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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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  

How to be Wise in Major Donor Prospecting

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

Regardless of how new donor prospects come to a non-profit organization — whether through a special event, direct-mail donation, or an online gift — they should be reviewed or screened to determine whether or not they might be financially capable of making a major gift. The review can be accomplished through a committee of volunteers with knowledge about the donor population, a wealth screening provided by a vendor, or a combination of the two. All available resources should be tapped. Having said that, while volunteers can be helpful, my experience has indicated that they are usually happy to provide advice but often reluctant to help you make personal contact with a prospect. Further, while wealth screening can give you some indication of a prospect’s ability to give, it tells you nothing about one’s inclination to do so.

My point is that while no available assistance should be overlooked, when it comes to qualifying prospective major donors, the professional fundraiser must always be prepared to do the “heavy lifting.” If you believe a prospect may have the ability to make a major gift, that person must be qualified through a personal visit, and more times than not that chore will fall to the fundraiser. For the organizations that do use volunteers to qualify prospects, congratulations and well done. Even in such cases there is still always going to be a portion of the prospect pool that can only be qualified without such assistance.

In addition to verifying capacity, the purposes of the qualification call are to determine 1) the strength of the prospect’s interest in, or affiliation with, the non-profit organization and 2) the prospect’s inclination to consider a major gift, given appropriate cultivation.

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Published in: on April 15, 2013 at 2:18 pm  Comments (1)  
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Opening the Door — First Steps

thDid you know that fundraisers find the task of the discovery call even more difficult than asking for a gift? It’s true, according to an Association of Fundraising Professionals poll conducted in March-April 2011. 25 percent of the respondees found calling on a prospective donor to be most difficult, while only 18 percent said the “ask” was most challenging. This statistic is not a surprise to me. If you have never met the person before, the “fear of the unkown” can loom large. I personally think that many fundraisers are starving for ideas about how to start the relationship. It never easy to create a bond with someone who is basically a complete stranger. That’s why I wrote “Opening the Door to Major Gifts: Mastering the Discovery Call,” a new book that will soon be published by Charity Channel Press (watch this space for information about the book release). In the book you will learn ways to smoothly “warm the cold call” so the introduction will seem much more natural. I’ve successfully used the techniques to qualify hundreds of prospective major gift donors, so if you are looking for a solution perhaps you will want to check it out. Happy fundraising!

Published in: on April 8, 2013 at 6:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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An Answer to a Problem, Part II

(Note: Following is an introduction to a new book I have written that will be published by Charity Channel Press in April 2013.)

My new book, “Opening the Door to Major Gifts: Mastering the Discovery Call,” details a “better way” to bring new prospective major donors to your non-profit organization.

Some of the information in the book comes from the school of hard knocks. I kept trying different ideas until I found one that worked. I learned other methods from professional colleagues. For example, the discovery call questionnaire in Chapter Eight originated from a document shared with me by my former boss, Bud Bender, who retired as WMU vice president for development in 2010 after a long and successful career in fundraising.

As I’m sure you know, if you are not feeding new prospective major gift donors into your pipeline on a regular and systematic basis, sooner or later your efforts are going to stall. So, whether you are new to fundraising or have been active in the profession for years, this is a resource that can help you build new relationships and add good prospects to your portfolio.

The book provides specific strategies that will increase your odds for success when you are ready to meet your donors. You will learn—as I did—to “warm” your prospects so they are receptive to your outreach, to make allies of the gatekeepers who control access to the decision makers, and to conduct a qualification call that is both casual and purposeful. All of these methods are designed to initiate a comfortable and meaningful relationship that will one day result in a significant philanthropic investment.

How important is the task of mastering the discovery call? Take a look at the average portfolio of a major gift officer. A number of industry benchmarks indicate that if there are 150 individuals in a fundraiser’s portfolio, as many as half of them (seventy-five) might be prospects/suspects who haven’t yet been properly qualified. Therefore, it is critical for today’s development professional to become proficient in prospect qualification.

My aim with the book is to present information in a straightforward and logistically sequential fashion. We start with the reasons why qualification calls are important and then delve into researching your prospects. Following that are practical tips for negotiating voice mail and gatekeepers en route to successfully making the appointment.

Next we focus on the actual format of the discovery call, including suggested scripts that you may wish to employ during your face-to-face visit. Down the homestretch, we look closely at strategies for conducting follow-up calls and then conclude with a look at future trends.

The qualification of donors is, generally speaking, not an easy task. Hard work and discipline are essential. At the same time, bringing new donors to your organization can be a lot of fun. You’ll meet some amazing people, many of whom will share your passion for your nonprofit.

Bottom line, if you follow the strategies detailed in the book, I believe you will be successful. If I did it, you can too.

Published in: on March 20, 2013 at 7:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

An Answer to a Problem, Part I

My new book, Opening the Door to Major Gifts,  provides an answer to a problem. A problem I faced a number of years ago and that many others face today.

In 1998, after nearly two decades of working in the communications field, I took the plunge into fundraising and began work as director of development for the Greater Kalamazoo (Michigan) Area American Red Cross. Simultaneously, I began pursuit of a master’s degree in philanthropy and development at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota.

Previously, I had supported development functions as public relations director at Kalamazoo College, writing a number of media releases announcing major gifts to the college. As an outsider, I had been intrigued by the fundraising profession and finally decided to make the jump.

While I enjoyed the opportunity to raise funds for the Red Cross, which has a great mission, I quickly learned that it was harder than it looked. Since I had learned at Saint Mary’s that “people give to people,” I initially set out a plan to meet one on one with as many of our current donors as possible.

I found that setting up meetings, especially meetings with individuals who were not personally connected to our Red Cross chapter, was a difficult task. It took a great deal more time than I had anticipated to arrange for the meetings, and a number of people I contacted either did not want to meet or did not have time to meet. The challenge was complicated by the fact that major gifts was just one of my fundraising responsibilities there—a commonality that many one-person development shops face.

In 2001, I was thrilled to return to my undergraduate alma mater, Western Michigan University, as director of development for the WMU College of Education. While I was fortunate in my new duties to be able to focus solely on major gifts, I faced the same resistance from prospects. It remained quite difficult to schedule meetings—especially introductory meetings. During my first year, it was tough going, to the point that I was getting rather discouraged. While it had long been my goal to return to WMU, this was not proving to be my dream job.

All along, I kept thinking, there has to be a better way.

The new book is the better way.

(Stay tuned for Part II, which elaborates on the “better way”)

Opening the Door to Major Gifts: Mastering the Discovery Call will be published in April 2013 by Charity Channel Press.

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Published in: on March 19, 2013 at 8:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Why I Decided to Write a Book

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 Charity Channel Press, which I am delighted to work with. It started with a list of questions that were provided to me by my former boss to be asked during a discovery call. It slowly grew into a manual of tools and techniques dealing with letter writing, using the telephone and voice mail and a myriad of other methods needed to set up and execute the identification call.

The outpouring of support from the non-profit community has already been tremendous. I’ve been blessed to receive endorsements from some great fundraising professionals, including Gail Perry, Guy Mallabone, Harvey McKinnon, Laura Fredricks and Bruce Flessner. Very flattering and a high bar to live up to!

As I said, I really wrote the book in response to a direct need that I saw. I believe those in the development world will agree with me about the need.

Published in: on March 12, 2013 at 4:07 pm  Comments (1)