Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.
Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants advice on how to handle gift solicitation when more cultivation is needed first.
Dear Charity Clairity,
What do you do if the purpose of your visit is to get to know the donor better, understand what floats their boat, and begin to build a trusting relationship, yet midway through the conversation they ask “what do you want?” I ask because this happened once when I thought the donor wasn’t really well enough cultivated for an ask. How do you slow a donor down to get them where you want them to go?
— The Tortoise
Fundraising isn’t an Aesop’s fable. Some donors are hares. They cut to the chase fast, and it’s not your job to slow them down.
It is your job to get them to a place where they feel really good about giving.
Some donors will feel best nailing their commitment down today, without additional cultivation. They may feel that they already know what they want to do, their time is precious, and they don’t want to prolong the visiting.
That’s why the best fundraisers are good listeners who stay really attuned to the donor. Sure, it’s great to walk in the door (or Zoom session) with a cultivation plan. But, it should be a flexible plan. If this visit is one of several planned major gift ‘moves,’ that’s swell. But if you discover you don’t need any more moves with this particular donor, be prepared to not hold back.
You should ALWAYS be prepared to ask!
When you’re with a donor, it’s their time. And their agenda. If they say “How can I help?” – before you even make an ask – this is not cause for consternation. You’re at a good place!
Be prepared to go with your donor’s flow.
“Readiness” to be asked is a subjective thing. If they demonstrate they’re ready, take them at their word.
TRUE STORY: I was once on a visit with an executive director (ED) where exactly this scenario occurred. The donor said “What do you want from me?” The ED said “Oh, we’re not here to ask you for a gift today. We just want to get to know you better.” I immediately saw the donor, a high-powered investment banker, lose respect for the ED. They knew what this was about, wanted to know how they could be most helpful, and didn’t want their time wasted. Because this ED couldn’t be nimble, the organization ultimately received a token gift – one that was significantly smaller than the donor’s previous gift.
It’s great to have a general road map for how you handle major donor cultivation and solicitation. Just be sure you use it as a guideline, and not a rigid structure from which you’ll permit no deviation. Major gift fundraising is personal, and every person is unique. Cookie cutters won’t work.
TRUE STORY: I know a university major gifts officer (MGO) who planned to visit an alum. He wasn’t planning to ask. Since he was pretty new to the job, he just wanted to say thank you and get to know the donor a bit. However, when the alum’s son learned of the visit he called the MGO to say: “Make sure you ask my Dad for money. He likes to be asked.” The MGO felt awkward about this and didn’t take the son’s advice seriously. They had a nice lunch, he drove the donor home, and the donor handed over a check for $1,000. The MGO said “Thank you. You’ve already made a gift this year, and that’s so nice.” The donor put his hand in his pocket, pulled out another check for $5,000, and said “That’s what I was going to give you if you asked.” Then he tore the check up!
MORAL: Don’t concentrate so hard on the relationship-building that you forget the purpose of building the relationship! You’ll always need to ask, and sometimes the right time is sooner than later.
— Charity Clairity
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