Why Them and Not Us?
I just read about Harvard receiving another eight-figure gift, substantially adding to its huge endowment coffers. And here you are, a development officer for a venerable institution, wondering what it is about Harvard that enables it to habitually attract such large gifts. As a consultant, I encounter this wonderment from my clients regularly. So I’ve begun asking the people who make those large gifts.
While everyone would like to think there’s some magic fundraising bullet out there, what it comes down to is old-fashioned development work — creating a firm foundation on which rest several delicate layers of organizationally sound principals that can bring your institution into the fundraising league it deserves to be in.
People who have a lot of money available for philanthropy typically have earned it or preserved it through astute scrutiny of investment opportunities. A key factor investors evaluate is the quality and track record of the people who are in charge and leading the organization. It’s important for the CEO to be a leader with a big, long-term vision, who can inspire and convey a sense of passion and urgency. Your board must inspire confidence and the likelihood for future accomplishment. A philanthropic investor wants to protect and maximize his or her investment and will consider the quality of your organization’s leadership as relationships are being built.
Is your board of directors heavily invested in the institution? Who’s giving generously to your organization, and is there social capital to be earned by being associated with publications and at events with the organization and its high-profile donors and board members? Who provides staff leadership, and how stable has it been? You can address these questions at your organization.
Age and stability
The same philanthropic investor who’s looking for stability in volunteers and personnel also is looking for organizational stability.
Has the institution been around for a generation or two; does it have some enduring traditions and a strong brand in the community? Do you have a reputation for strong financial management; do you have a large enough cash reserve to weather a financial downturn? Do you have the maturity to implement a new program effectively and deliver on its objectives? If I include you in my estate plan, will you be around when I die? Can your organization provide my family with recognition, leaving a legacy for my kids to remember (and replicate) and from which to learn the joys of philanthropy?
Mission clarity and timelessness
Your organization’s mission is key to nurturing relationships with donors. These are busy people and not as well versed with your mission as you; its complexities may be lost on them. When someone makes a large gift to an institution, he likes to be able to articulate to his family and colleagues what he’s supporting and why.
Therefore, your mission’s timelessness is important, and the simpler your mission is to grasp and describe the better. Timelessness means the need will always be there and that it’s emotionally understood and appreciated by the uninitiated. Food banks fight hunger. Children’s hospitals save children. Universities prepare our future leaders. Research organizations cure disease.
It’s common knowledge that today’s donors, large and small, want their donated dollars to be used efficiently and to result in direct, high-quality program services to support your organization’s mission. Communicating this will forge an emotional connection between your donors and your organization that will prevail when compared to other organizations that don’t. You need to show how gifts have resulted in furthering the mission, as well as the challenges you faced.
Make the donor your partner in successes and challenges through peer-level advisory committees and personal meetings. It’s your honesty with those challenges that can result in larger gifts. How many families have been fed? How many children went home in good health? How much closer are we to a cure?
Use your facilities
Making an organization’s case more tangible is challenging. One way to accomplish this is to have a facility to show off, to tour or to build that will advance the mission. Enabling a donor to “kick the tires” provides a sense of stability, legitimacy and longevity — vital feelings for a major donor when considering a pace-setting gift. If your organization isn’t facilities based, your programs have to take place somewhere. Take your donors there.
Your development program
Leadership at the organization’s highest level is the critical element for success for any organizational undertaking, and, increasingly, high-end fundraising leadership is staff driven. Development staff members are forming their own relationships with donors, becoming the institution’s face. The development office and officer are playing a more pivotal role in securing larger gifts. In order to identify, attract and maintain a relationship with donors, and move them upward in their generosity to your organization, your development operation must include likable staff and a commitment to excellence in preparation, research, cultivation, presentation, gift strategy, leadership involvement and donor stewardship.
These points guide you in addressing those aspects of your organization that need to change to move it into a higher league in the minds of your donors and leadership. Change will be incremental, and presents a “chicken or egg” dilemma. How do you attract the volunteer leadership you need to attract the volunteer leadership you need? How do you make that leap?
Consider a leadership-recruitment strategy using the notion of “marginal utility.” Meet with your current and prospective leaders and discuss the subject of this article: “Why Harvard and not us?” The discussion can migrate to the relatively larger effect a six- or seven-figure gift would have on your organization compared to a bigger institution. Potential leaders and high-dollar givers can see how their leadership will bring the same relatively higher value to your organization because it stands out and attracts followers.
Larry Raff is vice president of Copley Harris Company, Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.