Major Donors are Partners

From the NonProfit Times…

Think of and treat major donors as partners, not just checkbooks. When you get to know their interests and life circumstances, you can craft your asks to maximum effect. That’s one of the tips four development executives shared about major donor acquisition, cultivation and stewardship on a panel called “Success Stories: What Works, Lessons Learned” during Fundraising Day in New York 2012.

“Cultivation is like porridge: it needs to be just right,” meaning targeted and personal, said panel moderator Brenna Sheenan Mayer, vice president of college advancement at The College of New Rochelle in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Three major factors contribute to a donor’s willingness to provide major gifts, according to panelist Robin Merle, vice president and chief development officer for the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), a New York City hospital that specializes in orthopedics and rheumatology. They are the donor’s relationship with the organization, the donor’s relationship with the gift officers, and circumstances in the donor’s life, which might not be in a donor file and could have to be teased out by a gift officer.

To illustrate that third point, Merle said one patient gave a multimillion-dollar gift after surgery while still in a hospital bed, because she had just sold a company and was flush with cash. Another major donor took five years of stewardship because “the timing wasn’t right” at first, Merle said. But she kept trying, and when the timing was right, the donor gave.

Another panelist, Helen Miller, CEO of New York City’s CancerCare, cautioned against waiting too long to ask for a gift. Don’t be too passive. She said: “Rich donors know you’re going to ask.” Major donors know why you’re taking them to all those dinners, so don’t waste their time. One former CancerCare patient gave $10,000 on the first ask simply because he’d never been asked for a gift before, according to Miller.

Part of prospect research is learning about potential donors’ interests. You can then use that knowledge to fashion a personalized request to give to one of your programs. “Try to get donations targeted to projects,” said Elizabeth Burke, director of foundation relations and senior associate director of development for the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City.

“Engage donors in small but meaningful ways,” she said. One major MOMA donor is fascinated by archaeology. To keep his interest, Burke described how archaeologists use some of the same technologies as MOMA’s art restoration department.

When a donor says “no” the person often really means “not now.” It’s important to find out why the donor declined to give. Development officers gave a potential major HSS donor a list of naming options. Officers thought the meeting went well, but the donor refused to give. Merle spoke with the donor and found there had been a misunderstanding; the donor thought he was expected to give for all of the options instead of choosing, and declined because it would have cost too much. Merle pitched him another option and he made a gift on the spot.

It also helps not to think of a major donor’s first gift as the last. Even if your organization has a pressing need such as an active capital campaign, it could be beneficial to let the donor make the first gift to an area that interests her most. Later, try to steer the donor to give in a way that meets your organization’s more immediate needs.

“Share all your programs, but also listen to what donors want,” said Mayer.

Major gift officers can often predict successful donation requests if they know what to look for, said the panelists. When a prospect attends events or volunteers, it shows engagement with and loyalty to the organization. When cultivating bequests, said Miller, look to your monthly sustainer file. Most bequests come from the $25 a month, 10-year donor, which again shows engagement and loyalty.

And, Mayer said organizations should be soliciting more major gifts from women and couples, not just men. Women are outliving their spouses and inheriting more money, as well as earning more money in their working lives. Female graduates from the 40s and 50s are The College of New Rochelle’s best, most consistent donors, said Mayer.

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About Gary Coiro

Nonprofit & Church Leader Nonprofit Leader and Consultant since 2004, following 15 years as a pastor. Competencies include board development, fundraising, staff development and management, strategic planning, church work, Bible teaching, and capital campaigns. Currently consulting and serving on the Church Ministries Management Team for a large multi-cultural evangelical church.
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