What’s it take to become masterful at major gift fundraising? Discipline yourself to build these seven habits into your work routine and you will raise major giving to a whole new level at your nonprofit organization.
I love golf. The relaxed camaraderie of being out on the course with friends and colleagues. The open-air and natural scenery. The satisfaction that comes from making a great shot. The endless challenge to improve your game.
My only problem is, that I’m just not very good at it. I used to be decent, but now that I don’t play nearly as often, I’ve become frustratingly inept. Even so, on those rare occasions that I do get out and play, I can still surprise myself by making a good shot occasionally. On a good day, I might even put together a string of a few good holes. If that’s all you saw, you might even mistake me for being a good golfer. But invite me to join your team and you’d soon be disappointed.
The same can be said about fundraisers. Even the most hapless amongst us can bring home a major gift every now and again. But that doesn’t make you an effective major gift fundraiser. Great fundraisers don’t stand out for bringing in an occasional big gift; they stand out because they bring it time and again, year over year. So what’s it take to elevate your game to that level?
I once heard someone say that the difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. I could not agree more. There is no clearer path to sustainable success than to start by identifying the practices that lead to good outcomes, then discipline yourself to get into the habit of living by them. Good habits drive long-term success.
Here are seven habits that will help you take your major gift fundraising game to the next level:
1) Know your donors. I often hear people talk about major donors as if they are all cut from the same cloth. Truth be told, nothing could be further from the truth. When I was working as a major gift fundraiser for an organization in Chicago in the 1990s, I remember having two separate donor meetings on the same day: one over a cup of tea with an elderly widow in the kitchen of her suburban townhome, and one with the owner of an up-and-coming wealth management firm in the boardroom of his lavish new downtown high-rise office. Both gave similarly-sized major gifts, but they could not have been more different. One was seeking to finish well. The other was looking for opportunities to make his mark. Never assume anything. The more you can learn about your donors – who they are, how they are connected to your organization, why they give, how they like to communicate, etc. — the better you will be at connecting them to your mission in a meaningful way and matching them to opportunities that will resonate with their interests and motivate them to give.
2) Know your stuff. Have you ever been in a meeting with a donor and halfway through realized that he or she knows more about your cause than you do? It happens. I’ve noticed this in particular with people who give above a certain threshold – say $10,000 and up. In fact, calling them donors does them an injustice. Let’s call them what they are – philanthropic investors. They give big because they want to make a big impact on something they have a big passion about. And they put a lot of thought into how and where they invest. To be able to hold your own with these sophisticated givers, you need to be on the top of your game. Invest time into learning and staying up-to-date on your cause. Know what your organization does and how you do it, hands down. And don’t try to “spin” them. If you want to earn their investment, you need to gain their trust. And to gain their trust, you need to know your stuff. Be authentic and transparent; avoid the “party line” and engage them in meaningful dialogue. They’ll see right through you otherwise.
3) Listen more than you talk. When I first started out in fundraising, I had it all wrong. I thought that the better I “honed” my sales pitch, the more successful I would be at raising money. Somewhere along the way, I learned that my number one job was not to pitch, but rather to listen. Donors want to be heard first, not “sold”. They want to get to know you. Sometimes they want answers to questions. Sometimes they want to offer a little advice. And yes – sometimes they just want to rant. Hear them out first. Save your pitch for later when it will count for more.
4) Carve out time for phone calls. Effective fundraisers know to make good use of the phone. The phone is probably the most effective tool a fundraiser has in his or her toolkit. In a recent article, I went so far as to call phone work a magic bullet, because more often than not, when you look back and analyze everything that went into securing a major gift, it is often a simple phone call that sets things in motion. Discipline yourself to carve out time every week to call donors – whether to make appointments, say thank you, provide an update, or just listen and learn more about them.
5) Keep meticulous records. It’s the little things in life that oftentimes matter most. The older I get, the more I realize how true that is. At the same time, the older I get, the harder it is to remember big things, least of all small details. That’s why it is so important to write them down. Years ago, I was working with an overseas client. Twice a year he would fly here to see donors – typically for ten days at a time so that his visit would cover two weekends, which helped with the scheduling of briefing events and church presentations. On one of those trips, I had helped him line up an appointment with a particularly big donor. The visit did not go as planned, however. When we arrived, the couple was clearly distracted. Turns out, one of their grandchildren had been in a car accident overnight. He was in the hospital in grave condition. They were hundreds of miles away from the family, but he was at the forefront of their minds. We prayed together and shared meaningful time, but the proposal we had painstakingly prepared never made it onto the table. Months later we returned for another visit. I coached my client to make sure he asked about their grandson, mentioning him by name, before launching into his presentation. They were moved that he remembered and shared that – while still undergoing physical therapy – the prognosis was good for a full recovery in time. This set the tone for the remainder of the meeting. This time the proposal made it out, and by the end of that visit, they’d committed the largest gift they’d ever made. Truth is, neither I nor my client could remember the grandson’s name. But we wrote it down and reviewed our notes before returning. Great fundraisers don’t rely on memory. Most typically are juggling a hundred or more different donor relationships. But they make it a habit to keep meticulous records, including notes about the little things that often matter most to their donors. It’s not hard to do. With today’s technology, it can be as simple as dictating a summary into your phone on the drive to your next appointment.
6) Follow up promptly, and keep your promises. During the course of my career, I’ve raised more major gifts than I can count. Most were not eye-popping. But more than a few have been for a million dollars or more. The biggest one ended up coming in at nearly $20 million once it was done. As a rule, anyone with similar experience will tell you that bigger gifts take more time to develop. In my experience, when asking for a gift of $10,000, $25,000 – sometimes even as much as $50,000 – it would not be unusual to walk out of the meeting with a commitment in hand. But when an ask involves a commitment north of that, it typically requires more time. These are rarely “one and done” in a single meeting. Oftentimes a donor may ask you a question that you don’t have an immediate answer to or may request information that you don’t have at your fingertips. That’s perfectly fine. In fact, experienced fundraisers welcome this type of interaction because they know that big gifts take time to close, and they are always looking for opportunities to keep the dialogue open and the process moving forward. Always remember that – assuming you are doing your job well – the likelihood is high that more often than not you will be asking donors to consider making the biggest gift they’ve ever made to your organization. They expect you to take it seriously, regardless of how many other things you may be managing. There is no better way to lose a deal than to neglect to follow up with donors promptly or to forget to do what you promised them you would. Make it a habit to follow up on each and every donor visit with a personal note, and above all – keep your promises.
7) Be (pleasantly) persistent. If you are someone who makes a habit of giving away large sums of money, it won’t take long before you start to feel like you’re the prettiest girl at a frat party. Major donors naturally learn to build up defenses after a time or two of being inelegantly propositioned by ambitious suitors with enflamed passion. When dealing with major donors, it takes time and effort to break through, and it is up to you as the fundraiser to drive the momentum. One of the biggest mistakes I see fundraisers make is to settle for “go away gifts” from donors who have the capacity to do so much more. Or they give up too easily. Major gift fundraising is an elevated form of sales. The Sales Executives Club of America recently conducted a survey, asking their members how many calls it typically takes to close a deal. What they learned is that fewer than 20% typically close deals with fewer than five meaningful touches. 81% reported that it typically took five or more touches to close a deal. Why do we expect it to be any different when closing major gifts? Far too many of us quit after the first ask. Maybe we follow up with an email or letter. My message to you is to work the deal harder. Be professionally persistent. The longer you hang in, the better your chances are of closing the gift. Shawn Saunders, one of the most naturally gifted major gift fundraisers I’ve ever worked with (who happens to also be one of our consultants), wrote an insightful article about this called Fundraising is a Contact Sport. In it, he provides eight practical tips that I would encourage you to apply to your day-to-day work.
Vince Lombardi, one of the greatest football coaches of all time, once said: “The only time success comes before work is in the dictionary”. By that, he meant that the only way to become truly great at something is to work hard at it. Good habits don’t come naturally. They take hard work and discipline. But in the end, these types of work habits are what will build the bridge that allows you to cross over from good to great.
Are you looking to become more masterful at major gift fundraising? Would you like to see your fundraising team raise their major gift game to a new level?
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