Beware of “Truths” in Fundraising

By Kay Sprinkel Grace

Counter-intuitive is usually defined as something contrary to what one would intuitively expect. For example, marketing pros discovered long ago that the fewer choices we’re presented with, the more likely we are to actually choose one, whether it’s a lot full of new cars or a shelf full of pasta sauces in the supermarket.

Fundraising is often counterintuitive as well. Here I’ll share four instances. In my book, The Busy Volunteer’s Guide to Fundraising, you’ll find a fuller discussion of many others. 

Asking for a gift that’s too big is as bad as asking for one too small

In a way it’s flattering to be asked for a large gift, even when we can’t afford it. We all like to appear prosperous, I guess. But that doesn’t mean you should ask for an unsupportable amount. Vastly overreaching a person’s giving capacity makes you look foolish and creates doubts about your organization’s credibility.

If someone has never given more than $1,000 and his or her largest capital gift to any cause was $25,000, you will err—and embarrass the donor perhaps—by asking for $100,000, unless recent circumstances, such as an inheritance, have changed his or her capacity to give.

But don’t ask for too little, either. If someone has a philanthropic pattern of giving at a certain level, don’t make assumptions and lowball your request (“That new sunroom cost plenty,” or “I know you just helped your daughter with a down payment on her house”). You’ll get the reduced amount. Quickly.

An executive director told me she was about to visit a potential donor with whom the organization had a good relationship but who the director felt would give no more than $100,000. Based on my own conversations with the individual involved, I suggested asking for $100,000 per year over three years for a $300,000 gift. And that was what the donor gave.

As a volunteer leader, I was stunned one time to be asked for a gift of $20,000. At the time, I had children in college and my income was comparatively modest. I had planned to give $10,000 in the form of $2,000 a year for five years. I weighed my feelings about the organization and my own leadership role in the campaign and ended up giving $15,000 over five years.

Stretch is good. Pie in the sky is not.

Even in today’s fast-paced world, most donors still want to be cultivated

With cash in hand, a whole new generation of potential donors has arrived, searching for dreams in which to invest. They’re eager if not impatient to see results from their gifts.

At first glance, it may appear today’s donors want us to cut to the chase and simply ask them for their gifts. That’s not really the case, at least in my experience. Most still need to be involved in your work before they’ll contribute to any substantial degree.

Those most likely to shun cultivation and hurriedly make their gift may be young people with new wealth. They’ve done their research and they know what they want to do. Others may be old-school fundraising volunteers, steeped in the tradition of philanthropy. They routinely support each other’s causes and don’t need to be wined and dined.

Except for these specific types, it’s best to assume all others want to be cultivated. They want to get to know you, understand your organization, discover shared values, and learn how they can be involved in your work.

If you approach these would-be donors too soon, they may turn you down or give much less than they’re capable of giving.

Those who support organizations with similar missions are likely to support yours

One of the best ways to identify support for your theater is to find lists of donors who support other theaters. It’s the same for the environment, animal welfare, education, and the visual arts. Philanthropy is driven by issues and values, not by organizations and their needs.

Recently I had breakfast with a friend who complained, “I gave to the whales and now I’m hearing from the dolphins, gorillas, and pandas!” When I asked if he was supporting these other organizations, he said “Of course I am. I love animals.”

If a person is already giving to an organization that brings music to schools, he or she is in fact the most likely person to give to another organization with the same goal.

We’re not stealing donors when we approach supporters of like-minded causes. Our mission is bigger than our organization and it takes more than one group to address the issues in our society.

If you peruse the lists of donors from similar organizations in your community, you’ll see significant overlap. Once, as we were ramping up to raise money for an arts organization, we collected dozens of program books and annual reports. We singled out the names of donors at certain levels and compared those names against our existing lists. No surprise - we found many shared donors.

Don’t worry about “poaching”—you don’t have that kind of power. The person you approach decides for herself where to direct her philanthropy. All you’re doing is presenting another opportunity.

Not all campaigns require a feasibility study

You may not need a feasibility study to conduct a successful campaign. These studies, during which a consultant speaks at length with board and community representatives about an organization’s image, its proposed campaign, and the likelihood of the interviewee contributing, used to be standard preparation for any large campaign. Today, more and more organizations are going forward without one.

The reasons vary. Some groups understand full well that, no matter what the study shows, they must proceed anyway. The school has to be expanded. The roof needs to be replaced. The birthing unit must be built.

Other agencies, having delayed their campaigns because of the recommendations of previous studies, feel they now have enough information to go forward without yet another.

Still other organizations consider the study’s $15,000 to $50,000 cost prohibitive and are convinced they’ll succeed without one.

Lastly, a growing number of agencies are identifying leadership gifts in the early stages of their campaigns and securing handshake commitments from the very beginning.

I’m not against feasibility studies when appropriate. I have conducted scores of them. But if you have engaged your donors, are confident of the way you’re perceived in the community, and know where your lead gifts are coming from, your success won’t hinge on one. Use the funds instead to add a campaign manager. Then get started with your fundraising.

Kay Sprinkel Grace is author of The Busy Volunteer’s Guide to Fundraising, from which this article is adapted. She is also author of The Ultimate Board Member’s Book and the recipient of the Henry A. Rosso Award for Lifetime Achievement in Ethical Fundraising.