Major Gifts Fundraising: 10 Ways To Improve Your “Ask” – Jim Eskin. After a fulfilling career in higher education advancement — including the last nine years heading the local community college foundation — I was ready to pursue a lifelong dream to VENTURE OUT ON MY OWN. Over the past several years I was spending more and more weekends training nonprofit board members and volunteers on the art and science of fundraising … and loving every minute. It was time to make this passion my life’s work.
It never ceases to amaze me that business and community leaders who are fearless in virtually everything they have to face in their professional and personal lives are terrified of asking for a gift for a favorite cause. Most of this is fear of the unknown. As practitioners we need to a better job of demystifying our profession so lay people understand and feel more comfortable about their roles in fundraising processes.
In May of this year, Eskin Fundraising Training was launched. This journey is proving to be both exciting and scary at the same time, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sure, it’s full of challenges, but I’ve never been more motivated or felt more fulfilled from my work. I can’t wait for each day to begin. This first year was highlighted by leading 12 workshops and working with inspiring board members, volunteers and staff devoted to a broad cross-section of non-profits. Here are my reflections on what I’ve learned about helping people overcome their fear of fundraising and empowering them to champion the noble missions of their organizations:
1. I’m struck by two strong — and what to appear to be — cross currents: The inspiring example of people from varying backgrounds in their commitment to improve the lot of others, and their reluctance to describe themselves as major gifts philanthropist. Humility is an admirable virtue, but those who selflessly share time and money, regardless of amount, are unmistakably philanthropists, and deserve our respect and emulation. Several of my workshop participants have even started their own non-profits.
2. The overarching theme of my training programs is to keep major gift fundraising simple. Most of our best practices are intuitive. Over-complicating and over-thinking the processes gets us in trouble. Simply put, our job is getting the donor prospect to know, like and trust us — and asking for their support.
3. Too many professional and volunteer fundraisers just haven’t personally experienced a major gift face-to-face solicitation. They are much more familiar with the passive act of getting gifts. Getting a gift is certainly better than getting no money at all, but it’s much different from asking for gifts. When donors simply give us a gift, they completely influence the amount, purpose and timing. When we solicit the gift, we can influence the amount, purpose and timing. In my board trainings and workshops, we role-play a variety of solicitation scenarios, so participants get a genuine feel for asking.
4. The fear of rejection is over-rated. I hear that most people can’t handle being turned down. Really? Life is full of hearing no’s. I bet you’ve heard it in the last 24 hours. How does anyone go through life without experiencing rejection? Remember, we’re not asking for money for ourselves, but for causes much grander than ourselves.
5. The major gift solicitation represents a single moment in the gifting cycle. We first must establish a personal and emotional bond between the donor prospect and our cause. A board member or volunteer can contribute mightily to obtaining a gift without ever making the ask themselves, simply by breaking the ice and beginning the cultivation phase. When the time is right to ask, a staff member or another board member can step in and handle the task.
6. Major gifts designated for general operations or unrestricted funds are typically the funds most needed by organizations, but least likely requested. Those funds can and should be unabashedly solicited. Think about it: When people invest in companies, they don’t restrict their investment to research and development, marketing or specific operations — they invest in the overall success of the company. Why should it be any different for a non-profit?
7. The Six Degrees of Separation principle reminds us that everyone on the planet is separated by no more than six personal relationships. When a board member or volunteer says they don’t know anyone who can be approached for a gift, they need to dig deeper. Chances are there are good prospects within their professional and personal networks.
8. Now is a great time to be cultivating and asking. American philanthropy is thriving. Last year it passed the $400 billion threshold for the first time. Put it this way: On average, more than $1 billion is donated every day. Cultivate and ask, and ye shall receive.
9. Don’t forget that major gifts come with the responsibility of good stewardship, ensuring that every dollar is spent and reported on according to donor intent. Did you know that 80% of mountain climbing accidents occur going down — not up — the mountain? Non-profits need to work prudently to make sure accidents on carrying out gifts don’t happen going down gift mountains.
10. Are fundraisers born or made? Sure, some folks — especially those from sales and marketing backgrounds — might start with advantages, but I’m firmly convinced that those who are passionate about their organizations and willing to learn and practice can go out and secure gifts. My mantra is: Learn It, Do It, and Do It Better.
Jim Eskin’s leadership roles span more than 30 years in fundraising, public affairs and communications in the San Antonio area. He enjoys training non-profit boards on fundraising best practices and overcoming the fear of asking for gifts, His consulting practice Eskin Fundraising Training builds on the success of his fundraising workshops and provides the training, coaching and support services that non-profits need to compete for and secure private gifts. During his career, he established records for gifts from individuals at three South Texas institutions of higher learning. He also serves on the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations & Executives 2019 Board of Governors. He has authored more than 100 guest columns that have appeared in daily newspapers and business journals across the country, and publishes Stratagems, a monthly e-newsletter exploring timely issues and trends in philanthropy. Sign up here for more big ideas every month: Jim Eskin Stratagems
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