“After the final no there comes a yes and on that yes the future of the world hangs.”
~Wallace Stevens, American Poet (1879-1955)
From outside the profession, asking for a charitable donations would seem simple enough. You have identified a promising prospective donor; you have cultivated them so that they understand and appreciate the work of your nonprofit and its need for funding; and you ask them for a gift.
This is an oversimplification of the process, of course. One excellent outline of what is actually involved in major gift fundraising may be found on the website of the Major Giving Initiative of Public Broadcasting as a pdf file one can download, “The Donor Cultivation System.” I applaud them for providing this information so readily (“bookmark” that resource!).
However, when it comes to asking for a donation, be flexible. More often than not, you have practiced your “pitch,” you have gathered for the eagerly anticipated meeting, you ask, and the prospective donor throws you a curveball. My habits prior to making fundraising calls are to practice my pitch carefully, to review the background and interests of each donor well in advance, to anticipate questions and to develop thoughtful possible responses, and then I tell myself to relax and expect the unexpected.
Here are three examples to illustrate my point.
I. Dealing with a Frustrated Donor
I was new on the job as capital campaign coordinator. Our organization had lined-up some impressive endorsements from civic leaders and area philanthropists. The donor we were approaching had contributed to a prior capital campaign. I thought surely he loved our nonprofit, having given generously in the past.
The donor encouraged me to visit. Once I was sitting before him at his office providing the latest update, I stopped to ask why he liked our organization so much.
The answer was not what I expected. The donor said he hated our nonprofit (exact words). He proceeded to report he had made the prior donation in honor of a beloved community friend. Then he never heard back from the nonprofit. It had been five years. He was furious.
I took it all in, apologized, mentioned I was new, and after a few months of internal repair and improved donor communications, we were able to secure a contribution from the donor again. As it happened, he was not the only donor with concerns. With some work, our capital campaign moved ahead successfully.
II. Dealing with a Shy Volunteer Solicitor
A few years later with another nonprofit, a well-connected volunteer helped open the door to the chairman of one of the world’s largest banks. We made our call together, she and I, on a Saturday morning at his vacation home. I felt sure the volunteer, who was well-spoken and influential, would handle the solicitation herself. My role would be to simply back her up with facts and figures.
We arrived at his beautiful home, complete with an impressive Western Art collection. We were offered cups of coffee. I proceeded to sit down with the chairman of the bank in his living room.
But the volunteer decided she would wander off to view his art collection. I suspected she was uncomfortable making the call. Regardless, the bank executive looked at me squarely and said, “so, what do you want?”
I handled the call myself. We came away with our desired six-figure donation, but my heart was pounding! Once again, this lesson taught me to be prepared for unplanned circumstances.
III. Getting the Job Done Without – Or Despite – Your Chief Executive
Another example involved a prospective donor couple. An advisory board member who was well liked organized a luncheon at her country club. Invited were the volunteer, the prospective donor couple, our nonprofit director and myself (in a supposedly minor role).
The volunteer and director talked knowledgeably about the work of our nonprofit over lunch. But while they talked, the husband of the donor couple – sitting next to me – started asking me questions under his breath.
“What do you think they want?” I answered somewhat generally. “How much will that cost?” I answered again but with more detailed information.
Meanwhile, the lunch and presentation proceeded very smoothly. But the truth is, I was in the midst of making the call myself.
Finally, he whispered, “Can I pay over time?” I said yes, of course. Then he said, “Okay, just send me an invoice.”
The solicitation was complete, while our director finished his group presentation!
I am often asked for advice and training about how to ask for charitable donations. So many volunteers (and staff) fear it. And while there are many helpful pointers to be shared, one cannot anticipate how each solicitation will turn out. I have found none to be identical.
As Merriam-Webster dictionary notes, flexibility is: “Characterized by a ready capability to adapt to new, different, or changing requirements.”
Simply stated, this is exactly the trait one must have when soliciting charitable donations.