Beyond Grant-Writing: Getting To Know Your Major Donors

Get to know your donors:

Ever been to a store that carries just one item, in one color, style, size, or price range?

Me neither.

That’s because, once a retailer has succeeded in getting you to walk through the door, her next goal is to entice you to buy something—anything—before you walk out. If her store sells yoga apparel, she’ll also stock candles, incense, prayer beads, jewelry, yoga books, yoga greeting cards, yoga bags, yoga mats, yoga DVDs—as many diverse, yet related, items that she can, in as many price ranges as she can, to increase her odds of profiting from every customer.

Like for-profit businesses, nonprofits, too, are most stable and successful when they enjoy many different revenue streams. Grant funding may be one. Event proceeds another. Individual donations a third.

A fourth—and highly sought-after—source of support is from “major donors”—individuals who can give large sums—$5,000, $10,000, $100,000, or more—in a single gift, simply by signing a check.

Ah…but getting them to sign that check is seldom simple.

Put yourself in the donor’s shoes:

Imagine what it might be like to be, say, Oprah. With a personal fortune worth billions, consider the number of times in a day/week/year that Oprah is asked to open her checkbook to give to charity—any charity and every charity.

While not presuming to speak for her, we can imagine that she’s had to say “No” so many times that it might have become difficult to say “Yes.” Out of necessity, she might have created a semi-permeable membrane around herself so that she isn’t asked by every Tom, Dick, and Mary to fund their pet project. Conversely, she might have developed a deep appreciation for people who aren’t always asking her for money; who take the time to get to know and care about her; and who understand the causes and concerns that she is most committed to and the ways in which she likes to make a difference.

All of which means that, if you’re a nonprofit development director, your number one job is to become friends with Oprah.

Your job is to put yourself in her shoes.

Or, if not Oprah, with each and every prospective major donor.

OK. Maybe you won’t become friends with your prospective major donors. Nevertheless, your job as a nonprofit fundraiser is to at least develop relationships with them. Your job is to get to know them—on a personal level—so that you can be sensitive to what is going on in their lives, and to the very human concerns they may have beyond what they can do for your nonprofit.

The better you know your donors, the less likely you are to offend with an ill-timed request, and the more likely you are to be successful in your “ask.”

Six questions to ask yourself before you pitch:

What are some things you should know about your donors before you request a major gift? Ideally? Everything. That being unlikely, here are some starter questions you should be able to answer:

1.) Is your donor married? If so, do the husband and wife make charitable giving decisions jointly? If not, who controls the purse strings? Even if one spouse writes the checks, does he or she do so on the other’s recommendation? Is a divorce pending? If so, will it dramatically alter one or both partners’ giving ability? All these answers will affect the timing and size of a request.

2.) What are the ages and interests of your donor’s children and grandchildren? Are the donors’ parents still living?  Where do the parents/children/grandchildren live? Is the donor actively involved in their lives? Are there any major events (college, weddings, long-term care) coming up?

3.) Are the donor and his or her family in good health? Are there serious health challenges that cause a drain on family finances, or that may in the future?

4.) What, and how, is business? If the business is seasonal, or cyclical, time your request to coincide with an upswing if possible. If the donor’s industry has been in a prolonged slump, you may have to postpone major gift requests. Is a merger, sale, or other significant business transaction pending? Your request may fall on a more receptive ear if you wait until it is closed. If you have a relationship with your donor, you can ask how business is affecting his or her financial decisions.

5.) Is your donor a major contributor to election campaigns? If so, her discretionary funds may already be committed in the months preceding an election, and you’ll be better off waiting until after Election Day.

6.) What are your donor’s hobbies and interests? Does she enjoy entertaining at home? Does he have a boat, a plane, or other recreational vehicles? Is the donor a collector? Of art, antiques, vintage vehicles? These may present alternative ways for the donor to be generous if a cash gift is declined.

7.) How do the donor’s personal interests impact his or her volunteer activities and philanthropic investments? Are there ways you can happily dovetail the two—interests and investments—for your mutual benefit?

As you can imagine, all of this information is likely to affect a donor’s giving decision. If you are a skilled fundraiser, it will also affect your asking decision. More than that, your knowledge of your donors will make you a more valuable asset to your nonprofit—and a more caring friend to the donors who believe in your work.

— Leslee Goodman
Alchemy On Demand

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