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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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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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 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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