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3 Questions Distressing Organizations

When you are thinking about tough questions, think about them in a beautiful space like the one above. Here are three issues that plaque organizations and development officers and are continually raised during any of the consulting work that I have been doing--and here are my answers.

What do you do to be successful in fundraising? There are so many things that can be done and so many fundraising approaches that can be used. Usually I outline these for each organization. But the one big mistake that I see throughout my consulting is simply this: the failure to ask. Yes. Failure to ask.

Organizations that have the best mission, the most lovely web site, a great leadership team, but no one is going out to meet with a donor, not even the development staff. You cannot sit in the office and await a call. You must be creating communication opportunities with your donors. This is true at every level of the organization.

Sitting in your office now? Choose five individual prospects. Rate them high to low for how risky they might be to you, for whatever reason (level of the ask, ease of reaching them, probability of a gift, don't know them or know them too well, didn't do a good job following up with them the last time...your definition of risk). Choose the least risky--write him/her/them a nice email and let them know you are going to call them. Then call them in a day or two. If you can't reach them, call again. Briefly tell them about your organization and why you are calling and then arrange a meeting. Or update them on the strategic plan for the future. Or ask them to support a program. Thirty minutes is all that is needed, be clear about that with yourself and with them. Go out of your office and meet with this person and do the same with the next four prospects. Then the next five.

The fundraising guru, Jerry Panas, once told the story that his boss saw him in the hallway one day and said. "Jerry, I haven't seen you in weeks. Where have you been?" And Jerry answered, "Just doing my job--out seeing donors." His boss said, "Then what are you doing here now? Keep working." When you are having 3-4 or 5-6 meetings a day with donors, you will start some real momentum. And you will have a great deal of job satisfaction and a greatly improved bottom line.

But the big donors, they don't want to meet me! What can I do? You know what? Whether someone is a big donor or a smaller donor, they are much like you and me. Yes, they have more money and probably busier schedules. But many of these people have time on their schedules for philanthropic discussions. They have kids in schools seeking funding, they want to see their region be successful, they may even have a medical problem for which they want to improve outcomes. Your brief contact with them can start a trail of meetings and this is a beginning. And each meeting leads closer to a gift from them because they will trust you and the mission more and more over time.

I remember a prospect who I found quite intimidating. It took me a full year to get a meeting. He would schedule and then just a day before the meeting his secretary would cancel, he was called out of town. I was not discouraged (well, maybe just a little). As frustrating as it was, I just knew there was an opportunity there. The physician with whom I was working and I had 30 minutes with him one day and we committed to each other to use just 20 of those minutes and once we made the ask, we planned to be silent. Hoping he would fill the quiet space.

Just before I left the office, I remember that the director of our efforts called me and told me not to be disappointed when I got nothing, that the donor had no intention of giving. Thanks, I needed that in the high stress moments prior to the meeting. But I just knew there was a relationship that was developing, I trusted my instincts and forged on.

That day the prospect never cancelled, he was waiting for us when we got there at his headquarters downtown. We used just 20 minutes, very efficient. And very earnest. At the end this most lovely man agreed to make a $1 million gift and then help us match it. He was so thrilled and so were we. From start to finish and then to the car, it was literally 25 minutes. He was true to his word--he helped us raise another $1 million. Years later I met with him and he told me that he had met many development officers and physicians, but none as effective as the solicitation that day. I savored that moment for sure. Still do.

You have practiced and have the hang of it in fundraising. That makes everything easier for you, doesn't it? That and the organizations for which you worked! Well, I will agree, you really can practice the art of fundraising. Every time I asked for a gift, whether I got it then or later, with every meeting I reviewed the meeting and asked myself how I could have done a better job. These are the things that kept me up at night. How could I work more effectively? Anyone can do this, no matter the field.

I had people who told me that I worked for Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center--those were easy organizations when it came to fundraising. Yeah, right. Maybe I made it look easy, but I worked so hard every day and my days were long days.

Fundraising is a very tough calling no matter with which organization you are involved. As long as I have been in the field, I still have my big fear of rejection with which I have to contend. I am actually quite shy and have never been comfortable calling people on the phone, but you do what you have to do to meet the needs of the organization. The organization depends on development officers and their organizational partners to keep the mission afloat. And there is a sense of urgency in your cannot come into the office and just sit and pass the time (slackers know who they are). You are accountable for every minute--other people are counting on you. So commit to the fact that you must ask, you must do your homework with every meeting and you must follow-up on all of the details. Thanking the donors will become a lifetime of commitment--this will keep you strong and happy.

Working at Children's and the Cancer Institute could never have been characterized as easy fundraising--but the missions were urgent and every day something would happen or someone would call and underscore how important time was. That's true in every organization or the mission wouldn't exist. Fundraising requires dedication from the board, the staff and volunteers...jump in headfirst and do everything you can to ensure success--there is just one life and you are in a position to make that life better for everyone.


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