Major Gift Failure Is a Path to Success
When my friends came to visit, we had a conversation about the pressure our parents had put on us when we were younger. We all agreed they meant well, but a common theme was to do things right so that we could be successful.
“I had to do everything right,” my friend said. And the implication was she couldn’t fail because, if she did, there would be trouble. I knew exactly what she meant. In my early years, failure avoidance was my central focus. I would do anything not to fail because, if I did, I would risk the disapproval of all the authority figures in my life.
We spend a lot of time in life telling ourselves and others what not to do, especially during this COVID-19 crisis. And in major gift work, this can be a block to success. It would be good to encourage the major gift officer to try new things and new approaches.
Major gift work is filled with a lot of formulas and principles for success. Jeff and I spend a great deal of time collecting and disseminating this information. And you can follow everything we, and others, pass on about how to be successful in major gifts and still fail. Why? Because you are focused on avoiding failure and rejection; or jumping through the administrative hoops of some manager; or complying to a certain way of doing things versus allowing yourself to think outside the box and try something that may fail but may also succeed.
I remember when I was working for a nonprofit as a development director. We had booked a relatively popular musician to hold a public event in Portland, Oregon. The venue seated 3,000. I knew we could pack the place if we did the promotion right.
And then, with my major gift hat on, I had a brilliant idea. For a little extra, we could have the musician go to Seattle the next night and hold a “by invitation only” event for major donors in a cozy theater at a local school. It seated 300. I knew this would work, and we could easily fill the theater because (a) it was exclusive, (b) there was limited space and (c) this would be a great evening.
The Portland event was a blow out! Amazing. We had to turn people away.
I had organized my staff to be at the Seattle event. Some helped with parking. Others helped with seating. I had almost 15 staff members there, all ready for this wonderful packed house and a wonderful evening of music.
Twelve people showed up. It was one of the most embarrassing times in my professional career. We got through the night, and I confessed to my staff and my boss that I had made a horrible mistake. I’d taken a risk and chased what I thought was a good idea. And it failed miserably.
Here’s why I am telling you this story. That one experience taught me some valuable lessons in major gifts. Among them are:
- Don’t assume that because donors have the common characteristic of being MAJOR that they are all interested in what you have to offer them as a group.
- Don’t use events as a primary cultivation tool for major donors — it’s better to have a personal relationship and personalize the activity to the donor.
- One-to-one relationships work far better than one-to-many in major gifts.
- A major donor will give more in a one-to=one ask than in an event ask. Events tend to dilute and suppress the contribution of a major donor.
- Adding a major donor agenda to a public event may not always be a good idea.
Now, you might want to argue any and all of these points, and that’s fine. I’m just saying that my failure produced instant and long-term reflection that benefited me in the major gift journey. It was a good thing.
Then there is the MGO we worked with who asked a donor she was working with if it would be OK if she, the MGO, visited the charity in which the donor had given millions of dollars. Reason: in order to gain an understanding about how the donor related to his giving. This organization was totally unrelated to the one the MGO worked for. It wasn’t even in the same sector. But the MGO spent the time and learned some critical information about how the donor related to that organization. All of this “extra activity” caught the attention of the donor who was honored that the MGO would spend that kind of time to know him better. The result: a million dollar gift to MGO’s organization.
And another MGO helped a donor give a substantial gift to another organization. I don’t have time to give you all the details here, but this MGO actually helped the donor process the pros and cons of giving to another place! Crazy. But it built trust and resulted in major giving to the MGO’s organization.
These are instances where an out-of-the-box idea generated a positive result. These initiatives could have resulted in failure, but they didn’t.
The point is that every failure and every attempt that resulted in success has brought clarity into the relationship with the donor and learning to the professional development of the MGO.
That’s how failure is. When you embrace it versus fear it, it helps you try things, and brings you gifts of learning, which gets you closer to success.
If you stop and think about anything that has been achieved in life — from inventions, to new ways of doing things, etc. — all of these successes were preceded by a series of failures, in which the person tried a new tactic and failed, and finally found their way to success. That is the nature of and pathway toward success — it is a long string of failures that cause learning and enlightenment, and then finally lead to success.
What can you try this week that will get you closer to your donor, in which you can get to know him or her better and show you care more about their interests and passions than you do about their money? How can you frame yourself to them in a way, so they really do understand you are wanting to serve them versus get something for yourself? What can you do differently during this crisis?
Dream up some crazy out-of-the-box idea, and try it. It may fail. But so what? You’ve just learned something. And that is good.
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.