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Major gift etiquette

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Question:

From a donor’s perspective, what are three of the most common mistakes in asking for major gifts?

Answer:

* The “ask” without the relationship.

It seems like an obvious mistake but many make it: Asking for a major gift without first building a good relationship with the potential donor, and without a solid understanding of their interests.

Presumably this donor has already made some kind of gift to your organization, and it is important to understand what motivated that gift. A relationship comes from uncovering those values that are shared between the organization and the donor.

You should nurture that relationship over time, building up to a major gift request.

For example, one donor to an art museum could be a student of modern art and thus consider a gift to help the museum build its collection.

Another donor could instead be interested in community outreach and not the museum’s collection at all.

If you don’t understand this, you’re going to ask for the wrong thing and fail.

* Not asking for an amount.

In the case of an annual gift, not asking for a particular amount could be understandable but, for a major gift, specifying an amount is absolutely imperative.

For example, I recently received a solicitation from an organization I have supported in the past asking me to help finish its current fundraising campaign. But there was no indication of how much money they want from me or how many other people they have solicited.

How should an organization decide on the appropriate amount to request?

Do your research. Of course, you don’t want to ask for an amount that someone doesn’t have the capacity to give.

But it isn’t just about capacity.  Your request should reflect an understanding of the donor’s interests as well. What has a donor already done for similar projects in the community? Pay attention to lists of gifts published by other organizations.

I think personally that it’s much better to ask for too much than not to ask for a specific amount.

* Setting your sights too low.

This has to do with understanding what a donor cares about at a deep level.

In asking for a big gift, you must have a big idea that goes along with it.

You should have a plan, some piece of which is in line with what the donor cares about. And this plan also should advance your mission or your organization in an exciting way.

Our first solicitation in a $500 million campaign for Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital was a request for $8 million from a donor who had never made that large a gift before.

Yet the fundraising professional I worked with had done his homework and knew what that particular donor cared about.

And don’t assume that once a donor has made a major gift, they’ve done all they can for you and you shouldn’t ask them again.

Actually the opposite is true. Once you’ve made a big gift to an organization, you as a donor feel much more connected and willing to make a repeat investment.

When we went back to this $8 million donor only three years later, he made another very large gift.

So big gifts follow big ideas, but stewardship is fundamental. Not only must you continue to cultivate a relationship with a major benefactor, you’d better make sure that big idea you had gets implemented in a way you can be proud of.

So fundraisers must be well aware of their organization’s capacities for following through on promises they make.

–Compiled by Elizabeth Floyd


Susan Orr is founder and CEO of Telosa Software, a nonprofit fundraising software company based in Palo Alto, Calif. She has also co-chaired several large capital campaigns, including a $500 million campaign for the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, and two smaller campaigns for the Ronald McDonald House and the Opportunity Center, a homeless facility in Palo Alto.

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