Benjamin Franklin's Lesson on Fundraising Applied to the Modern Era



By Ken Ashworth, Former Senior Vice President, Training and Coaching

Benjamin Franklin, father of the nucleus fund. Given his breadth and brilliance, it is unsurprising that he understood perfectly the art of fundraising.

As a prominent leader in his adopted city of Philadelphia, Franklin made lasting, wide-ranging civic contributions that remain to this day in institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the American Philosophical Society. A printer, scientist, diplomat, governor, and author, he also was both a significant philanthropist and a noted fundraiser.

In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, he provides a glimpse into his philosophy and technique:

“The Rev. Gilbert Tennent came to me with a request that I would assist him in procuring a subscription for erecting a new meeting-house. … Unwilling to make myself disagreeable to my fellow-citizens by too frequently soliciting their contributions, I absolutely refused. … He then desired that I would at least give him my advice. “That I will readily do,” I said I; “and, in the first place, I advise you to apply to all those whom you know will give something; next, to those whom you are uncertain whether they will give any thing or not, and show them the list of who have given; and lastly, do not neglect those who you are sure will give nothing, for in some of those you may be mistaken.” He laughed and thanked me, and said he would take my advice. He did so, for he asked everybody, and he obtained a much larger sum than he expected, with which he erected the capacious and very elegant meeting-house that stands in Arch-street.”

The fundraising principles that Franklin understood 250 years ago are the same today. A brief distillation of his six principles of fundraising for the modern era:

1. Don’t ask too often

2. Respect your donors

3. Respect your donors’ privacy

4. Start from the “inside out:” begin with your best and closest prospects, the low-hanging fruit

5. Use those early contributions as leverage for donations from those who are farther removed from the project

6. As a last effort, solicit those who seem unlikely to give

As GG+A’s Senior Vice President of Training and Coaching, I draw lessons not only from my 30 years of fundraising experience, but also from the wisdom and experience of those who came before me – sometimes well before me. Much of my focus in our Training and Coaching area revolves around Major Giving. At GG+A, we combine leading-edge data and analysis with more than 50 years of industry-defining best practices to help fundraising programs thrive.

The strategies and tactics of major gift fundraising extend past Franklin’s notions, but history is full of remarkable, transformative philanthropy from which to extrapolate principles.

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Upcoming Opportunities

Check out my free webinar, “The Major Gift Treasure Hunt: Proactive Prospecting for Development Officers,” on March 3, 11:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m. CST (12:30-1:00 p.m. EST). Click here to register.

All fundraisers are welcome to attend our full-day regional conference, Accelerating Major Giving Success, in Chicago on April 4. Click here to register.

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