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)  

Kiwi Wanderings, Part 1

Two weeks in New Zealand is not nearly enough, but it’s a start.

We departed on the long journey to Wellington on May 7th. As funny as it sounds to recall the famous movie it really did involve Planes, Trains and Automobiles. We drove to catch our favorite commuter train, the South Shore Line, in Michigan City and departed at Millennium Station. We caught a great Greek lunch at Roti and then headed down to the Washington Station to board the CTA Blue Line to O’Hare. While waiting to board the train we met Dave Russell, a cool drummer who showed Anya how to play the bongos. 

The flight from Chicago to LA was nothing compared to what came next. From LA to Auckland, NZ, the flight is more than 13 hours! Fortunately, Air New Zealand is wonderful. Great stock of new release movies makes the journey seem shorter and the food is excellent. Dinner and breakfast both had touches of homemade quality, such as almond cake for dessert. Flying to NZ you cross the international dateline, so it is in fact tomorrow there, 16 hours later to be exact. No wonder they say that New Zealand is place to be if you want to see the sun rise before anyone else in the world.

Imagine our bleary-eyed surprise when we were greeted by a representative of the Fundraising Institute of New Zealand (FINZ) upon arrival at the Auckland airport. FINZ was the association sponsoring John’s visit to Wellington. We were so pleased to be greeted a Kia ora (a greeting used by the the native Maori) by the FINZ Fellow, or a senior member of the organization, and be bid a good short one hour journey to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital and the site of the FINZ conference where John was to speak.

Being in NZ a few days before the conference, we grabbed a rental car and drove an hour to the north to the Kapiti (pronounced KAP-i-tee) Coast, which is noted for its fine beaches. We wound up staying in the Paraparaumu Beach at the Lindale Lodge. It was obviously “low” season at the lodge since we were the only tenants, except for the many cows and sheep which we enjoyed visiting in a nearby pasture. Lindale also has some lovely tourist shops. John located a store with many different types of honey, and also a cheese shop. If you have never had New Zealand cheese before, you are missing something. The stuff is of the amazing, creamy buttery variety which you do not quickly forget. In town, there are also many lovely shops including a fish and chips place. Being bourgeouis Americans we did not realize that tomato sauce (ketchup) did not automatically come with the chips/fries but it was not a major inconvenience. The fish was fresh and downright heavenly.

Just to north of Lindale is Wainkanae Beach, where we found a cool bird preserve called Nga Manu (na MAH-nu) which is Maori for The Birds. Nga Manu was the first, and only place where we saw the famed Kiwi bird. Because the Kiwi are nocturnal, unless you are really quick or lucky you will not likely see one unless you are at animal facility with blacklights like Nga Manu. We were lucky to have arrived just before feeding time. Our guide was very knowledgeable and let Anya assist in feeding our feathered friends.

After our journey through Nga Manu, we found there to be little commerce in Waikanae Beach, save for the The Drift Cafe. This inviting and homey restaurant features amazing gourmet dishes (John had the prawns–exquisite) in a cozy setting that includes a fireplace, a couch and lounging chairs. After this repast we roamed the beautiful beach area which is filled with gorgeous sea shells and many other interesting finds.

After the trip to Kapiti, it was time for John to get back to Wellington for the conference. Gretchen and Anya were there only momentarily though before departing north along the eastern coast toward the noted architectural city of Napier. Gretchen had read about Napier as a child and fulfilled a “life long dream” in reaching the city. I can offer little narration regarding the trip, but they did return with a some cool photos.

Published in: on June 12, 2011 at 10:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Kiwi Time!

I’m back home after an amazing trip. Although my travels took place in May, the journey really started when I received an email in December from James Austin, CEO of the Fundraising Institute of New Zealand (FINZ), the professional body for those employed in or involved with fundraising, sponsorship and events in the not-for-profit sector. I was delighted to receive an invitation to be a featured speaker at the annual FINZ conference in Wellington. FINZ is a small association, but the conference has been held for many years and has invited some very prestigious folks over time. I was honored to receive the opportunity.

The invitation fulfilled a personal goal that I set several years ago to speak at an international conference. Coincidentally, New Zealand was at the top of my desired list of international destinations … funny how things work out.

For the engagement, I agreed to deliver a day-long preconference masterclass, a couple of educational sessions during the conference, and a plenary address to conclude the event. Three other international speakers – Robert Osborne Jr. of the Osborne Group (New York), Martin Paul (Australia) and Alan Sharpe of Harvey McKinnon Associates (Toronto) – were also invited, but I was the lecturer from the most “exotic” (i.e., remote, unidentifiable) location. I had an opportunity to spend time with Sharpe and found that his plenary on thank you letters was both entertaining and informative. The fact that Alan has family in West Michigan also made for a good discussion of common interests.

The Kiwis are amazing hosts. I was greeted at both the Auckland and Wellington airports by a FINZ representative. In Wellington, the FINZ communications director, Susan Fogarty, gave a hearty welcome and a cup of coffee and made sure I got safely to my rental car. Susan is the person who makes FINZ “go” and has been my primary contact in preparing for the conference. In her other “life” Susan is a published author (her book “Susan in the Suburbs” is popular among Kiwis) and has worked as a standup comedienne as a former member of the renowned Groundlings. She went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure I was well taken care of.

Prior to the conference, I had an opportunity to visit the FINZ office in downtown Wellington. While the office is modest, I appreciated how well the FINZ team of James, Susan and accounting manager Leigh Brown work together. I learned that until fairly recently, FINZ was completely volunteer driven. James, a former Wellington fundraiser, is the association’s first CEO and was hired following an exhaustive search.

During the course of our stay in Wellington, my daughter became ill (she is fine now) and James, who I am sure had farther better things to do, personally drove us the local medical care center. As I said, the Kiwis are incredible hosts.

A good deal of attention was given to the “care and feeding” of conference guests, including a welcome dinner and a conference concluding brunch. During the welcome dinner I had lovely conversations with many Kiwi hosts and witnessed a “playful” fight among some “mates” in the lobby of the restaurant where we dined. James indicated, tongue in cheek, that this was part of the evening’s entertainment. There was also an opening reception during which an improvisational troupe led attendees through a mock “fashion show” with balloons, streamers and various other party favors serving as clothing accessories. It appears Kiwis do not take themselves too seriously and enjoy a bit of light-hearted fun.

It was during these events that I learned the most about Kiwi culture. One of the most important things to know about New Zealanders is that they are globally aware. Almost everyone I met at the conference has lived in another country, and many have lived in the United States.

My new colleague Nigel Sanderson from FundraiseOnline is a Wellingtonian who lived in New York for a couple of years. Nigel described to me the nature of fundraising in NZ. While very welcoming to strangers like me, Kiwis are somewhat reserved in nature. Nigel described “street appeals” that are prevalent in Wellington. “Solicitors” hold donation buckets near business establishments similar to Salvation Army personnel in the US, but would never dream of attracting attention, i.e., ringing a bell. Nigel pointed out that it is illegal in Wellington for solicitors to “shake their buckets” as that is considered aggressive marketing. Simply put, Nigel described the Kiwi philosophy as one of “we don’t want to impose.”

This philosophy seems consistent with my observation that face to face fundraising with individuals is less prevalent in New Zealand compared to the United States. According a study conducted in 2006, 35 percent of New Zealand giving comes directly from individuals (gifts and bequests) while the lion’s share of giving is from foundations, trusts and businesses (57 percent). As we know, this is dramatically different from the US where individuals typically make up at least 75 percent of philanthropy. My masterclass participants verified all of this, although a few of my observations about the best ways for Kiwis to research foundation funders were a tad off the mark.

The point that I subtly tried to make (although some participants might not have viewed my attempts as subtle) during my time in Wellington is that there appears to be a grand opportunity at hand to increase major gift fundraising. According the 2010 Gallup World Giving Index, New Zealand and Australia tied for first globally in generosity, with 68 percent of the adult citizens in those countries making some kind of monetary gift to charity. Here in the good ole USA, where some mistakenly believe philanthropy was “invented,” we lag behind in fifth place in the same poll with 60 percent of Americans giving.

It is indeed true that while Kiwis are much quicker to embrace technology than their American colleagues, they are looking to the “states” to learn about major gifts. I met many New Zealand fundraisers who were most appreciative of any information that I or my fellow guest speakers were able to provide. I believe the Kiwis are more than capable of adopting these ideas if they so desire. As a society, New Zealand tends to undervalue its capabilities. My conclusion after my visit is that Kiwis are really a lot better than they think they are.

Regarding my previous mention of Australia, I was pleased to see many colleagues from the neighboring country in attendance. Leo Orland, who serves as the board chair of the Fundraising Institute of Australia (FIA), is a treasure trove of information regarding international philanthropy trends. Leo has been very active in the international Certified Fund Raising Executive movement, and the CFRE credential is popular in Australia thanks in part I am sure due to his good work.

I was told that CFRE is THE fundraising credential in New Zealand. Knowing this, I was honored to serve as the host of a FINZ luncheon for CFREs. I learned that there are only 19 CFREs in New Zealand currently, and some in attendance openly inquired what could be done to further promote the credential. I suggested that FINZ could do promotion in its publications, but ultimately it was about taking the case “directly to the people.” FINZ members need to be counseled, perhaps on a one-on-one basis, regarding the value of the credential.

My belief is that many fundraisers pursue the CFRE for very personal reasons and not necessarily because (in the U.S. anyway) the credential can result in promotions and higher pay. The Kiwis tell me that the CFRE is an unknown in their country and definitely does not result in more pay or higher positions. That is just as well. In the end, my personal opinion is that CFRE is really mostly about taking pride in our profession and showing that pride by pursuing a globally agreed upon certificate of standards.

The masterclass I led focused on relationship building. While somewhat reserved, the attendees did participate well and asked very thoughtful questions. Some of the materials I presented about New Zealand philanthropy were a hair off base, but no one was offended and there seemed to be some appreciation for the effort, however misguided.

A highlight of the masterclass was an exercise that I led focusing on communications and marketing efforts. I asked the participants to “imagine” their charity had received a $100 million gift, and to describe in detail how they would announce such a transformational investment. After a great discussion, I revealed that my employer (Western Michigan University) had recently received such a gift for support of a new medical school and passed along information about Operation Historic Moment (, a brilliant marketing effort announcing the gift led by our consultant Jim Small. In a nutshell, the effort created tremendous “buzz” prior to, during and following the announcement through the use social media, countdown clocks, highway billboards and even mysterious “Goldmen” (students wearing gold suits) making appearances at high profile campus events.

My plenary on ethics closed the conference. I love talking about ethics, and it appears Kiwis share my enthusiasm for the topic. During my comments I told the true story of a colleague who was offered a gold watch by a donor as a thank you in celebration of a seven figure gift that the donor made to my colleague’s institution. I could tell that the audience became personally engaged in my colleague’s quandary, and a spirited debate ensued. My sense is that New Zealanders have a very strong moral and ethical base, and seem to have a greater passion, as a whole, regarding this topic compared to American fundraisers. Although I have spoken on the topic on numerous occasions, I learned as much or more from the audience about ethics from their comments than anything I may have personally imparted during the plenary.

I was involved in several conversations about international philanthropy and New Zealand’s potential. My friendship with Andrew Watt, new CEO for the Association of Fundraising Professionals, as well as my volunteer role on the AFP international development committee, likely played a role in this. I developed a friendship with Johan Vos, a Wellingtonian who was FINZ board chair for five years and who has also been active in AFP. Johan serves as national director of Alzheimers New Zealand and is a good student of American and international philanthropy. Johan’s wife is from Washington D.C. and is a native of Holland (he is very familiar with the country’s connections to West Michigan).

Although I am relatively new to the international committee, I know that one of its core accomplishments to date has been the establishment of an international code of ethics. Johan told me there is interest now among committee members to create international standards in various categories of fundraising, including annual giving, events and bequests/planned giving.

In summary, my time with the Kiwis was unforgettable but briefer than I might have liked. I was in New Zealand for two weeks, and with several days devoted to the conference I did not have nearly enough time to fully experience the country’s amazing and raw beauty. I’ll blog about my “tourist” travels in upcoming post. The next time I make it to New Zealand, I plan to spend at least a month!

Published in: on May 23, 2011 at 9:45 pm  Comments (1)