Some years ago when I was an experienced gift officer but still had a lot to learn, I received perhaps the best advice that forever improved my fundraising approach. I was working with engaged prospective donors, but most of them appeared to be in a state of extended cultivation. That’s a phenomenon in which we endlessly circle around the prospective donor like a plane looking to land, waiting for exactly the right circumstances before we ask them for a commitment. I had put in too much time with these alums and I wanted to be sure that all was right before I made a request.
I went over my strategies with the Vice President, and upon hearing me out, he simply said, “Joe, I think the problem here is that you’re looking for the perfect scenario to exist before you ask.” He added that the chase for the perfect set of circumstances is a Holy Grail. It was his philosophy that the sooner you get to “open” with a prospective donor, the better. That is when real understanding of the donor’s motivations and the potential obstacles begins. I wasn’t exactly sure how it would play out, but he lit a spark. I heeded his advice, and found that it worked for me on many levels.
Years later, I found myself bringing that very same philosophy not only to the donors with whom I worked, but also to the fundraising teams I led. I discovered through experience that the earlier I could put a reasoned request in front of the donor, the sooner we could work together on solving for those human conditions that so often determine the timing and success of a major gift.
This strategy takes some practice as there are certain nuances at play. By this I don’t mean we should ask for a major gift at the first meeting. We need to go through the natural process of getting to know the donors, understanding their passions, and helping them to learn about our institution and the people who make a difference. We always need to be reading the donor and considering those life circumstances that may impede progress. That said, once those boxes are checked off, I have found that it is best to then proceed with a request without delay.
My style was such that I made it a casual part of the conversation. I would simply say something along the lines of, “You know, I’ve been reflecting on our conversation and I want to run something by you.” At this point I would proceed with a soft ask by throwing out a project with some detail, one in which I knew the prospective donor was interested, and I would throw out a number. (Remember, it is not a request if a dollar figure is not mentioned.) It was the donor’s response to that question that got the ball rolling in the right direction.
From the donor’s response I could learn if the project I had in mind was indeed the right one. What about it was right for this donor? What about it needed to be different? Did the donor trust the person in charge of the program to deliver? Was the ask amount right? Were they thinking about their assets in addition to an outright gift? There are so many questions that come up from such a simple exchange – too numerous to elaborate on in a blog post – but the bottom line is that by putting the question out there early, I was able to directly address key questions with the donor, which expedited the process.
As you reflect on your own portfolio, and especially on those potential donors whom you have been cultivating for some time, try taking the advice I heeded years ago: press forward with an ask the next time you meet with your prospect and see where it takes you.