How to Cultivate a Major Gift to Your Nonprofit
Face-to-face visits are the best way to secure larger contributions, what fundraising professionals call major gifts. Rarely does one knock on a door, deliver a short speech, and depart with a check for a large amount. Generally, several contacts must take place before a major donor is ready to make a commitment.
This process is often called cultivation, and the comparison of planting the idea, tending the relationship, and harvesting the result when it’s fully grown is an apt one.
Remember that it’s more difficult for donors to say no to someone sitting in front of them.
Who should ask
If possible, the board member or staff person who knows the potential donor should make the visit. If that’s not possible, the visiting team should be made up of two people who are peers of that person — perhaps a board member who’s a local business leader and the executive director. Be careful not to overwhelm a potential donor with a huge group. Two or three people are plenty.
Prepare to put forth your request
Remember that you’re not asking for something for yourself. You’re inviting the potential donor to be part of something worthwhile. When planning how to describe the reason for the gift, step back for a moment and remember why volunteering for the organization is important to you. Sally forth armed with your personal story and your case statement, which will remind you of the key points you want to mention.
Break the ice
Open the conversation with easy material. What did you find out about this person while conducting research, and how do you know her? Maybe your kids attend the same school or you’re both baseball fans. Try to use something low key to open the conversation instead of forcing yourself on your victim with a heavy sales pitch.
Don’t waste a potential donor’s time. Let her know how you became involved in the organization, and then briefly give an overview of its attributes and current situation. Team members should take up different pieces of the conversation, remembering to let the potential donor talk, too, and paying close attention to the signals she sends. Keeping the meeting comfortable for the prospect is critical.
Adopt the right attitude
When soliciting gifts, be firm and positive, but not pushy. Pay attention to how the potential donor is acting or responding and step back if you discover he isn’t feeling well or his business has taken a difficult turn.
Just as you can see signs of when not to press the case, you also may notice signs of readiness when the discussion is going well. The potential donor may express interest in attending an event at the nonprofit. Be a good listener as well as a good presenter.
Even if you can’t make a large contribution, you’ll feel more confident about asking others if you’ve already contributed — and the potential donor will find you more credible.
How to time the request
Many people don’t believe in asking for a specific contribution at the first meeting. They believe in setting the stage — letting a prospective donor know that a campaign or special program is coming up and that the organization will be seeking her help in the future.
At a second visit, they try to get this person to see a program in action or meet other board members at an informal gathering. The goal is building a relationship, inviting the potential donor to feel as if she wants to belong with the people leading your agency.
For some major gift campaigns, fundraisers use a feasibility study. In such a study, someone from outside the organization interviews board members and potential major donors, seeking their impressions of the organization and getting an idea of the size of the contribution they may make. This process both helps the organization to set realistic goals and warns the research subjects that the agency plans to come knocking at their doors.
As with any cultivation, the timing of the harvest is critical. When the time is right, it’s like recognizing a piece of fruit that’s ready to be picked. Make a date for a follow-up visit. Plan a setting where the conversation can be congenial but focused. Don’t rush (a common failing), but don’t leave without asking.
If the answer is disappointing, ask for feedback on your visit and try to figure out which aspects of your case statement the potential donor finds most compelling.
What to ask for
Before asking a potential donor for a contribution at one of your follow-up meetings, find out everything you can about the person’s gifts to similar causes. This information helps you ask for an appropriate amount.
Many people believe that you should ask for an amount that’s somewhat higher than what you expect to get, because making a request for a generous gift is flattering. However, you don’t want to ask for so much money that the potential donor feels that his contribution will be a disappointment. Donors commonly say something like, I can’t do $50,000, but I’ll consider $25,000 if that would be a help.
In most cases, when the donor suggests a level, don’t haggle. You may gently push for a higher amount by using the personal connections angle: We were hoping you might become one of our $50,000 donors, along with Joe Schmoe and Sally Smiley, but whatever you can provide would be a big help.
Mind your manners
One of the most important parts of your major gift campaign is thanking your contributors. Do it very soon after the pledge is made or the gift is received. Consider an immediate phone call or e-mail and a handwritten note. If you acknowledge a donor thoughtfully and graciously, you’re strengthening your future relationship with that contributor and making her feel as if she’s part of your organization.