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Preparing for a successful major gift request: Effective cultivation

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NOTE: Want to learn more about how to prepare for a major gift request? We partnered with Anne Melanson and Carolyn Marshall from Bloom Non Profit Consulting Group for a free webinar on December 10, 2015. Register here: How to prepare for a successful major gift request. Attendance qualifies for 1 point toward CFRE certification and all registrants receive the full recording regardless of attendance.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
~ Abraham Lincoln

If Abraham Lincoln had been a major gift fundraiser he would have invested a lot of time and effort in preparation before making a request for a major gift. And, therefore, his chances of success would have been very good indeed.

As for the rest of us, our preparation leading up to that all-important major gift ask likely includes engaging and prepping a volunteer (who is perhaps a board member) solicitor to help in the ask; framing a case for support or specific project proposal; creating collateral materials; developing some ideas to recognize the donor’s gift; and sleuthing about in order to find out what we can learn about the major gift prospect.

For many fundraisers, this is often the point at which we get stuck. We have a name on a prospect list, some background information and an idea of what to ask them for. The challenge becomes moving them from being a name on a prospect list to having the opportunity to make the ask. Or to use the Lincoln example, the axe is sharpened but we have to find our way through the woods and get in front of the right tree.

Overcoming the cultivation conundrum

For some, one of the most challenging aspects of major gift fundraising is developing an effective, tactical plan that engages with and cultivates a prospective major donor in a way that leads us naturally to the ask.

Cultivating interest with a major donor can be very different than cultivating interest of annual, event, and (sometimes) planned giving donors. Those fundraising mechanisms employ a great deal of one-to-many forms of engagement communications, such as mailers, emails and e-zines, social media, annual reports, and newsletters.

While these forms of communication are also important with major gift prospects, alone they will not typically afford you an opportunity to move toward a major gift ask of a donor. They don’t provide you with two critical things: 1. Feedback and 2. The opportunity to tailor your message to address the prospective donor’s interests.

For that, you need to have a conversation.

Asking for a conversation

If you’re stuck for a “reason” to ask for a visit or conversation, consider these door-opening ideas that will help you with your objective of learning more about your donor:

  • “Mrs. Smith, we recently received your donation of $xx. Thank you so much. I notice this marks 5 (7, 10, etc) years you’ve been supporting us. I would love to learn more about how you came to be a donor and what inspires you to continue to generously support us each year. Can I take you for coffee or tea so you can tell me about it?”
  • “Mr. Jones, congratulations on your recent retirement! If you find yourself with some free time these days, I’d love to come and ask your advice and feedback on a new project we’re contemplating. Given your familiarity with our organization and your experience in food safety (or appropriate field), I think you’d be a tremendous help.”
  • “Ms. Black, you’ve been a loyal supporter over the years – thank you so much. As you know, our magazine regularly features donors who have made a lasting impact on the work we do. We would love to do a story about you in the upcoming (issue, report, etc). May I come and sit with you to learn more about what inspires you to give?”

There are many other ways to secure a conversation. Remember that the key is to focus on learning more about the donor.

The “P.A.C.” (Pre-Ask Conversation)

Most fundraisers will make every effort to learn about their prospect’s philanthropic preferences before submitting a request or making an ask. Having a conversation with the donor directly via email, telephone or in-person (in-person is absolutely the preferred option) will yield invaluable data; you will inevitably learn information and pick up clues that will help you put forward a request for the right project, to the right person, in the right way, and at the right time.

And don’t underestimate the value of good chemistry that can only result from direct one-to-one communication with a major prospective donor; this will help you establish a relationship that extends the bi-lateral communication beyond the initial conversation.

Whatever the avenue, the end objective of your “P.A.C.” can hypothetically be represented as follows: “Mrs. Green, we’ve so enjoyed and benefited from this conversation. We’d like to follow up with you about the critical XX project you seemed so interested in, and put forward a request for support for you to consider. How and when would you prefer we do that?”

Making the ask happen

By the time the “ask” meeting happens, you are ready. Your research is complete, your homework is done, you’ve had your P.A.C., and you’ve distilled it all into a simple, cogent request that you can lay out in the ask meeting: priority, amount, terms, recognition, and impact.

Wherever possible, your major gift request should be done in person. Have you arranged a next meeting with the donor to outline the request? Yes? Great. Show up armed with the details of your request, answers to earlier questions posed, and be ready to focus the discussion on the particulars of the ask.

Has the prospect told you they prefer it if you send them something in writing? Yes? Drop it by their office or home in person, then call to follow up with another discussion where you can walk them through its most important elements.

At this point it is vital to remember that you have to devise a strategy to close the request if you haven’t already secured an answer. Ask for a timeframe to follow up.

Keep the cultivation plan in the forefront

Regardless of the outcome of the ask, don’t drop the prospect from your cultivation radar. Keep record of all interactions and their important details, and remember that on average, it takes 18 – 24 months to secure a major gift commitment. Just because a donor doesn’t respond to today’s request, doesn’t mean they aren’t an important future prospect. As Warren Buffet famously said, “Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

Anne (Coyle) Melanson is the President and CEO of Bloom Non Profit Consulting Group Inc. Anne has been a professional fundraiser and enthusiastic champion of charities for 27 years. She is a widely recognized expert in capital campaigns, major gifts, big-picture strategy, and fundraising communications best practices. Anne advises, presents and publishes nationally and internationally, and has directed and advised fundraising programs and campaigns with combined results totalling over $150,000,000.

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