Major gifts: fundrais­ing from the frontlines

Written by
Rebecca Davies
February 09, 2011
This article isn’t about golf, it’s about how you can become a successful major gift fundraiser.

Years ago when I stepped on the tee box to play my first round of golf, I assumed success. My swing, short game and putting were decent after months of practice at the driving range. But that day my game was so bad it never got good enough even to be able to fall apart. I knew the rules and had reliable shots – all the necessary transactions to the game. I did not, however, know the etiquette of golf; the social behaviours that enhance the experience and the sport, and expose a novice like I was then. I talked – a lot. I constantly walked in front of other people’s lines on the green and my club is most likely still at the bottom of that pond. Inevitably, that group never invited me out again.

In recreational golf, technique is necessary as a point of entry but it is not enough. Values-based behaviour is as important to succeeding at the game as having a consistent fairway shot. Similarly, major gift fundraisers – both those in leadership positions and our noble officers who talk to our donors most days – often veer either too much toward the bottom line (the transaction) or place too much emphasis on the relationship (values) and no money gets raised.

Sure there are many external challenges under which major gift staff can quickly languish: poor management, a woeful economy, perhaps the programme team hasn’t done anything new lately, or the marketing department hasn’t come through. Or maybe you get irritated by your boss/colleague/volunteer, or think your prospect list isn’t any good. At its most extreme, the net effect can be months of despair, wondering where the money is coming from and which of a million things you should be doing to raise it. Lack of focus yields long days at the office surfing the web and not advancing your organisation’s mission. And then there’s that baseline anxiety and constant dread that you’re going to be found out.

The good news is that you can take control over the process by understanding that, like golfers, successful major gift fundraisers consciously incorporate both transactional and values-based behaviours in their work. This is not a blog on how to be a better human being, but a promise that if you drop into your professional practice a combination of values-based and transactional behaviours and strategies that play to your strengths and support your weaknesses, you will develop deeper relationships with your donors and secure more significant gifts. The following is a list of qualities I’ve identified that have made me a stronger major gift fundraiser over the years (some are innate, some I’ve had to work hard at cultivating).

Fundraise from the frontlines (values-based)

Fundraisers create the opportunity for donors to act on their values. Whilst we’re always told to put the donor first, the starting point for every fundraiser must be to remember or rediscover your organisation’s frontline and live on its edge every day. What is your imperative: a libretto that must be written and its story sung? A well that needs digging because your neighbour is from that country? A shelter that requires expansion because you love someone who you suspect one day will need its services? To be a credible major gifts fundraiser, everything about you must thrum with the possibility of what will – or will not – happen on your frontline if the prospect does or doesn’t give.

If your organisation’s mandate does not regularly give you goose bumps or tears, or the prospect of it disappearing does not make your blood run cold, you are at the wrong place. You will not be as successful as you could be elsewhere. And here’s a secret: contrary to what many think, the best major gift fundraisers I know are terrified during the moment of the ‘ask’. It’s because they know what’s at stake, and their importance in the process and to the outcome. If I’m asking someone to make a large donation and my mouth doesn’t get dry or my heart doesn’t pound, I know that it’s time to look for a new job.

Goal oriented (transactional)

Being goal oriented is lusting for something concrete to accomplish and celebrate. The art of the relationship means little if there’s no money in the bank.

Good judgement (values-based)

Internally within your organisation, good judgement shows the ability to assess a situation quickly and make decisions on if and how a large gift can be raised or accepted without compromising your organisation’s reputation, or your own. With donors, demonstrable good judgement will establish trust and credibility and advance the relationship as quickly as possible towards a gift.

This is the benevolence dilemma: donors are inherently generous, charities need money, but there must be a fundamental agreement of principles especially at the major gift level where there is the possibility of some publicity. Good judgement allows a major gifts fundraiser to know when and how much time to invest in a prospect’s unique offering.

Strategic thinking and doing (transactional)

This quality keeps me organised, honest, always looking forward and accounts for the majority of my personal success. In major gift fundraising, strategic thinking and doing is about having a plan to build deep, long-term relationships, one prospect and donor at a time.

This is where the quantitative comes in, the hard details: establishing achievable metrics. Overlay your major gifts revenue goal with a channel of qualified prospects and a schedule of rigorous and disciplined activity. Insist on a robust ‘moves management’ system and keep beautiful records. Make sure there is a call to action after every meeting and that you’re controlling the next action.

Belief in people (values-based)

Look up the words philanthropist and humanitarian. They’re almost always identical: in the Oxford English Dictionary one of the definitions of a humanitarian is simply ‘a philanthropist’. And so if donors believe in humanity, we as fundraisers certainly must believe in, have respect for, and be inspired by our donors.

Intelligence and curiosity (transactional)

Finally, have the courage to turn your belief in people and their values into something good for your organisation. Dare to be yourself, a fully formed human being. Speak up and out and demonstrate that you can talk about things outside your charity’s mission. Fundraisers early in their career often dare not meet their donors or volunteers halfway in a conversation thinking their role is to be demure and mute. Entice your prospects with your intelligence, so that they want to seek your company and accept a second meeting. Learn how to actively listen and pick up on non-verbal cues. Familiarise yourself with one of the classic sales methods, SPIN Selling (you can read more about it here) and ask, ask,ask questions, probing to that nexus of your donor’s heart and head that is their philanthropic impulse.

Now turn those values into a major gift for your organisation.

See you on the golf course.

Originally posted on 101 Fundraising blog.

About the author: Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies is director of fundraising for Médecins sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders Canada.

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