Getting to the Heart of Major-Gifts Giving
A wealthy industrialist reportedly once asked Mohandas Gandhi, “Do you need me or my money?” The famed Indian leader replied, “I need only you!” But Gandhi wasn’t against wealth or money. He just knew that people would find neither purpose nor fulfillment in it.
Some of the great philosophers and religious leaders throughout human history have had some rather jarring, even extremist, views about money. Christian Scripture relates that Jesus said to the rich man, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Now that is a big ask! But if we know anything about the heart and mind of Jesus, it’s safe to assume he made that command to the rich man not only because the poor needed his money (though they surely did), but also because the rich man needed to give it.
Your donors, like everyone else on Earth, need to give. If we humans don’t give something, somewhere, to someone, we die spiritually. That is the grace of giving. It’s about contact with something outside of ourselves, and it really isn’t just about the money. But here’s something great: Your work in major gifts unlocks the grace of giving in other people’s lives!
Most donors know instinctively that giving is good, but here are three specifics that outline just how good it is.
1. Giving subdues the power of money. Money is a powerful force. All of us feel its pull — including your donors. It represents our hard work and the emotional investment we put into our jobs.
And it can do some great things. Money can give us options, power, security and pleasure. It can help us express our feelings, and it can allow us to provide truly important things for those we love. It can boost our self-esteem and can make others respect us — or so we hope.
But stand back for a minute. Anything that powerful carries a lot of potential danger. Unchecked, the influence of money can grow until it strangles a person’s soul.
As a fundraiser, you help loosen money’s hold on people by encouraging them to give it away. When people give away their money, they begin to short-circuit its potentially negative influence in their lives. Your work of fundraising can spare them from the consequences of ultimately falling for money’s sinister game. Giving also conveys to the giver a powerful sense of having lasting significance.
The people who support your organization financially share your values and want to participate in your work. Many might even wish they could do all that good work themselves. But they know they lack the training, talent, expertise, stamina, time or opportunity it takes. Or they have those things but simply lack the motivation. Or they don’t want to disrupt their lives. Regardless, they still want to be an extension of your work.
So they give. They take the money they’ve earned through their own work, talent, skill and labor, and use it to fund your organization’s work, talent, skill and labor. Giving allows them to know they’re doing something significant. Filtering the money they earned doing their work into your organization’s work, no matter how much they give, makes their jobs — and their lives — more meaningful.
2. Giving blesses the giver. When donors give, they rise above the fray. They become deeply and immediately involved in a life beyond their own. They also confirm their deepest and truest feelings, because their hearts — the symbol of their deepest emotions and all that they care most about — guide their behavior.
In this sense, donors become linked at a spiritual level with the causes they support. The good that donors’ gifts accomplish actually becomes part of their lives. When people give to something, they are much more likely to feel connected to it. When people give to your group and good things are accomplished, the hearts and lives of the donors are deeply blessed.
3. Giving transforms lives. Unfortunately, many fundraisers seem to think asking for money is beneath them. Many just plain don’t like to ask. And these feelings are understandable. It’s not easy to talk about money. It feels embarrassing. It doesn’t seem right.
But people need to give. And the more they give, the better. Why? Because giving transforms their lives, and it transforms the lives of others.
If you’re asking honestly and using funds wisely, you have nothing to apologize for as a fundraiser. Indeed, it’s your duty to ask for their support — clearly, openly and without apology — not only for the sake of your organization’s needs, but also for the sake of your donors.
The heart of fundraising
So if fundraising isn’t all about the money, what is it all about? Quite simply, it’s one of the deepest, most powerful, long-lasting ways human beings can express love and transfer real values from one to another. As a fundraiser, if you forget that, you’re lost. But even if you are able to keep that truth in your back pocket throughout your fundraising career, you still need incredible passion to keep making the point beautifully clear to anyone who needs to hear it.
Here’s a story from Jeff that gets to the heart of the matter:
“I started my first job in fundraising 23 years ago, working for a small nonprofit on the third floor of a dilapidated building in Philadelphia. We were so small that not only did I write the appeal letters, but I also folded them, put them in envelopes, licked the stamps and took them down to the post office. The part of that job I still miss today is opening the returns. Because it allowed me to see and actually touch a tangible expression of a donor’s gratitude.”
Wait a second. Gratitude? Yes …
“I remember opening the mail and reading the brief comments from donors on the reply device about how overjoyed they were to help. I’ll never forget looking down at the squiggly handwriting on a $5 check from an elderly woman who wrote in the memo section: ‘So happy I could give this to you …’ I thought about the time it must have taken her to open my letter and read what I’d written, and then to get her checkbook, write out the check and that brief note to me, and make sure the gift was sent.
“At the age of 23, I don’t think I fully grasped the wondrously mystical connection I’d made with our donors, whose support went far beyond the money they gave. As I’ve grown more experienced and reflect back, I know that was precisely where I learned that fundraising isn’t really about the money at all. It’s really about an exchange of work and value. And, it’s about love.”
Love? Seriously? Why would someone get all mushy about this? Because when donors decide to give you even a small amount, what they are really doing is passing on to you the results of their hard work in exchange for the opportunity to make the world a better place. That’s shorthand for love in our book.
Whatever great things their gifts help you achieve, your donors give you some of the money that puts food on their tables, pays their bills, lets them take vacations, buys Christmas presents, sends their children to college or helps care for their aging parents. They are handing over a part of themselves and trusting that you will use it for good.
At the moment you receive a donor’s gift, something mystical happens. Don’t overlook that. No doubt there is a lot of pressure on you simply to get the money. Pressure comes from all sides: Your boss is pushing you. Your colleagues are pressing you with their monthly goals. There’s pressure from the board. It would be easy to just go after the dollars and go home.
It’s at these moments that you need to pause and reflect. You have a relationship with these donors. They’ve worked hard for what they’ve earned, and they happen to believe in your mission. You have a responsibility to love them like they love you.
So what does that look like in the real world? Here’s what it doesn’t look like: You come to work lifeless. Every employee around you has that look in his or her eyes — boredom, purposelessness, fatalism. “What am I doing here?” you ask yourself.
Good question. What are you doing? If you’re an organizational leader or manager and you see this zombie-like state among your colleagues — and in yourself — there’s great cause for concern.
If you’re surrounded by people who seem proud that they’re “in control of their emotions” or that they “never cry or express feelings,” you might want to run for the door. Lack of passion in an organization, and especially in a major-gifts
program, can be deadly.
Key signs your organization lacks passion
- Leaders aren’t really excited about what the organization does. In fact, not many employees are either. People are there more for the money than the cause.
- There’s no clear purpose.
- No one talks about the people who benefit from the organization’s work. Instead, they talk about themselves.
- Managers and leaders are more focused on process than on doing good.
- There’s no overarching vision for the organization.
- There is a noticeable sense of ambiguity and an absence of flexibility. Everything is in a nice, little box and very predictable. Out-of-the-box thinking is discouraged.
- The corporate culture is not supportive. Having fun isn’t encouraged.
- There’s a lot of turf protection and lack of cooperation.
Well, that’s not a pretty picture. What a restrictive, soul-sucking environment! If this sounds a bit too much like your organization, and you’re in a position to make changes, here are some ideas.
10 steps to getting passion back into your organization
1. Fall in love again with the cause or people who benefit from your organization. Who are they? What is their journey? What do they care about? How can you do more for them?
Here’s how you can encourage the people in your organization to get the focus off of themselves and back on the people you serve:
- Once a week, send an e-mail to the entire staff with a story about a dilemma faced by a person your organization serves. Usually, this is a story that is not yet resolved. The purpose of this exercise is to keep employees focused on why your organization exists.
- Once a week, share another story of a person who’s been helped by your organization, but this time make it a success story. This cements in employees’ minds that what you’re doing is really working.
- Once a month, have an employee speak to the larger group about the vision and mission of your organization and what it means to him or her. This reminds employees that what they’re doing is important.
- Do everything possible to include the persons helped by your organization every day. Hang photos of them in the hallways. Talk about their needs or desires in conversations about your business or plans. Keep them always at the top of your employees’ minds.
Your entire exercise is about your constituents. If you keep that in mind, many other things will fall into place.
2. Fall in love again with your donors. They are important stakeholders in your organization. It isn’t the board. It isn’t the president. It isn’t even you. It’s the donor who really owns the charity. Why not start behaving that way? Remind yourself and everyone else that after the people or cause that receive help from your hard work, the next person who matters is the supporter. Here are some things you can do:
- Regularly read donor letters to employees or pass along excerpts by e-mail. Focus especially on donor letters that express gratitude for being able to serve.
- Have a donor come in and speak to employees. Ask her why she’s involved and why she stays involved.
- Encourage employees to call or visit with donors to talk about their motivations for being involved.
3. Celebrate out-of-the-box thinking. Encourage employees to think differently — to create new opportunities or unconventional solutions to problems. Organize brainstorming sessions that allow employees to present ideas and focus broadly on new fields. Sometimes it’s even better if the organizational leaders at the highest levels stay out of these meetings. A freer flow of thinking gives birth to good ideas.
4. Have fun. Everyone knows what this means and what it looks like. In some companies, it’s practical jokes, random sounds on the intercom, games and competitions, going out to eat together, or just sitting around talking. Fun means laughing and
celebrating your work.
5. Publish your vision and mission. Do employees actually know your organization’s vision and mission? If not, it’s either because you don’t have them or you haven’t publicized them. Get your vision out there. Talk about it. Explain how you came up with it. Remember, this is why you’re together, doing what you do.
6. Create and publish your list of values. The fact is, even if you don’t have a written statement of values, you already have a set of values that you run the organization by. If it’s not written down, talk about the values you share with others, create a list and publish it. Focus on the people and causes you serve and the donors who make it all possible. And then live by those values! Ask employees to hold you and one another accountable.
7. Bring a person served by your organization into your work environment. There’s nothing like looking into the eyes of a person you’re helping. Bring her into, if possible, the very working heart of your organization. Let her interrupt the process of the daily routine. Gather people around her to focus back on what you’re really doing together. Find out what her life is like now and what it was like before your organization stepped in. What is her reaction to your involvement?
8. Keep talking — always — about your donors and the people you serve. It needs to happen continually, not just once. It’s important to keep this focus.
9. Get away from your desk and talk with others regularly about your donors and the people and causes you serve. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the work and be stuck at your desk or in meetings all day. Plan to be absent from your desk. Put it on your calendar. Get out of your office, and be with donors and the people you serve — for no reason other than to talk.
Spread around the joy you feel. Talk about why you’re there. Share a story of how a person your organization helped really touched you. Talk about specific donors and how encouraged you are about their help. Just get away from your desk.
10. Get emotional about things. This isn’t just about plans, charts, grids, logic and the mind. It’s about people. Allow your heart to be broken by the tragedies of life. Celebrate the victories. Get excited. Jump up and down. Be human. When your employees sense that you do have blood running through your veins, that you can cry and laugh, that you’re real — you’re on your way to getting passion back into the workplace.
Give yourself and your staff permission to think creatively about bringing passion back into your organization. A passionless staff means a passionless organization — one that is on a path toward extinction.
(This article is excerpted from a soon-to-be-published book on major-gifts fundraising by Richard Perry and Jeff Schreifels.)
Jeff Schreifels is senior parter at Veritus Group. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’re hanging with Richard it won’t be long before you’ll be laughing.
He always finds something funny in everything. But when the conversation is about people, their money and giving, you’ll find a deeply caring counselor who helps donors fulfill their passions and interests. Richard believes that successful major-gift fundraising is not fundamentally about securing revenue for good causes. Instead it is about helping donors express who they are through their giving. The Connections blog will provide practical information on how to do this successfully. Richard has more than 30 years of nonprofit leadership and fundraising experience, and is founding partner of the Veritus Group.
If you like baseball, tennis, golf, Gregorian chant, jazz, rock, good wine and deep conversation, then you’ll like to hang out with Jeff.
If you are passionate about fundraising, Jeff will inspire you to be a true “broker of love” for your donors, helping you bring together a donor’s desire to change the world and the world’s greatest needs. Jeff believes that if nonprofits truly want to grow and obtain more net revenue for their mission, it will come through creating, building and successfully managing major-gift programs. The Connections blog will give you inspiration and practical advice to help you succeed. Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit fundraising experience and is senior partner of the Veritus Group.