What If Mark Twain Was Your Major-Gifts Officer?
“It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you. It’s what you do know that ain’t so.” — Mark Twain
Great wisdom is always cryptic. Parables, allegories, metaphors — these are the ways great thinkers express great truths. It's up to the rest of us to determine how to apply those insights in ways that make our own lives better and more rewarding.
For example, if Mark Twain was your major-gifts officer (MGO), he might amble into your office, lean his surprisingly slight frame against the doorway (he was just 5 feet 8 inches), brush a fleck of cigar ash from the collar of his rumpled white suit and drawl:
"A round man cannot be expected to fit into a square hole right away. He must have time to modify his shape."
What he'd mean, of course, is that those who contribute to your regular appeals are far and away your best source for major donors. In fact, I've had more than one MGO tell me most of their major donors start out giving at the $25 or $50 level.
But turning those modest contributors into major donors rarely happens overnight. The challenge is that their giving habits are already in place. And they're not likely to change them overnight. As Twain would tell you:
"Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time."
It takes time, patience and cultivation. It starts long before you approach the donor about stepping up his or her commitment. It starts with knowing more about the donors you want to reach out to:
"There are two times in a man's life when he should not speculate: when he can't afford it, and when he can."
Ground-level research for MGOs starts with very basic things like looking at which of your donors might be willing and able to make major gifts. You might do a wealth overlay on your file, then see which donors are active in civic affairs, which are board members of other organizations, and so on.
Next, tailor an action plan to each individual. What are her passions? What motivates him? What kind of attention does she respond to most positively?
Some people like attending black-tie dinners and seeing their names high up on the sponsorship list. Others want you to visit them personally. Still others are anxious for access. They want to be noticed and appreciated by the people at the top of your organization. Or they want to be asked for their input and advice. Each prospect is different. And each one needs his or her own strategy.
It takes time, and sometimes it takes investment. But it's well worth it. I knew one MGO who took a key donor on an African safari. It wasn't cheap, but because the Officer knew her prospect and had cultivated a strong relationship, the ROI was more than worth the time and money.
So, "Attention must be paid," as Willy Loman said, but it can't be faked. People know when you're being genuine and when they're getting the canned message:
"Any emotion, if it is real, is involuntary."
Building a new relationship with a prospect is just like meeting anyone you'd like to know better. Don't come on too strong, but be gently persistent — don't look for shortcuts:
"It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech."
At this point, Twain would probably look at his watch and start heading down the hall. But as he turned away, he'd look over his shoulder and offer one last word of advice:
"Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.