So exactly how do you lead someone up to a $1 million ask? The director of major gifts at a large regional environmental organization agreed to tell us everything . . . as long as we didn't reveal her name or organization.
Major gifts aren't the right strategy for every organization, but we can still appreciate how this fundraiser talks about her job:
Q: Can you walk us through a major gift ask?
A: Well, here's an example. We sent our board members a list of new members, and one of them knew one of the people on the list, although not very well at all. But he knew that this person had a large capacity to give. So he sent that person an email saying I just learned you are a new member, and would he like to join the board member at lunch with me.
Did he say it was about making a major gift?
Well as soon as the person hears that my job title is Director of Major Gifts, they know this is a fundraising lunch!
Who paid for the lunch?
In this case the board member, which is usually the case. I just give a general overview of our organization, but then we really talk about his interests, find out about him. Generally our organization impresses people, so I can be kind of understated without going on and on about ourselves. We want to spend a good portion of the time learning about them.
Is there an ask at the lunch?
Not usually. In this case I offered to take him out in the field on a hike so he could experience what we do.
After the field trip is the first ask. A week afterwards I follow up with them. If I've seen them in person twice -- once at lunch and once on the hike -- then I wouldn't ask to see them again. I say something like, I'd love for you to consider making a gift, can I send you a proposal? And the proposal will be for the part of work that they especially expressed interest in. But it depends on what they said on the hike and at lunch.
What do they usually say back?
They usually say send it, I'll talk to my wife, look at my budget, see what I can do.
Well, through our board member and our capacity research we know that he makes $100,000 gifts to other organizations. So I said something like, I would love to send you a proposal for $100,000 . . . is that acceptable to you?
So you went from $250 to $100,000? Really?!
You have to remember that people take a $250 gift out of a different pot of money than a $100,000 gift. The $250 came out of their checking account, out of their income. But a $100,000 gift will come out of their savings, out of their wealth. They might even have a family foundation or a donor advised fund. And we might suggest the payment over three years.
And what was response to your suggestion that you send a $100,000 proposal?
He said he wanted to know more. As it turned out, we were doing a field trip with the board member so he was invited to come along. Ordinarily we wouldn't invite someone on two trips if they haven't done something significant yet.
And so what did you do after that field trip?
It's still up in the air! To tell the truth this is an awkward point. I have to let him know that we can't continue having contact with him [such as having lunch or going on hikes] unless he makes a major gift.
Ugh. How do you say that?
It's hard to say it. Some people you can just say it to directly: I know you like our organization, but we reserve these trips and events for our major donors. In other words, if you don't make a significant gift, we won't call you anymore.
Sometimes they're frank back and say, "We're just not sure we feel comfortable giving away that amount of money right now." Some are like, "We're not really sure, we just like seeing you." At this point some people will do something like make a $10,000 gift, basically saying, keep talking to us.
So, what constitutes a major gift in your organization?
Our target major gift is $100,000 or more. Really, if someone is in our major gifts group then it's because they have the potential to make a major gift, not necessarily because they've already made one.
But do you really try to have more contact with everyone who buys a $100 membership?
Well, we do capacity analysis. If a $250 member has the capacity to give $200,000, we contact them! But yes, we do capacity analysis on a large group of people.
Most people start out as members, which means they were giving $100 or $250 a year, or maybe a thousand. So they made some smaller gifts but worked their way up as we had more contact with them.
If someone gives you a $100,000 gift, what is the gift they probably gave just previously?
Probably in the $1,000 to $10,000 range. Because it came out of a different pot.
You're beautiful and charming. You must have prospective donors hitting on you. How do you handle that?
Well as I get older it happens less and less! :) I have to be careful. It's hard, because you get close to certain men and you have a good rapport, and you don't want to be so standoffish that you turn them off in general. Frequently they're older men, so I make light of it by saying something like, "Oh, you're too young for me!"
Do most donors give the amount you've talked about, or more, or less?
You're supposed to ask high, and people are supposed to look a little bit shocked and say they need some time to think about it. But usually I know what they've given to other organizations so I generally ask for something I know they've given before.
What is it like to be with people who are much wealthier than you are?
When I meet someone new at something outside of work and they hear I'm a fundraiser, they usually say something like, "So you hang out with rich people." And well yeah, I do, but it's not like what you think.
Most people I meet as donors are lovely. They're well educated; they care. They lead interesting lives. They're by nature generous. They're really interested in what we do. Of course, those that have inherited wealth have expectations about the way they should be treated. Or the types that are self-made and they're very proud and they want a lot of recognition and special treatment. So you do it because you're doing it for the organization and I'm not going to let this person get to me.
Because we're an environmental organization and so an outdoor organization, we don't seem to have the same "put my name on things" egos that universities seem to attract. And oddly enough, foundation folks . . . it's a profession for them and they have their self image wrapped up in it and they tend to be primadonnas or snobs.
Do you have some "horror stories?"
Sure. I could tell you one involving a donor getting onto the wrong private plane and heading for Mexico City instead of the place we were planning to take her. When the pilot said, "Ready to go to Mexico City?" she thought it was a joke and said, "Ha ha! Yes!" In the meantime our staff is at the airport wondering why she hasn't shown up.
What's the biggest single pledge you've gotten?
$4 million! And they hadn't given anything before that! It was totally unusual. I'm working on one today that's for $2.5 million.
What do you do when you get a big gift?
We pop the bubbly! We all get in the room and talk about great it is! We don't have a bell. My boss is thinking we should get a bell like a cow bell!
And in our monthly staff meeting there's a portion called Big Gifts and they're announced to everyone and the fundraisier that brought it in gets some recognition. We get a lot of recognition within our organization, which is important.
Do you have some advice for a young fundraiser at a small organization who wants to get a job like yours someday?
Well, you need to get to a bigger institution. You could either move to being the director at a small institution or be a more junior person at a larger institution. Ask: what is the prospect base. For example, if they're a small college that has alumni who don't come from great wealth, the good news is that the college is doing great work but the bad news is that it's going to be hard to raise a lot of money. At our organization we have a lot of prospects. That's the kind of thing you want to look for.
Other suggestions for a fundraising career?
You have to have the general work habits of a successful person. And you have to be aligned with what the organization does. When we're interviewing people we look very closely at mission fit. There will be days when people don't return your calls, don't respond to you, and it doesn't feel good. You need something else to keep you there. You really care about what the organization does and you like the people you work with so you survive to live another day.
The Major Gifts Officer in this interview has previously worked in major gifts for a small private university and the department of a state university, and before these jobs worked in corporate philanthropy. We are grateful to her for sharing her experiences.
Thank you to Jan Masaoka and www.blueavocado.com for allowing us to publish this article.