Major Gifts: The Art, the Heart, the Ask and the Attitude
Henry Rosso, a legendary modern fundraising professional, created several working philosophies from his book, “Lessons from a Master’s Lifetime Experience.”
One, people need and want to give, yet many do not know how, to whom or how much. Second, people should be able to give according to their means, their own interests and their own inclinations, without pressure. The decision should be theirs.
Finally, solicitors should always focus on the mission and not on budgeted needs of the institution. The solicitation is the simple process of taking a concern and sharing that concern with another individual.
Close your eyes and think about years ago when you were in a dressing or locker room before a big game, ready to sing in a choir performance, play in a marching band or give a speech. At that time, you were transformed and caught between being an individual (self) and being a member of the group you were representing (institution). The struggle between self and institution became blurred mostly because you wanted to perform well and promote team success as a result of your efforts.
While you’re at it, think of the institution you represent today as a fundraising professional. What are its strengths, weaknesses and purpose for existence? What service does your institution provide, and how does it fit in that context? Do your fundraising plan and individual/institutional philosophy blend well with your personal beliefs? Are you representing the institution as a sales representative, or are you fully, emotionally and passionately linked to the institution that you serve? Does the individual (you) represent the organization with passion, commitment and dedication, and are you fully convinced that investments in philanthropy are put to good use?
In short, are you fully prepared physically, mentally and emotionally to make the best personal solicitation possible?
The game plan
Fundraising professionals fall into many categories. Some love to manage and administer funds, promote impersonal fundraising practices, and do everything to avoid personal solicitations. Many development professionals totally enjoy the cultivation, stimulation and education of personal solicitations, but find it hard to close gifts due to a lack of knowledge in soliciting techniques. The ultimate development professional loves the challenge of resource acquisition and can integrate education in the process of closing gifts. If that individual exists in your organization, use him or her to make major-gift/planned-gift solicitation calls.
For this type of gift presentation to succeed, one must think of the ramifications of this activity over a spectrum of time. In short, the excitement of the process is satisfying because you are doing this endeavor for the mission of your institution. Closing the solicitation activity with a gift commitment becomes a happy drug and is an indescribable feeling that involves a number of people in your organization.
According to The American Heritage College Dictionary, the word “ask” can mean a number of things, including to make a request of, such as asking someone for a contribution. One must understand that the No. 1 reason someone does not give is that they are not asked. But asking in and of itself does not equal success. One must have a positive relationship with the potential donor; be an educator, communicator and facilitator; plus be the “right” person to ask. The individual doing the asking must also understand that the proper ask follows a logical, step-by-step function.
What is most important as a first step to an ask? Getting the appointment in the first place. You need to telephone to set up a meeting, send a note confirming the appointment and then confirm the visit within 24 hours of the appointment. And when you call, you need to be specific as to the reason for the appointment and seek the time for the appointment that is best for the prospective donor.
It’s important to choose a private, relaxing place for a meeting site and find out if an individual plus his/her partner will be involved. Make the appointment details work for you to enhance the probability of success.
Once the appointment is secure, you need advance planning. I have developed the concept of P3 over the years that I use in preparation for the ask. The letter “P” stands for priorities, prospects and the processes that tie it all together. The first “P,” priorities, includes the fact that you must determine if the solicitation will feature capital renovation and construction, equipment, education, research, endowment, or a combination of priorities. You also need to determine if the ask will be for unrestricted or restricted gifts.
The second “P” is for prospects, e.g., individuals, corporations, foundations, organizations and associations. The third “P” is for process, e.g., key ingredients of staff, administration, physicians, faculty, volunteers and others.
With the P3 concept, you also need to determine through a process analysis if the ask will be for an annual gift, major gift or planned gift, or a combination gift.
Do your homework
Just as an athlete prepares for a game or a singer gets ready to perform, you also need to complete your precall homework. Some questions that need to be answered include:
● How many people will participate?
● Will the ask include a spouse/significant other?
● Who will do the asking, and who will be the educator?
● What information can I obtain regarding the prospective donor?
● Are the materials presented relevant to the ask?
● Who will create the written strategy in advance of the appointment?
● What amount will be requested?
Ring the bell (curve)
A key point to remember is the typical ask consists of education, communication and motivation. Think of a bell curve where you have an opening and closing, with most of the ask (the fat part of the curve) as the introduction of the priority being articulated. The “educator” typically is the key faculty member, program director, physician, etc., who can best describe his/her program area with conviction and excitement. The development professional typically opens the conversation leading to the ask, with the close designated to the key volunteer or peer having the best relationship with the prospect being solicited. Spend at least one or more practice sessions with the solicitation group in advance of the ask to determine who does what and when so there will be no confusion on game day.
Now you have the appointment, have rehearsed and are ready for the big presentation. You are in the prospect’s home and have one hour to complete this assignment. You have determined, based upon the bell-curve theory, that the actual ask will consist of three parts. The first part, “opening,” and the last part, “close,” will each represent approximately 25 percent of the time. The presentation of the priority to be funded needs to represent at least 50 percent of the time allotted for the solicitation, as it is the most critical piece.
Elements of the opening include reason for the visit, thanks for previous support and statement of the need for investing in the institution. The second phase includes a clear explanation of the case for support that highlights features and opportunities. The close shows the benefits, results and positive impact that philanthropy can bring if funding is secured. One must clearly ask and, most importantly, listen to the reply.
As the personal solicitation takes place, you must determine how the ask is progressing. As you listen, ascertain if the response is heading toward a no, a yes to a lesser amount than asked, a yes to the amount asked or a yes to an amount greater than the amount requested. If the yes meets your requirements, thank the prospect(s), and move into stewardship mode. If the meeting is not going well, waive the close, and seek an appointment at another time. With practice, you will perfect the process of solicitation and become more confident. With confidence and experience, you will be comfortable seeking larger gifts.
When the conversation is over and you’re back in the office, create a contact sheet, and write down any information obtained from the call. Do a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of the call for future reference, and verify your prospect research and database information. Send a thank-you note to the prospect(s) plus those involved with you in the visit. Plan your next move with the prospect, and enjoy the satisfaction of completing a task so important to your job. Schedule a post-visit meeting with the ask group to critique the visit.
When you complete your ask, critique the session, regardless of the outcome. According to Robert Hartsook, chairman and CEO of fundraising consultancy Hartsook Co., some solicitation mistakes include talking too much, answering unasked questions, failing to follow up, acting like a beggar, not knowing what it takes to make a gift happen and approaching prospective donors without a strategy.
The goal of any fundraising professional is to generate gifts of time, talent and especially treasure. The only way to generate a financial result is to request it. Whether the solicitation is oriented toward individuals, corporations, foundations, associations or organizations, one must be prepared, practice a lot, have a strategy and view personal solicitation as an exciting challenge. Remember that information involving research regarding the prospect is vital. Be sure to have ready answers to prospective donor questions.
Practice solicitations with different individuals, and get others within and outside your organization engaged in the process. Evaluate each ask made, and take many notes. Always remember, key elements include relationship building, trust, and ethical and honest representations. Try to relax and enjoy the experience. Above all, show excitement and smile!
Finally, never take the process of asking for a gift too personally or for granted. You have the honor of representing your institution to many prospective donors, and this relationship is completely institutionally driven. Your ultimate goal over time is to seek an annual, major and planned gift from the same donor. View the prospective donor as one who could do a variety of wonderful things for your organization.
Always note that you are an educator, first and foremost, but you also must communicate the message. For many fundraising professionals, the ability to make and secure a successful ask is the most important determinate of success in one’s fundraising career. FS
F. Duke Haddad is vice president for development at the Children’s Medical Center of Dayton.
F. Duke Haddad, EdD, CFRE, is currently associate director of development, director of capital campaigns and director of corporate development for The Salvation Army Indiana Division in Indianapolis, Indiana. In addition, he is also president of Duke Haddad and Associates, LLC, and freelance instructor for Nonprofit Web Advisor.
He has been a contributing author to NonProfit PRO for the past 13 years.
He received his doctorate degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis on education administration, master’s degree from Marshall University with an emphasis in public administration and a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University in business administration, with an emphasis in marketing/management. He has also done post graduate work at the University of Louisville.