Asking for Major Gifts – a presentation wot I did

by Stephen Tall on January 4, 2012

Last February, I chaired a conference on Asking for Major Gifts organised by the Institute of Fundraising. Other than trying to keep the day’s speakers to time — something at which I failed almost as badly as they did — my principal other task was to offer a ‘keynote speech’ to kick off proceedings. I’ve dusted it down, and here it is…

(The text accompanies the inevitable PowerPoint presentation.)

I expect most of us in the room today have at some point been asked to come up with a mission statement for the organisation we’re fundraising for.

And all too often something which should be easy — to define as simply and concisely as possible the great work that takes place there — ends up as meaningless techno-jargon, or so bland it could apply to any company anywhere doing anything.

Suddenly no sentence is complete without a buzzword — paradigms … infrastructure … cutting edge … innovation … global … synergies … solution-provider.

Sound familiar? Well, you might like to know that help is now at hand: go on the Internet and you will be able to find what’s known as a ‘mission statement generator’. All you do is type in the name of your organisation, and, hey presto, all the hard work’s done for you: you have a brand new mission statement.

So I thought I’d give it a go, and re-write the University of Oxford’s mission statement … Here are a couple the generator spewed out: … (Google ‘mission statement generator’ yourself and have fun with your organisation’s name.)

What is our mission statement for major donor fundraising? Well, I came across a postcard the other day that cuts right to the chase — here it is (even folk at the back should be able to read this one):

‘I need money bad’.

Direct, to the point, and (in case you hadn’t guessed) from America. But I suspect most of us would prefer something just a little more subtle. And I suspect the phrase which connects much of what we’ll hear about today is — anyone? it begins with ‘R’ — relationship-building.

Relationship-building is the key to major donor fundraising. Actually, scrap that sentence. Relationship-building is the key to all fundraising. Today’s conference focuses on major donors — but one of the challenges of course is knowing who will be your next major donor.

Some you’ll know about: the couple who gave you £100k last week, or the guy on your database worth £200m according to the Sunday Times Rich List.

But others you won’t know about: perhaps because you don’t know they’re working in the city and just earned a seven-figure bonus; or perhaps they’re the retired individual with no family and simple tastes and leaves you their entire estate.

Everyone we contact has to be treated as a potential major donor, and that means treating them all as personally as we can, whether that’s when we meet or call or write to them, or simply through the publications we send and the events we host.

But there is of course reason why there’s such emphasis in fundraising on major donors: it’s called the bottom line.

Time for a bit of audience participation. Can I ask everyone to put their hands in the air, please. Preferably your own. Okay, everyone’s hand up?

Right, put your hands down if your organisation counts a major gift as £1,000 … £5,000 … £10,000 … £25,000 … £50,000 … £100,000.

There is no right or wrong answer, by the way: major gifts are relative not absolute.

Well, at Oxford our benchmark for a major gift is £25k. Our ‘Oxford Thinking’ campaign — a campaign which embraced every part of the University, its colleges, departments, museums, libraries, sports: everything — was launched publicly in 2008 and it passed the £1bn mark last October.

The University component of that is a little over half the total, £580m. We’ve received over 27,000 gifts worth up to £25k — the total income generated was just shy of £20m.

We’ve received 1,006 major gifts (ie, a thousand gifts of over £25k) — and they’ve brought in £560m.

Put simply, 3% of our gifts have raised 97% of our total. That’s the power of major gifts.

That’s why if you ‘Need money bad’ you need to get serious about your major giving programme.

Has anyone been watching the Mary Portas’ programmes on Channel 4? For the uninitiated, Mary Portas is a consumer champion, a feisty retail guru determined to turn-around the UK’s terrible high street service culture.

She’s so far taken on so-called ‘fast fashion’ chains, sofa superstores, mobile phone shops — this week, it’s estate agents. Using hidden cameras, viewers have been shown some real shop-floor horrors: from bored, slack-jawed jobsworth shop assistants to cocky sharp-suited predatory salesmen.

Each week, Mary Portas patiently tries to introduce some simple customer service techniques: engage don’t ignore; listen don’t lecture; show don’t tell. Her point is simple. Our expectations as customers of the service we should receive have changed. We all of us expect now to be treated as participants, as individuals, as grown-ups.

Good customer service is not simply about making the sale, it’s about ensuring the customer enjoys the experience. Why? Because they’ll come back again, and tell their friends how great it was too. Great customer service is also good for the bottom line. We’re talking enlightened self-interest here.
[‘I still need money bad’.]

I’m sure we’ve all met major gifts fundraisers who have the same character flaws as the worst kind of shop assistants.

Those who are so timid that they can never bring themselves to approach the donor to ask what it is they’re looking for.

And those who are so up-and-at-em, so in-their-face to get the donor to sign on the dotted line no matter what, that they never listen to what it is the donor wants to achieve with their gift.

It’s one of the oldest fundraising truisms that the biggest single reason people don’t give is that they’re not asked.

You’ve heard that one before?

Well, let me suggest another truism: the biggest single reason people don’t give again is that they were asked badly last time.

Major gift fundraising is surrounded by its fair share of myths. Here are two of the most common: first, that to ask for a big gift you have to be a steely-nerved, hard-assed, poker-faced master-negotiator.

And the second myth is that if you’re not naturally a steely-nerved, hard-assed, poker-faced master-negotiator you’d better fake it when you do ask for a big gift.

If I can resort to a piece of techno-jargon just this once: that’s rubbish. There is no right way to ask people for money (though there are, most definitely, wrong ways).

What is crucial is that you develop your own style of asking for money — you need to feel comfortable in order to ensure the person being asked for money feels comfortable.

After all, asking for money – or being asked for money – is the most embarrassing thing a Brit can do with their clothes on. One thing’s for sure: if you are asking for money and are visibly tense or stressed not only will you make a mess of ‘making the ask’, but the person you are asking to part with their hard-earned cash is far more likely to say no…

I remember the first time I ever asked for a gift. I was hesitant, garbled, stumbled over my words. Remember Hugh Grant proposing to Andie McDowall in ‘Four Weddings’ — well, I was much, much worse. The prospect said no, and I couldn’t really blame them. Why would they feel confident entrusting money to an institution whose representative was incoherent and sweating into his shirt?

Today is not about trying to make you into something you’re not; it’s about giving you the tools you’ll need to do the job in your own way.

A second ago I used the clunky phrase ‘making the ask’. It’s the part of major gifts fundraising people often get most hung-up on — I think partly because many of us have been trained the old-school way: that there is a specific formula of words you must use, that you must ask for a specific amount, that you must hold the silence after you’ve asked.

Now, at some point you will almost certainly need to use one or all of those techniques when asking for a big gift. But they’re not the key to successful major gift fundraising.

The real key is this: how do you get people to so believe in your institution – to view its values and theirs as identical – such that you don’t need to deploy ‘making the ask’ techniques: the money just flows in.

After all, it happens week in, week out at churches: the collection plate’s passed around, and people give, willingly. They identify with the values of their church; there’s a real sense of community; and there’s an established culture of giving.

The most powerful ask that can be made – the ultimate ask – is not an eyeball-to-eyeball encounter in which a donation is negotiated between fundraiser and donor.

Rather, it is the gift which a donor makes because they share the charity’s mission, they know their role within that mission, and they realise their gift is vital to the mission’s fulfilment. At that point, you don’t need to ‘make the ask’; you’re asking without asking.

And that’s the point when your donor will understand your real mission statement — ‘I need money bad’ — and answer it with their own cheque-sized postcard: ‘I know you need money bad. So here is the cheque.’

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New post: Asking for Major Gifts – a presentation wot I did

by Stephen Tall on January 4, 2012 at 2:31 pm. Reply #

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