Leading Freedom (and Fundraising) Forward
Having relied on a large base of lower-level donors secured through traditional membership strategies since its inception 90 years ago, the ACLU never quite got around to developing a major-gifts mentality.
"This was a place that was afraid to ask many of our donors for $10 million or $12 million," Romero says. "We thought we would get laughed at or would offend people."
Adds McKay, "It wasn't that long ago when $5,000 was considered to be a major gift to the ACLU."
So what changed? Leadership. Romero took over in 2001 and hired McKay, who immediately saw the need to restructure the development department and fortify its major-gifts strategy.
As a shocking example of just how lacking the major-gift mind-set was at ACLU, Romero tells the story of hearing about philanthropist Leon Levy at a party soon after he started at the ACLU. Romero didn't know the Oppenheimer Funds founder but wrote down his name on a cocktail napkin, which he passed on to McKay.
"We did some research and found out that the good news was that he's worth a couple of billion dollars," Romero says. "The bad news was that he'd been a member since the '70s, he always renewed his membership on the first notice — and we'd never talked to him."
Within 24 hours, Romero was face to face with Levy, who greeted him by saying, "Took you long enough, didn't it?"
"I said, 'I'm here to make up for lost time,'" Romero says.
Four or five meetings later, Levy committed to giving a million dollars to the ACLU. Before that, Romero says, he was giving about $100 a year.
Other keys to success
LFF is a great example of collaboration and pure major-gifts fundraising. Large ACLU affiliates across the county got on board right away and rallied to secure gifts from their local donor bases. Smaller affiliates did what they could, and the smallest ones were able to just sit back and reap the benefits. The campaign was created to build up their staffs and resources, after all.