Taking a Step Back Will Lead You Forward

Which way do I go? (Image c/o Microsoft Office Online)

With more than thirty years of hands-on experience in the trenches of nonprofit fundraising and communications, I have discovered strategies that have led to securing major gifts. These involve thinking smart, stepping into the shoes of prospective donors, and by doing thorough advance preparation (in-house). I have tackled several very difficult fundraising projects, some that were considered, “impossible.” But in the end, with some hard work they were quite possible!

Most every nonprofit organization wants to receive substantial donations, but not many understand the processes involved in making that happen. For most, “lots of zeros” (by that I mean goals in the hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars), can be intimidating. We often think automatically that when lots of zeros are involved, that outside consultants are naturally required. That is in part because most of us think large financial goals also mean lots of prospects, and managing them properly seems overwhelming.

But most major gift campaigns succeed by identifying and cultivating a relatively small number of capable prospects, and most of those may already be within your fold (although you may not know that at the outset). Do you need an outside consulting firm? And whether or not you do, are there things you can do yourself in order to prepare?

Nonprofit executive directors are among our greatest advocates and cheerleaders. Often, it is their vision that guides a nonprofit forward to stellar heights of success. Having said that, executive directors sometimes fail to understand what is involved when a prospective donor is approached with a meaningful funding request. A casual conversation at lunch or in the elevator won’t work. Sometimes our executive directors are impatient, and they can also be blind sighted to the nonprofit’s fundraising challenges when it comes to major gift efforts.

I suggest you as a member of the staff consider meeting with your constituents in advance to get a “read” on how they feel about your nonprofit and its major gift fundraising plans. This is not about asking for money, at least not yet. You might also include in your discussions community influencers, partner non-profit executives and elected officials.

What can we assume about major gift donors? Well, making the decision to award a meaningful amount of money requires confidence on the part of the donor. What might they want to know? They will want to know your organization is well run, that you submit regular tax returns, that you operate in a businesslike fashion, that you have a trustworthy banking relationship, and reputable Board oversight. Making sure your prospects know all these things and more requires lots of listening, thoughtful documentation and on-point communication. I have found that you cannot assume anything when it comes to launching a major gift campaign. Don’t think that because you have sent your constituents e-newsletters regularly, annual reports, and that you post regularly on social media that they truly have the depth of knowledge they will require to make such an important decision.

Frequently, nonprofits decide to hire a consultant or firm to conduct a “feasibility” study. By having an objective review of your nonprofit by an unbiased, outside representative the thought is, your prospects will be more candid in their responses to pointed questions.

But what I have found is that staff know the organization best. Why not consider taking this duty in-house? I have never found a donor to cover up their feelings when asked candidly in person what they think, by members of the staff.

When I lived and worked in Dallas, I was recruited to work on a major gift campaign that had some stellar endorsements. But once I jumped in and started talking to prior contributors, I found out there were some problems. First, they had not heard from the nonprofit for five years. They had given with great heart in honor of a beloved civic leader, then felt they were “dropped” by the nonprofit. They were actually angry! And, I was shocked (and upset) to learn they did not have a high opinion of the organization. Clearly, we had some damage control to do.

Oftentimes, a professional but simply designed and printed document will work quite well for a business report or a campaign case statement.

My response was to stop visiting with them (in part because it was such a painful exercise), and I researched and wrote up a multiple page report about what had transpired over the past five years. I included a few photographs of the project funded, and I had the document printed up and bound at a local copy shop. These reports were then mailed with personalized cover letters to all prior donors and to others we wanted to influence in a positive way. And, this did the trick! By taking a step back, we were able to move forward to raising millions once that report was received, our problems were acknowledged, and we promised to move forward in a more thoughtful fashion.

Some of us have represented religious organizations. I once worked with a diocese that conducted “rolling” major gift campaigns. By that I mean, they went from one campaign to another without much of a break. In fact, they did not tell their donors when one campaign ended, and the next one began. Frequent donors to the diocese had become fatigued. They did not understand what the diocese was doing in terms of its fundraising, nor in terms of its strategic vision for the future.

Sometimes religious organizations feel their work is God’s work, and that knowledge should be enough. But the truth is, there is a human need to bring a significant community project to a formal conclusion. In my situation, we organized an event for donors at the local country club and had our diocesan leadership speak about the success of the earlier campaign. We also wrote about its success – already more than one year had passed – in a new “hard copy” newsletter designed specifically for donors and for prospective donors. And it worked! We took a step back, and we moved forward.

I hold a Master’s Degree in Art History, and I have worked with various arts organizations over the years. One of the most advanced was known for beautiful, artfully designed annual reports. The typeface was tiny and it followed a style that was fitting with “minimalist” aesthetics. You could read the reports, or you could look at them as works of art. But when it came time to ask for major gifts, I discovered the donors had not read nor absorbed the content of those reports. They did, however, place them proudly on their coffee tables and on their bookshelves!

So, I started all over with a more simple, direct approach: an entirely new, factual, easy-to-read business report that was not graphically sophisticated. There was no ask included, just in-depth information provided. And once I did this, the money started coming in. In fact, these donors were hungry for timely information from the nonprofit, and they were quite generous with their subsequent donations. But, we had to take a step back before we could move forward.

One of my primary suggestions revolves around D-I-Y or “do it yourself.” Take a step back and view your own nonprofit as objectively as possible. Think it through as if you did not work there, as if you yourself were being asked to make a major donation. What questions would you ask? Would difficult situations the nonprofit is working through, upset you? When it comes to the major gift campaign budget for construction purposes (if that is what you are doing), what happens if supplies and materials go up in cost at the last-minute? Should you give yourself some leeway in the budget, just in case? These are the kinds of issues that have arisen in my earlier campaign work. Your thoughtful, in-depth research and your honesty in sharing this information with prospective donors will earn you and your nonprofit respect (and donations, I might add).

We in the nonprofit sector tend to think we are communicating well, and that everyone knows and understands what we are doing. E-newsletters, annual reports, brochures, public presentations and the like do help. But when it comes to major gift decision-making, your donors are going to want more in-depth information. They need to “buy in” to your reason for running such a significant campaign.

As I have alluded, major gift efforts need their own documentation. Often, it is not glamorous. Another experience I have had, is that when hiring an outside firm to create a case for support document, unless they know your nonprofit, its donors and their interests well, they can produce expensive but useless documents. I have seen nonprofits spend upwards of $200,000 for useless consulting services.

Why not review your current communications carefully in-house, and either produce your own case for support (and one you can reprint easily at a local copy shop or in the office), or at least be ready with in-depth documentation to give to your consultants. In either case, you will save your nonprofit money and frustration.

Some nonprofits with which I have worked are actually afraid of their donors. But I have found – after a few bruises in the major gift solicitation arena – this can be overcome. Today, I am not sure I would leave these sensitive kinds of inquiries to an outside consulting firm (that is just my opinion). Through the discovery process, you will learn that your prospects actually grow closer to your organization. Asking for advice, not money, shows you respect and trust them. You cannot buy that kind of relationship. Own it! Meet with your prospects individually. And remember, when people are in a group setting, they often hide their true feelings. Your aim should be to visit with prospects or their professional advisors privately. This takes time, but it will open your eyes and set you and your nonprofit on the pathway to success.

Donors and prospective donors can throw you a, “curveball.” I have experienced this on several occasions. I assumed they were completely happy with my nonprofit. But sometimes, when you ask them frankly, they are not entirely pleased. To which I say, keep a cool head. Stop and respond to any questions and concerns, and if you do not have the answer right then, promise to get back to them soon.

The first time I was blind sighted by an angry donor, it truly did shock me. I blushed bright red and I became flustered. In fact, the first time I experienced this, I thought I might have to leave the profession entirely! I simply was not used to someone being genuinely upset with the organization I was representing. But through that experience, and by following up in a meaningful way, I gained personal strength and now I love enjoy asking for major gifts.

I would suggest that before launching a major gift campaign, that you consider producing what I am calling, “a business report.” Do not launch a campaign before reviewing your entire organization from top to bottom, and writing down the most important points in a formal written, “plain Jane” report. Be honest. Share your successes, but do not forget to share your challenges. Some donors prefer helping their nonprofits overcome challenges on their way to providing greater public service. A negative can become a positive, but only if you address it head-on and honestly. By taking a step back, you will indeed move forward.

Fair warning: this kind of preparation requires a lot of work in the trenches. A suggestion I would like to share is that you consider either: 1) putting an existing staff member in charge of managing your forthcoming campaign, or 2) hiring a seasoned fundraising professional who works side-by-side with staff as a normal job (not an outside consultant who will talk to you, but actually do nothing). Protect your relationships with your nonprofit’s donors, and keep them “in-house.” You want to deepen their commitment to your mission and goals, and not to have the consultant walk off with those important relationships.

Having said this, if you feel you need an outside consultant or consulting firm, everything I have shared with you will help you make use of their time and talents more effectively, and you will not waste your nonprofit’s precious time and money.

In the end, communication is central to a successful development program. Review how your organization has communicated, and while you do not want to overdo it, develop an updated communication plan that includes factual reporting about what has already transpired and about what the future holds. Again, this kind of documentation does not have to be a glamorous production, but it must be professional, clear and honest. And it should ultimately make your work raising significant donations more successful.

This is the text of a webinar I presented for ADRP: Association of Donor Relations Professionals on March 29, 2018.

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