for a specific gift: “I would like you to think about giving a gift of $25,000.” Donors are expecting you to make a very clear ask – they are often disappointed if you don’t – but rarely does someone say, “Give me the pen, I’m going to sign right now.” We want to create a sense of urgency, but not emergency – so we wouldn’t ask for someone to give “today.” And you always want to say it’s up to the donor to decide, because they’ve got to do what’s right for them.

6. Stop talking!
Harding: People usually get nervous after they ask for a big gift and don’t get an immediate response. They start talking without saying anything.

Libman: Once the ask is made, one of most important things you can do is shut up.

Hanthorn: Silently count to ten! 

Dennis Hanthorn is a senior consultant for GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group.


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