Rethinking Major Gift Fundraising

In reviewing some 30 years of work in the nonprofit sector, I look back and say to myself, “well, everyone knows that.” But in truth, no one has walked in my shoes and experienced the world in the exact same way as I have. That is why I often say, “context matters.” I can suggest ideas for nonprofit fundraising and communicating with donors all day long, but in the end, the context in which you are operating influences new concepts and how they should be applied.

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Some have said I am the nonprofit version of characters portrayed by “tough guy” Clint Eastwood. Click to read more. (Wikimedia Commons, Franco Pagliarulo, 2011)

But from the world of, “just tell me I can’t do it, and I will,” I wanted to point out that I have continued to update several key major gifts pages on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog. Foremost among them is, “Are You Ready for a Capital Campaign.” There I quote a solid, traditional professional in our field. Alongside his suggestions, I make comments based upon my experiences. In tandem, some of my most important fundraising experiences are discussed in, “Are You Ready | Is It Feasible?” Feasibility studies have long been the bread-and-butter of the standard nonprofit consulting business, but I have a different take on them.

“Taking a Step Back Will Lead You Forward” is an article on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog that I fine-tuned and gave as a webinar for ADRP: Association of Donor Relations Professionals in 2018. Yes, there are things nonprofits can do to instill donor confidence as they chart a course forward for major giving. A consultant does not need to be hired and paid a handily to tell you to do these things. #JustDoIt

Since Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog was launched in 2011, I have noticed many innovative social good entrepreneurs are rejecting traditional approaches to major gift fundraising. If you read, “Nonprofits and Startups | Birds of a Feather,” you will discover how similar major gift campaign preparation is with launching a for-profit business startup. In fact, I have suggested that 3 Day Startup, which I reference in the article, re-engineer their course with nonprofit social good enterprises in mind, and with an eye to major gift “investments.” Times are changing! I would love to see NTEN: Nonprofit Technology Network and AFP: Association of Fundraising Professionals team-up with 3DS for “power” sessions along these lines.

Crowdfunding

As I say on my nonprofit resources page, which includes quite a few articles by other experts on crowdfunding, many of the same principles apply to major gift fundraising as they do to launching a startup or crowdfunding. To think the latter two efforts are easier than traditional major gift fundraising is incorrect. The same attention to planning, research, communication and the like apply to all of them. They are just different ways of reaching the same result: securing major gifts. Keep in mind, each nonprofit is unique. A traditional major gift campaign may not be the best option for your organization today.

Something I would like to see – having pulled major gift fundraising campaigns out of the gutter on more than one occasion (without support of any kind) – is a reduction in the condescending attitude of many in the “big box” consulting community. “You couldn’t possibly know how to work with major gift donors! We’ll do that for you.” Even the most well-meaning among them can bill you heavily, and sometimes they will walk off with your nonprofit’s contacts.

From the other side of the table, I have also found some donors and potential donors like the hooplah they perceive as being involved in major gift campaigns. The hiring of expensive “consultants” is part of what they believe to be essential. #Resist

Real major gift donors do not need expensive consultants to help the nonprofit organizations they care about. Be careful.

If you have questions at any time, use the secure contact form on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog to reach me. I am in the process of merging my professional work and volunteering website with my blog, so you will see some new information added to my blog the next few weeks!

As always, best wishes for your fundraising success.

Carolyn M. Appleton

February 27, 2019

 

Summer is “Development” Time

I sometimes hear nonprofits lament that summertime is so “slow.” Nothing is happening. Most donors and prospective donors are out of town on vacation, they tell me. But in my experience, summertime is a busy time for development.

I have discovered quite a few grant deadlines occur during the summer and that requires attention. I have also found some donors actually have a bit more time to spend on their favorite nonprofit projects during the summer. Brainstorming meetings, planning for the fall, “asking” for support, database house cleaning and expansion, research, case statement drafting and year-end fundraising campaign development are all things I have done during the summer months. Don’t forget, many corporations budget late summer for social good projects they will underwrite next year. Summer is a great time to visit with your favorite corporate sponsors.

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Earlier this year, I was asked to help the Port Aransas Art Center part-time. As you may know, Hurricane Harvey battered Port Aransas last year, but as the Instagram photo above from Coffee Waves suggests, the community is back on track and working hard to recover. It is well on its way.

As for me, I am helping to establish a new development program, I have been modernizing the website, enhancing social media, creating new e-newsletters so that we have regular monthly e-communication with constituents, securing a GuideStar gold seal and more. It has taken a lot of time, but when you work with a dedicated group of volunteers and staff, your work is enjoyable and inspiring.

I added a new section in the margin of Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog for “Quick Updates” with handy links. Please peruse my article on social media stewardship for the Association of Donor Relations Professionals’ monthly newsletter, The Hub. You might also enjoy reviewing the slide decks for my webinar and public presentations this year.

I have always been a “hands-on” learner and I readily adopt new technologies that enable me to become even more self-sufficient. Still today, I do most all work myself. This, plus years of experience in major gift fundraising make me a good teacher for those new to the fundraising profession, for startups with big ambitions, and for nonprofits that are perhaps a bit, “overweight” that need to streamline.

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Another new section of my Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog is called, “A Brief Account: Short Stories.” There I share personal experiences with leading philanthropists. Some of my stories are humorous, some heart warming, but always, I try to be insightful and to share what it takes to work successfully in the field of nonprofit fundraising. Fundraising – especially major gifts – scares some nonprofit professionals. I came to the field via volunteering and a Master’s Degree in Art History. Ultimately, I hope by sharing my stories that fear will be lessened, and more interested professionals will enter our field.

Have a good summer. And now for me it is time to get, “back to work.”

Don’t forget to “refresh” your browser now and again while reading Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog. I have added a new series of photo “headers” from my work over the past several years.

Being a Bridge

Pennybacker Bridge, Austin, Texas

Bridges make connections possible. Bridges facilitate the crossing of people, “from one side to the other.” Shown is the breathtaking Pennybacker Bridge, a “through-arch bridge” located on the west side of Austin in the scenic hill country. Click on the photograph to learn more about it.

I have always thought of nonprofit fundraisers as “bridges” between their organizations and donors. Development professionals must constantly make connections and translate their nonprofit’s mission and needs to individuals, families, foundations, corporations and governments in such a way that funding is provided.

Nonprofit programmatic staff and some board members sometimes lack the skills (or the inclination) to speak with potential donors, and often they do not enjoy asking for financial support. This is where development staff shine, of course.

When I lived in Dallas in the 1990s, I worked on a variety of nonprofit fundraising campaigns, some in their entirety (from start to finish), others for more limited engagements (only for grant research, writing, solicitation, publications and the like). Once, I came across a nonprofit board chairman who was highly regarded in the community, but he had an abiding fear of asking anyone for a donation. A fundraising consulting firm his nonprofit had hired felt the board, including this noteworthy volunteer, were generally useless. Everyone involved had become frustrated. But, I knew there was a way to turn this situation around.

I assured the volunteer that during our forthcoming meeting – which happened to be with one of the leading bank trust departments in Dallas – that he only needed to speak about his passion for the nonprofit and the good it was accomplishing in the community. I promised to pick up the conversation once he was finished, to handle the request for funding and how best to follow-up. Luckily he trusted me and our meeting went very well. Together, we lined the nonprofit up for a six figure donation, which was ultimately received.

In this way, I acted as a bridge between the nonprofit and the prospective donor, but also between my distinguished volunteer and the trust department staff. I understood intuitively that in order to get this critical job done, we had to build a few bridges before arriving at the desired destination.

There is another factor I have discovered in working with major gift donors and nonprofit organizations seeking support, one that reminds me of being a “bridge.” This concerns the donors themselves.

Nonprofit staff (and the general public) sometimes assume that sophisticated, affluent donors are experts in every topic under the sun. But the truth is, they are experts in the fields where they have excelled and thrived. This may or may not include understanding how your nonprofit works and what it is accomplishing (or what it hopes to accomplish).

Nonprofit development staff can be of invaluable help by translating organizational information to donors and prospective donors in an easy-to-understand fashion, and vice versa. Yes, sometimes translating the donor’s needs and perceptions to fellow staff is required. This enables you to continue forward with a successful partnership negotiation, for example.

Development professionals are indispensable links between their organizations and funding partners. This often takes both verbal and written forms, as the case may be. Development staff must be able to translate in an understandable fashion critical information, and in both directions: internally and externally. This is truly an essential role that should not be taken for granted!

Understanding Prospective Donors

  • Lila MacLellen wrote for Quartz, “Science Confirms Rich People Don’t Really Notice You – Or Your Problems” (October 23, 2016). “No one can pay attention to everything they encounter. We simply do not have enough time or mental capacity for it. Most of us, though, do make an effort to acknowledge our fellow humans. Wealth, it seems, might change that.”
  • For me, Taylor Shea’s article for Reader’s Digest nails my experiences with affluent donors, “How Rich People Think: 25+ Things They Won’t Tell You” (N.D.). “Anytime the newspaper lists my name among the 100 top-paid executives in the area, I get a ton of requests from people asking for money. It happened so much that I had to come up with a strategy to deal with it. Now I say, ‘I’m happy to give. I’ll match however much you raise yourself.’”
  • From The Wealthy Accountant, “5 Things Rich People Do That You Don’t” (August 3, 2016). “Wealthy people have vision. They know where they are, where they are going, and how they will get there.”

Some of you might also enjoy my article, “Ph.D.s and Fundraising.” There I discuss the pitfalls of working with very bright programmatic staff who are hopeless when it comes to explaining what they are accomplishing to the public and/or to donors. I’ve been a “bridge” for many years; I find Ph.D.s to be among the most difficult to work with in a development context (although I find their research and discoveries fascinating).