Written by: Susan Holt
How do the pros do it? I’m not referring to professional development officers. Rather, I’m referring to philanthropists who are also expert, successful fundraisers for their causes.
The centerpiece of our art of Bold Asking™ seminars features conversations with philanthropists who talk about their approach to asking for major gifts. Not surprisingly, we learned that their approach to asking for gifts in many ways reflects the factors that are important to them when they are considering a gift.
Here are a few tips they all agreed are important in helping to ensure successful fundraising calls:
1. PASSION. Everyone agreed first and foremost, that they were not successful solicitors until they truly believed in the cause themselves. Truly effective asking does not occur until they had dug deep and made a meaningful investment in the cause themselves. They were not effective if they were just taking an assignment given to them by the development office. And, most importantly, to be successful, they had to be truly passionate about the cause, the institution or the project. Each had carefully considered his or her own gift and made a meaningful philanthropic investment in the project. As a result, they were able to speak personally about their confidence in the institution, their belief in the leadership and their determination to see the project or campaign through to completion and success.
2. BE CLEAR ABOUT THE OUTCOME TO BE ACHIEVED. Almost everyone had some hesitancy at first in making the ask. And then, as one interviewee explained, “I just got over it. All I wanted to do was to get to ‘Yes.’” Her laser focus and passion for the project helped her get past the fear of failing or any discomfort. Instead, she was clear about the outcomes to be achieved and focused on sharing her passion for the institution and the importance of the impact of the project.
3. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE AND LISTEN. As in the case of any great musician or athlete, each person we interviewed improved over time with practice. Each one learned, usually with the guidance of a good development officer, what worked well for them on a solicitation call. Walking through the solicitation scenario, rehearsing the roles and responsibilities of each of the participants on the call, and reviewing the critical points to be made as well as the closing conversation, helped everyone feel more comfortable and improved success. They made an outline, they rehearsed it with the other participants on the call, and they were nimble during the call, listening, reading body language and responding to the prospect.
4. CALL UPON YOUR AUTHENTIC STYLE. The most effective askers developed a style and approach to the call that reflected their own unique personality. Each of our participants had developed phrases or specific language they were comfortable with and were effective for them. These phrases became their “go-to” language and they used them on every call and even brand.
The word “consider,”was felt to be especially effective and even magical in fundraising. Asking a prospect to consider participating in a project or a campaign was one phrase that helped the solicitor become more comfortable especially in approaching good friends. Asking a prospect to consider a gift also elevates the level of seriousness of the request: Consider the impact of the project; Consider the gift’s impact; Consider the problem to be solved; Consider the role and transformation you can make. The scenarios are almost endless.
5. UNDERSTAND YOUR PROSPECT’S MOTIVATIONS AND GIVING. All of our friends benefited enormously from the planning and in-depth research that the development team brought to the table: wealth and philanthropy indicators, relationships, connections, professional and personal interests and aspirations all play a role. The team’s research was essential to success outcomes. But, each of these Board members also went a step further: they did their own research. Whether that was quietly speaking to others about the prospect’s circumstances, vetting their interests, or even gingerly laying out some “what if’s” scenarios with the prospect in advance. All of this information became an important part of the planning and gift strategy.
6. CONSIDER THE TIMING AND READINESS OF THE PROSPECT AND YOUR PROJECT. Of course, these successful major gift calls do not happen without deep, oftentimes personal engagement with the prospect over time. The dance leading up to the actual solicitation call is critical. Preparing the prospect for the call is essential. The prospect needs to be ready. He or she needs to have had an opportunity to almost craft the proposal with you and the Board member! The development officer and the Board member should have spent a lot of time talking with and listening to the prospect. One of my mentors, the leader of a health care institution, was a joy to watch in action. Before every major gift proposal was crafted, he would meet personally with the prospect, oftentimes with the development officer, and ask the prospect’s permission to come back to him or her with a proposal. This scenario always had a happy ending! Perhaps, the ending was a little different than first imagined, but it was successful for the donor, the solicitor and the institution.
7. WORK IN TEAMS. As one of our friends said, “Much of what happens in life is the result of good teamwork. It is the same in fundraising.” Most of our interviewees agreed that two was usually the magic number when it came right down to asking for the gift. More than that and you may loose the intimacy of the moment. It is also helpful to have two people present to make sure each is backing the other up, listening for and responding to cues, making sure the order is asked for, and then verifying follow up work. The team might be the volunteer and the development officer; the President and the development officer, or even a physician and development officer. We will talk more later about preparing each of the team members for his or her role. But, in the meantime, suffice it to say, the person making the ask must be the most influential of the team and the hardest person to say “No” to.
Our next blog will explore how to get your team members ready for the call, understanding cues, and having a Plan B ready to go.