“Discovering” the Delights of AFP in Boston

Congratulations to the Association of Fund Raising Professionals for another great international conference. The world’s largest gathering of fundraisers, held this year in Boston, brought together thousands of fledgling development officers looking learning a new profession, as well as veterans like me seeking to “sharpen tIMG_0039he saw.”

The 2016 conference was a significant step forward in many ways. Among the primary advances were increases in programming geared toward more seasoned fundraisers. This included numerous workshops focused on major, planned and principal gifts, internationally focused fundraising sessions, and programming centered on ethics. While more introductory courses were of course covered, this was a most welcome change.

Unexpected Learning Opportunities

As noted by AFP CEO Andrew Watt – who has brought outstanding energy and innovation to the organization – some of my best learning moments happened during informal one-on-one discussions with conference attendees. It’s amazing to me that I can learn as much, and sometimes more, in these “accidental” conversations as opposed to attending strategically planned workshops.

A few of my colleagues know that one of my passions is major gifts, specifically in the area of meeting new prospective donors. As such, it was of great interest for me to hear several questions about discovery calls from fellow participants in workshops I attended. The comments went something like, “It’s great that I am learning how I can find more individuals who might fit the profile (through data analytics, etc.) of a prospective major donor, but that doesn’t help me get in to see them.”

The dilemma is a common one, and unfortunately, there are still limited resources on the topic (my research is one of them). The relative lack of information on “getting in the door” is an example of how our profession is in some aspects still in its infancy.

Philanthropy is a World Matter

I was also struck once again by the diversity of participants, as attendees from all over the world made it to Boston. For instance, I learned that 14 delegates from Japan were in attendance, and there were many others from countries such as Brazil, Australia, and China. It’s always interesting to hear about the opportunities and challenges of our global partners, and fascinating to learn how many of our experiences are shared. Personally, I’m incredibly blessed to have been invited to speak at the Fundraising Institute of New Zealand conference next month, and am greatly looking forward to further expanding my international fundraising knowledge base while in Auckland.

I was intrigued to find out that our international colleagues have a significantly better grip on world affairs in comparison to those of us in North America. In a session led by global fundraising expert Penelope Cagney, participants learned that twice as many Europeans have passports as compared to US citizens. Such a disparity provides one indicator that Americans can be perhaps too internally focused, and this in turn has impacted – some would say negatively – our current situation in the political arena. In a similar vein, another presenter explained that while Americans try to present themselves as very independent, when it comes to giving most prefer to follow the crowd. If their friends, family and classmates, etc. give to a specific cause, they are more likely to do so. These are examples indicating that diversity of thought in the US may be narrowing rather than growing.

Donor Retention Remains a Challenge

One of the big topics at the conferences focused on the continuing problem of donor retention. Unfortunately, there is no one solution. Several presenters indicated, however, that improvements in stewardship and fundraiser tenure could go a long way toward rectifying the situation. Specific to my situation in higher education, one way to improve donor retention is to report on the activities of scholarship recipients after they graduate – an excellent idea to show the long-term impact of a donor’s investment.

An Easter Basket Filled with Fundraising Tips

One practice that helps me properly digest everything that I learn at the AFP conference is simply the idea of making a list of best practices and memorable quotes. In doing so, I prefer to focus on quality rather than quantity. Here are some “pearls” I found in Boston:

  • The practice of mirroring, or imitating what the donor says and does, can pay big dividends;
  • The phrase “What inspired you to make your gift?” is a great tool for sparking donor dialogue;
  • The fundraiser can use his/her personal story to gain the interest of prospective givers, and
  • Giving the donor a road map that indicates the fundraiser’s intention to eventually ask for a (major) gift can improve chances for a successful solicitation.

I’d love to hear from others about their personal highlights from the conference – we all benefit from the shared experience.

I’m grateful to AFP and the thousands of attendees who made the 2016 conference a smashing success. Thank you, and I look forward to seeing you in San Francisco next year!

Published in: on March 23, 2016 at 8:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Stepping Up Philanthropy in San Antonio

ImageAs I write this, I’m returning from the 51st meeting of the Association of Fundraising Professionals International Conference in San Antonio, Texas. With each passing year, I see the advancement of philanthropy domestically, and perhaps more importantly, internationally. This year we learned that interest in the fundraising profession is booming in unlikely places like Mongolia and South Korea. Later this year, In Brataslava (Slovak Republic), the first Central and Eastern European Fundraising Conference will be held. What a fascinating and rewarding time to be a fundraiser! My personal experience at the conference included hosting development professionals from South Africa, and meeting colleagues from places like Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Egypt.

These countries and many others are thirsting for fundraising knowledge. The introduction of a new master’s level program/certificate in international fundraising at the conference is evidence of this.

Such global interest in our profession provides great opportunities. During a signing for my book, “Opening the Door to Major Gifts: Mastering the Discovery Call,” I met two fundraisers from France were very eager to read about my experiences. My Mom would be proud (that side of the family is French Canadian)!

One reason for opportunities from my perspective is that so very few countries and cultures are familiar and/or comfortable with the idea of major gifts. In the international context, “face to face” fundraising typically refers to street solicitors approaching strangers for a monthly credit card gift (in some corners, these folks are crassly referred to as “chuggers,” or charity muggers). That’s very different of course from the American view of face to face identification, cultivation, solicitation and stewardship.

Consider also that at the typical AFP conference, typically half of the attendees are first-timers. For these people, major gifts are probably not an area that they have yet tackled. So, AFP must focus a lot of energy on annual giving, direct mail, social media and special events. All important techniques to be sure, but all on the “indirect” end of the fundraising scale. In and of themselves, they are not “transformational” methods of development.

To further illustrate, last fall I was fortunate to be invite to present at a great conference in South Africa. In one of my sessions, one young university fundraiser told the audience that his boss expected him to ask for a gift during the first visit with a new prospect. At least in some pockets around the world, there is certainly a lack of understanding about how important patience and relationship building in the role of obtaining major gifts.

Rather than being disheartened by instances like this, I see it as an opportunity to teach and aim for improvement. I believe that every worthwhile non-profit/NGO should focus at least part of their efforts on long-term relationship building. The annual fund will always be important, but that alone is unlikely to move the needle significantly in our philanthropic efforts. To truly transform our organizations, our communities and our world, there must be an emphasis on what I like to call the “long game.” Let’s not spend so much time trying to meet this year’s fundraising goal that we forget about the big picture. What are we doing to provide transformational change in our organizations 10 years from now, 20 years ahead, or even 50 years into the future? What seeds are we planting today to sustain and propel our causes well into the future?

In the end, I’m grateful to have an opportunity to address this challenge. As I say to anyone who will listen (and I attempt to tell many who won’t), so many organizations are not nearly ready to begin asking for major gifts. They need to first initiate meaningful and lasting relationship with current and prospective donors – the focus of Opening the Door. If they do that, the money will take care of itself. Once you have a comfortable relationship with your donor, it really isn’t that hard to ask. And, if you do it right, your supporters will even thank you for the opportunity!

Congratulations to my colleagues at AFP for another great conference, and regards also to the thousands of participants who added to the rich and diverse nature of the event. As you head back to your communities re-energized with new fundraising knowledge, I wish you the very best in your annual fundraising campaigns. At the same time, remember to keep your eye on the horizon. Never forget about the importance of the “long game.”

Published in: on March 26, 2014 at 5:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Another Conference Concludes

The South African Institute of Fundraising Conference has concluded, leaving behind some very enjoyable times, knowledge gained and friends made. My final presentation rediscovered my passion for fundraising when a young fundraiser asked about my approach to major gifts. His comment was that in South Africa, fundraisers are often expected to make an ask on the very first visit. He contended that there is very little patience for cultivation to mature. Some of this is understandable, as the need for South African charities is so great. Just last night, we heard from an HIV charity that the US government shutdown is threatening to cut off vital funding. Incredibly tragic and totally preventable. To my point, however, is that we all need to respect and honor the fundraising process. To be in a hurry is typically being doomed to failure. I told the young man that he needed to tell his boss things from the donor perspective. If his boss were the prospect, how would he feel about being solicited for a large sum of money from a total stranger?  Not too cool, is it? Fortunately, I really believe events like the SAIF Conference are helping to create a better understanding of the major gifts process. I for one was very enthused by the reaction to my plenary on major donor discovery calls (the topic of my book, of course). It seems there is a great thirst for understanding the intricacies of major gifts, and how we as fundraisers must continually work diligently to uncover new prospects on an ongoing basis. I feel very positively that the audience appeared to be on their way toward this line of thinking and strategy.

As for the SAIF experience overall, it was incredible. I have never met a more lovely and caring group of people. The conference attracted a total of 21 speakers, including such well known philanthropy experts as Bernard Ross, Stephen PIdgeon and Guy Mallabone. It was an honor and a thrill to be a part of this esteemed cohort. As I said, the time in Johannesburg relit my passion for philanthropy, and I am feeling incredibly blessed to have had the experience.

Published in: on October 11, 2013 at 7:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

Lessons from South Africa

Greetings from Johannesburg! The Southern African Institute of Fundraising is underway and I am pleased to be among the featured presenters. This morning’s plenary on major donor discovery calls was well attended and I was honored to joined internationally known consultants Steven Pidgeon and Bernard Ross on the agenda. What struck me about the attendees is that they seemed very hungry for practical tips. My discussions with a few of those in attendance leads me to believe South Africans are very interested in major gift fundraising, and ravenously accept ideas that will help them get started. Many of the charities are small and rurally located, so they are often “one person” shops. They have to do the direct mail campaign, the special event and social media. They want to do major donor work, but finding the time to make personal visits can be challenging. Regretfully, it appears that the economy has kept attendance numbers down a bit, a real shame. In a perfect world, the worse the economy, the more that fundraisers should have opportunity for professional development. Attending Guy Mallabone’s session on major donor fundraising was a treat for the afternoon. A reality check in his list of “basic questions to know” (i.e., how many active donors does your charity have) was absolutely brilliant. Tomorrow, I present on approaching American foundations for funding and am anticipating a good turnout. Cheers to all from beautiful South Africa!

Published in: on October 9, 2013 at 2:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Investing in Our Profession — And Ourselves

From the author of “Opening the Door to Major Gifts: Mastering the Discovery Call” (Charity Channel Press, 2013).

I don’t know about you, but if I never see another dire report bemoaning the troubles of the fundraising profession, it will be fine with me.

Mind you, I’m quite aware of the challenges that we face. Reports like “Underdeveloped” (January 2013) rightfully underline that there has been a seemingly unending revolving door to and from the development director’s office. Insufficient training and support typically handicaps the new fundraiser, and those who do excel usually move on quickly — they can write their own ticket.I-am-an-accountable-employee

Much has also been been made of the average tenure of the new fundraiser — as little as 16 months — which is not nearly long enough to build the relationships necessary for successful resource development.

Indicators like these point out that nonprofit organizations can do much more to “embrace fund development” and “elevate the field of fundraising.” Rather than treating the fundraiser like a second-class citizen, the work of development must be valued and appreciated at every opportunity. No argument here.

There is another factor, however, that needs to come to the forefront. Fundraisers must be held personally accountable for their success, or sometimes lack thereof. One of the reasons that I wrote “Opening the Door to Major Gifts” was that I saw a lack of discipline and commitment on the part of a number of fundraisers whom I have known and worked with over the years. Yes, their organizations could have done more to support them. And yes, each nonprofit as a whole should be held accountable for fundraising. But in the end, the buck stops with the development director.

It is my opinion that more new fundraisers would find success if they exercised rigor through the use of proven fundraising practices. My personal methods of identifying and qualifying potential major-gift donors are an example of such methodologies, but there are many other effective practices in major gifts.

On many occasions in the past, I can recall a colleague telling me how difficult it was to make donor appointments. My response was always to inquire how many times the colleague had attempted to reach the prospect on the phone. More often than I would like to recall, the response was “two or three” times. That is simply not nearly enough. I suggest at least seven attempts to reach the prospect by phone before either recycling them for later followup or dropping them from your list.

The bottom line is that the fundraiser must be personally culpable for triumph or failure. Yes, we should work to encourage greater organizational support of our work. But let’s also make sure that we are maximizing the resources that we have available.

Another methodology I advocate for in “Opening the Door” is to spend at least one hour each day (uninterrupted if possible) attempting to set up donor appointments. Try it, and you will find that you can make a ton of calls in 60 minutes. But you have to make the commitment to do it, even on the days when you don’t feel like doing so. I know, I have days like that too.

Again, I do not deny that the fundraising profession often gets a bad rap. I think as time, however, moves forward that it will eventually change for the better. Increased professionalism, training opportunities and the growth of the nonprofit sector all point to an improved outlook.

Until then, we should not use such factors as an excuse for any fundraising challenges that we face. Rigor, discipline and persistence can all take us a long way toward elevating the development profession and advancing our collective fundraising success.

Published in: on July 7, 2013 at 10:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Is This About a Gift?

From the author of “Opening the Door to Major Gifts: Mastering the Discovery Call” (Charity Channel Press, 2013).

Every once in a while, I run into a prospect who tries to cut through my efforts with a simple, penetrating question:

Is this about a gift?


Put another away, I recently gave a book talk which was well received. However, at the end of the presentation my session host expressed skepticism about my process. “People know you are a director of development, so they know you want money,” the host exclaimed. “Aren’t there people who don’t want to go through this (cultivation) proess? They might not want to make a gift, and even if they do they may not have time for multiple meetings.”

The end result of this skepticism is often the question about my pursuit of a gift. The answer is simple:

I explain that while my function is to raise philanthropic support, my initial visit purpose is never to solicit them. I’m there simply to meet, say thank you, and assess the prospect’s possible inclination to make an investment in the future.

If the first visit is a success, of course my goal is to have a second visit. Maybe there will be an ask at the second visit, but maybe not. Everyone is different.

Whenever the “question” arises, prospects typically are quite satisfied with my answer. If the prospect pushes back more after hearing my response, however, it’s probably an indication that a meeting is not likely to happen or that a meeting will not be productive.

Again,  I have, on a number of occasions, indicated to prospects that a gift discussion during a first meeting rarely happens and that when it does, it is always at the suggestion of the person I am meeting with. The subtle message is that asking for a gift would not be appropriate because we don’t really know each other yet.

Don’t let the “question” ever stop you from seeing your prospects. They just might start thinking about a gift after they hear what you have to say.

Published in: on May 29, 2013 at 4:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Making the Case for Major Gifts


From the author of “Opening the Door to Major Gifts: Mastering the Discovery Call” (Charity Channel Press, 2013).

Before you can begin identifying/qualifying prospective major donors, you must first gain buy-in from your organization’s leadership. If this is your first foray in pursuit of major gifts, your board and CEO must be sold on the concept. Given that a first visit very rarely results in an investment, a great deal of patience will be required. You are not likely to see much incoming revenue from initial efforts.

When budgets are tighter than ever, how do you justify such an investment? Why should your nonprofit spend its limited reserves on a fledgling major gifts effort when it could instead roll out a another direct mail solicitation or special event that will provide a modest, but reliable, source of income? Can you provide proof that investment in major gifts is wise?

There are two good measurements that you can employ to make an evidence-based argument for major gifts. First, cultivation of individual donors is almost always the most cost effective way to raise money. Industry standards indicate that it may cost up to 50 cents (or more) to raise a dollar through a special event, primarily due to the labor intensive nature of the venture. While special events are great for relationship building, they typically are one of least  efficient fundraising methods. Direct mail costs can vary widely, but between 25 to 40 cents to raise of dollar are typical standards.

Compare these numbers to major gifts work. Organizations with ongoing major gifts program typically spend only 10-15 cents to raise a dollar. This is because the larger gifts resulting from a focused effort will inevitably your cost to raise a dollar (CTRAD).

If you are not currently pursuing major gifts, you can use your organization’s CTRAD to justify an effort. Take a look at your most recently concluded fiscal year. Take the total amount of funds raised for the year and divide it by the amount spent on fundraising activities. If your ratio is lower than six dollars (anywhere between one and six dollars) for every one dollar spent, chances are very good that you are not devoting enough resources toward developing the relationships that will eventually result in major philanthropic investments.

You can do the same thing with each individual fundraising method. If you work for an organization that sponsors several special events each year, it may be a good time for a close examination. Let’s say your charity holds a major golf outing each year. How much money do you raise from the outing, and how much does it cost? Be sure to include the costs of staff time in the overall equation. Would it make sense to forgo the golf outing and instead focus more on major gifts?

Deciding on your fundraising strategy employing the proper tools/methods is serious business. Make sure you do your homework to come up with the best (and most efficient) “mix” for your nonprofit. It’ll be well worth the time invested.

Published in: on May 22, 2013 at 1:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Why I Decided to Write a Book

Opening the Door to Major Gifts

At 52 years of age, I have wondered aloud why I waited until now to write my first book. I suppose the answer is that I have never seen a need for such an endeavor. My approach to work has always been practical, so it was not until I saw a problem that needed to be solved that I became motivated to write. I’ve seen way too many new development officers struggle to get appointments with new prospects. Once the relationship had been established, it wasn’t nearly as hard to continue cultivation and even ask for a gift, but hoo boy — that first meeting is a bear. Setting up and conducting the discovery call was easily my most difficult challenge when I started in major gifts fundraising 15 years ago.

“Opening the Door to Major Gifts: Mastering the Discovery Call” (April 2013) will make its debut from the publisher

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Published in: on May 9, 2013 at 2:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

Do You Need Wealth Screening?

From the Author of Opening the Door to Major Gifts: Mastering the Discovery Call (Charity Channel Press)

When making discoverpuzzled-look-picy calls, there are many ways to obtain valuable information prior to the visit. One method is to hire a wealth screening service to survey your donor database and determine the approximate ability of donors to give generously. While this can be a valuable service, it certainly isn’t mandatory. In the best of worlds, all donors who come to your organization — whether through a special event, direct-mail donation or online gift — should be reviewed by a committee of knowledgable volunteers AND analyzed through wealth screening software to determine capacity. Unfortunately, both methods have drawbacks. While volunteers are often willing to share their insights about prospects, they are generally less likely to introduce you to them or accompany you on a visit. Further, while wealth screening can give you some indication of a prospect’s ability to give, it tells you nothing about the individual’s inclination to make a major gift.

What all this means is that you need to go see your donors and find out for yourself. They are helpful, but you do not NEED volunteers or fancy software. Just meet with your prospects, ask questions and LISTEN. You will know soon enough how they feel about your organization.

Here’s an example of how wealth screening might be helpful, but certainly is not vital. Let’s say you have time to only see one prospect, but have two on your list. The first prospect has a wealth screening rating of $50,000 and has made annual gifts of $500 to your organization in each of the last three years. The second prospect has a capacity rating of $500,000 but has not given at all in the past five years. Before that, there were only two gifts, each for $25.

So, which prospect are you going to try to meet with?

The first prospect will definitely be my top priority because the prospect is a significant annual donor, and in fact a donor of some consistency (three straight years). The second prospect may have great capacity, but I have no idea if there is any real interest. Previous gifts were not large, and they occurred some time ago.

That’s why I think wealth screening and gift ratings are helpful but not necessarily essential. In this case, did the wealth screening really matter? At its simplest element, if someone is supporting your organization significantly and consistently, why not try to go visit that person — if for no other reason than to simply say thank you?

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Published in: on May 8, 2013 at 8:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

It Really Works!

From the Author of Opening the Door to Major Gifts: Mastering the Discovery Call (Charity Channel Press)

Do donor identification/qualification calls really work? In the life of today’s busy fundraiser, are they worth the time? Why should you spend your limited time initiating new relationships that might or might not pay off?

While there are no absolute guarantees, I’m here to tell you that , conducted strategically, a regimented approach to qualifying prospective major donors is almost always worth your time.


My personal experience bears this out. After being appointed a director of development in 2001 in a higher education setting, I spent much of the next two years making discovery calls. I’d estimate that as much as half of my work time was devoted to this task. The reason for this was simple: many of our current major doors and none of our prospective major donors had ever been personally visited by a representative of the University. Hard to believe, huh?

While there were extenuating circumstances, all the time spent opening doors paid off. In December 2003, a little more than two years into my new job, I experienced a highlight of my fundraising career. During that month, I documented a total of eight new major gifts in support of WMU. At that time, a gift or pledge of $10,000 was considered to count as a major gift.

I can take at least part of the credit for this occurrence. There was no doubt that many of the gifts came to fruition because of my early groundwork two years earlier. During this time period, I traveled to the far reaches of the country to initiate new relationships. There was scarcely a rental car company or major hotel chain with which I was not familiar.

Lest I appear overly boastful, I should note that December 2003 was the last month of a five-year comprehensive fundraising campaign to celebrate the University’s centennial.Two of the eight gifts were specifically secured before year end because the donors wanted to be counted in the campaign totals. Of those two, one of the commitments was actually secured during qualification visit — a rarity in major gifts work.

The lesson? Discovery calls conducted with a focused approach do work. My personal experience bears it out.

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Published in: on April 29, 2013 at 1:37 pm  Leave a Comment