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  • Writer's pictureDr. Eric Lankin

Why is Major Gifts Fundraising So Hard? It’s Not What You Think.

Meeting Mike was a coincidence, though I am sure it was meant to be.

A local university chaplain on Long Island, he had been distressed about the hunger on the streets in the urban area that bordered the campus. In response, he gathered some students and community members and started an interfaith-sponsored soup kitchen nearby. Five years later when I met him, he was carrying food that was going to be discarded by a local supermarket. Since I had just loaded my car with groceries after my shopping, I asked him if he needed help and he quickly agreed. As we carried boxes of his vegetables to the van, he shared that he had started a nonprofit soup kitchen out of frustration of seeing so much food in the community being discarded and many hungry people on the streets. His passion was palpable and infectious and I later became one of his volunteer partners.

Just because someone is an excellent provider of services, does not mean they know how to raise the funds they need to do the work.

Mike found that he needed additional resources to pay for overhead including salaries, programs and the cost of facilities to conduct the expanded business of the nonprofit. He needed to turn to major gift fundraising to cover expenses and growth. Like many nonprofit leaders, he was simply unprepared and untrained for the major fundraising task. Over the years he became an expert in providing food to the hungry but not in resource development and went for special training to help him learn about this important responsibility.

Why is major gift fundraising so hard? There are three challenges:

1. Competing for the attention of the potential donor.

2. Meeting, establishing a relationship, and building trust with a potential donor.

3. Helping the potential donor feel that the community need or cause that the nonprofit addresses is a priority for their charitable dollars and their gift will make a positive impact.

For many nonprofit leaders, when it comes to major gift fundraising, you might think that the hardest part is the topic that is not addressed above: asking for a donation. In my opinion, if areas one through three above are done correctly, the "ask" itself is not difficult. It actually is expected by the potential donor. If you got their attention; have them accept and participate in a relationship with you; and convinced them that a charitable gift to your cause will help them address one of their concerns, the “ask” becomes an easy part of the conversation and not a burden. Help the potential donor by being specific about the amount that you are requesting to help them understand what you are expecting from them and what those funds, if donated, will accomplish.

Addressing the three tasks above, I believe the hardest is competing for the attention of the potential donor.

Generally, the most generous people are the busiest with significant professional and volunteer commitments.

Many of these people have individuals that serve as “gatekeepers”, i.e., administrative assistants, to protect them from the many unsolicited calls. I always try to write to the potential donor in advance of any phone call to explain why I will be trying to reach them to set a time to visit. Still, it’s often hard to schedule.

Establishing a relationship is the most important part.

The nonprofit representative is responsible for assessing the priorities of the potential donor. At the same time, the potential donor will be assessing whether the organization can be trusted with their charitable gift

This part of the process may take more than one visit and will sometimes require a more formal proposal.

Creating a real relationship is the goal. Like every good relationship, both parties need to listen carefully to each other. The donor is listening for information from the representative that is interesting, compelling and authentic. The nonprofit representative is listening for information about the donor’s family and business, lifestyle, and priorities including his or her other charitable giving to help craft the request according to their interests.

What is generally missing in almost all the activities of major gift fundraising is patience. The organization’s representative is tasked with specific financial goals by month, quarter and year and feels frustrated by how challenging it is to close gifts in a rushed process. Countless nonprofit CEO’s also have unrealistic expectations of their staff tasked with fundraising and practically expect an instant response in a process, that by definition, takes time.

Nurturing this donor relationship by the nonprofit representative is called stewardship, and continues before, during, and after the gift is closed. It must be defined by gratitude, genuine interest, and meaningful contact. It must include information about the impact of the charitable gift within the work of the nonprofit organization. In the stewardship process, the representative’s long term goal is to get the now donor to deepen the relationship with the organization with continued support and make it a greater priority in their charitable giving and volunteer involvement.

I have intentionally avoided calling the representative of the nonprofit a “fundraiser.”

Fundraising is a responsibility of the entire leadership, both volunteer and professional. In my opinion, labeling a staff person who dedicates a majority of his or her time in resource development a “fundraiser” makes it more challenging for that person to establish a meaningful relationship with a potential donor. Donors want to feel that the representative of the organization who solicits their gift plays a meaningful role in the leadership of the cause. Obviously, someone who brings in critical resources to support the work is a true leader in the work.

It’s been 36 years since Mike organized the first meeting of his community group. Even with all his passion, without major gift fundraising, the nonprofit he established would still be a small operation or would not still exist at all. With the generous support of the community, local and state government, and community businesses, with the power of major gifts, over 70,000 meals are served a year plus many other programs by hundreds of volunteers and 58 full-time staff.

The time and effort he invested in learning how to be patient, letting go of fear when asking, and following the steps of creating long lasting and meaningful relationships with his donors; transformed his organization.

It can transform yours, too.

Dr. Eric Lankin is President of Lankin Consulting, a firm focused on the needs of the nonprofit community and an (Adjunct) Professor in the M.A. Program in Nonprofit Management and Leadership at the Rothberg International School of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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