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Fundraising is the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving. – Hank Rosso

Donors don’t give to institutions. They invest in ideas and people in whom they believe. – G.T. Smith

In good times and bad, we know that people give because you meet needs, not because you have needs. – Kay Grace

He who allows his day to pass by without practicing generosity and enjoying life’s pleasures is like a blacksmith’s bellows—he breathes but does not live. – Sanskrit Proverb

Do you enjoy asking for money? I absolutely love it! I like to think of the fundraiser as holding an electrical cord (the donor’s interests) and facing a wall of outlets (various aspects of the fundraiser’s organization). The fundraiser’s job, whether as a volunteer like a board member or as a professional development officer, is to get to know the donor well enough to know which outlet fits the electrical cord’s prongs. When the fundraiser plugs it in by asking for the gift, bang! The power starts to flow!

The first time I asked for money as a development officer was electrifying for me. My mentor had been intending to take me on solicitations but it never happened. I think it would’ve felt odd to go with him since he had developed such great relationships with these people. Can you imagine saying, “I know we’re friends but I’m taking this new guy along so he can study how I’m asking you for money”? Seems weird, doesn’t it?

So, I researched my first solicitation and went to do it. A parent of a student was involved in a fatal accident the previous year while on a business trip. So my strategy was to ask the surviving parent to ask the company that had employed his wife to consider a six-figure gift to name part of our newest building in memory of her. The project was an exciting match of the donor’s family interests with the organization’s strategic priorities.

I arrived at the person’s house, had a wonderful time visiting, and steered the conversation toward “the ask.” It felt really natural. He said he would think about it. I felt elated.

Not until I returned to my office did I realize I had asked him on the anniversary of his wife’s accident. I was so embarrassed. You can imagine the awful pit in my stomach. I had done research but I hadn’t done enough research! We didn’t get that gift. But fortunately, we didn’t lose his relationship either. In fact, in the end, he seemed far less disturbed about the whole thing than I was. I think he was impressed by my thoughtful attempt to match his family’s interests with a pre-determined need on campus.

Even with that experience, I knew I was hooked. I’d been bitten by the fundraising bug. Trying to match the donor’s interests—the electric cord—and the organization’s pre-established strategic priorities—the outlets—was wonderful. I knew I was possibly helping this donor make a meaningful connection to something that mattered to him.

However, talking with colleagues and clients over the years, I realize that most people aren’t as eager to ask for money as I am. My work with them leads me to believe that most of this fear is fear of the unknown. This is often expressed in terms of “What if…” questions: What if I offend the prospect? What if I embarrass myself? What if they ask me a question I can’t answer? What if…? What if…? What if…?

Most of us aren’t brought up asking for money—other than from our parents—so we think we have to become someone else when we do ask. The good news is we can be exactly who we are and still be successful fundraisers!

As I mentioned in the introduction, during my seminars and trainings I tell my audiences that they need to get “R.E.A.L.” Research, Engage, Ask and Love comprise this simple four-step formula. It’s designed to help you get as excited about asking for money as I am. In this chapter, we’re going to investigate research.


Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.

– Marston Bates

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

– Albert Einstein

Action precedes funding

Planning precedes action.


Most people seem to be afraid of asking for money because they don’t have a clue how the prospective donor will respond. Let me show you how research, doing our homework before we ask, helps conquer this fear.

Michael Wyland of Sumption & Wyland, a law firm in South Dakota, told me about a non-profit organization asking a multi-billion dollar company to become a corporate sponsorship of a duck race. This company was a perfect prospect. It made sense that they’d be willing to give. But the duck race coordinators only asked them for $250! The company did become a sponsor, but at a far lower level then they were capable of giving. The organizers had no idea what this corporation was worth! They hadn’t done their homework. They could’ve asked for much more. But now, it’ll be very hard to go to this company next year and ask for a gift of $25,000.

All of us make mistakes like this from time to time. It’s just about inevitable—no matter how well you know your stuff. But you can reduce the frequency of these mistakes with some simple research.

Online and Outsourcing

It’s important to strategize your campaign goal. One of the most powerful research tools is creating a “gift table.” Gift tables help save you from “to-raise-$100,000-we-just-need-to-get-$100-from-1000-people” thinking. Decades of fundraising research show that money doesn’t come that way. One of the great tools for you to use is a gift range calculator. There’s a wonderful free resource that helps you create a gift table at http://www.blackbaud.com/resources/giftrange/giftcalc.aspx.

For instance, to raise $100,000, most gift tables will say you’ll need to have the first gift be at least 10% of the goal, i.e. $10,000. The next three should add up to about 15%, maybe one at $7,500 and a couple at $5,000. Personally, I prefer to be more conservative. I’d look for the first gift to be 25% to 50% of goal.

Gift Range Calculator
An example of a $100,000 gift range chart from the gift range calculator from the Blackbaud website.

Take a look at the example chart. Can you see that you need 4-5 prospects with the ability to make that gift at each level? Using the example above, you’d need 4-5 prospects able to make the $10,000 gift and 8-10 to make the $500 gifts.

Fundraising expert Jerry Linzy of Jerry Panas, Linzy & Partners told me that, “Our experience demonstrates you need 3 or 4 probable donors to secure the gift. We also prefer the lead gift to be 15% to 20%, not 10%. We find today that the top 20 to 50 gifts need to represent half the goal.”

This fact is worth the price of this book.

How do you find if your donors are able to make that kind of gift? As you can see, doing your homework here is incredibly important.

One of the best tools for this kind of homework is probably one you’re already using it for other web related tasks: Google.com. Type the name of the person you want to approach in the Google search box and see what comes up. It’s pretty amazing how much public information is out there on people.

It may be helpful to put their name in quotes and spell out the state you live in to narrow the search. What’s really fun is pulling up information that is out of the ordinary. You may find a book review that a person wrote or a club that they’re a part of. While those things shouldn’t necessarily be mentioned during your visit, you will have a much clearer picture of the person when you meet with them.

Be careful not to rely on Google alone! If you type in my name, half the sites that come up for “Marc Pitman” are for a guy who’s starred in horror movies with names like “Roadkill” and “Deadbeat at Dawn.” It’s a riot, but it’s not me! (I wonder if anyone thinks it is me.) Please be sure to take your Google findings with a grain of salt.

Google isn’t the only internet tool. For a treasure trove of similar online research tools, check out the University of Vermont’s Research Tools Page (http://www.uvm.edu/~prospect/index.html).

With all the web-based tools, don’t forget the good, old fashioned donor files. It’s helpful to look at them on a somewhat regular basis. At some places I’ve worked, they had file cabinets stuffed with records going back to the 1930s. You will find some fascinating information there!

Another way to research is to send all your database information to a vendor that specializes in prospect research and modeling. Groups like Blackbaud Analytics do this all the time. They have access to large amounts of public information, and they have formulas for knowing how to quantify that information. That information can be like gold to your organization, even on a project as simple as a mailing. By using this type of service, I cut my annual fund mailings from an entire database of 14,000 records to just the 4,000 most likely to make a gift. I’m saving a bundle in production and postage!

Peer Reviews & CPI Index

One of the most effective and least expensive ways of researching prospective donors is asking other people. This is often known as a “peer review.” People on the development committee or solicitation task force go over a list of names one by one. They talk about things like the prospect’s interests, their likelihood to give to this project, and how much they should be asked for. This can work in groups as well as in one-on-one meetings.

I love these sessions because they can be highly informative and incredibly helpful in gathering anecdotal information as well as hard data. They also help you discover the links and relationships between prospective donors and other people in the community.

Admittedly not everyone is comfortable talking so frankly about their peers. So I developed the CPI Index. The CPI Index is a form of research that attempts to “objectify” the information. Rather than talking with each other, participants score prospective donors on three criteria:

  • capacity to give,
  • philanthropic nature, and
  • interest in your cause or organization.


Does the person have money they can give your organization? If not, he or she won’t be good prospects—no matter how nice the person may be. (Face it, at some point, your nonprofit needs cash to pay the bills and accomplish its mission.)

Philanthropic Nature

Is the person a giver? If he or she doesn’t give gifts to other charities, chances are high the person won’t give gifts to yours.


Is the person interested in your cause? Bill Gates would have high scores in capacity and philanthropic nature, but without an interest in your cause, he’s not going to make a gift to your organization. (Sorry if this comes as a shock.)

To conduct a CPI Index session, prepare a list of names like before but add the three CPI columns. Then ask people to score the prospective donors in each area on a scale of 1 (being lowest) to 5 (being highest) in each of the categories. When they’re done, add up the scores. You’ll want to personally visit people with scores of 12 or higher and invite them to make a gift. Ask the group of peers who would be the best “door openers” to help you get in front of those people.

Don’t toss out the other names! Be sure to also look at the people that scored high C’s and P’s but only mediocre I’s. You can’t change a person’s capacity—no matter how much you shop at their store. And you can’t change their philanthropic nature—they either are generous or they are not. But you can do things to get them more interested in your organization. I’d recommend beginning to cultivate these people for a future gift. You’ll probably find that many of them really aren’t interested in your organization or even in your cause. But you will find a few that will become incredibly committed to your organization if they’re cultivated well. Cultivating well is the focus of our next chapter.


Many of my clients get very uncomfortable with the information discovered in this step. It is pretty amazing how much information is public and available. You’re not the FBI. You’re simply trying to help your favorite organization be excellent stewards of their limited resources. This kind of research helps organizations significantly leverage the effectiveness of their fundraising.

Whatever you do, do not compromise your integrity. I promise you that all these forms of research are legitimate, ethical, and professional. But your integrity is worth more than any amount of funding you may raise for your organization. Listen to your conscience and only go as far as you’re comfortable. If you’re getting uncomfortable with what you’re finding, stop. Ask yourself what’s making you uncomfortable. Often, the largest barriers are our attitudes to wealth and money. Is that what’s causing you to hold back?

The second warning is: don’t get stuck on this step. This is just the beginning. The biggest potential danger in research is “paralysis by analysis.” You can do homework until the cows come home, but nobody makes a gift until they’re asked.

I don’t know how many boards I’ve sat on when the inevitable question arises: “Have you researched that? I know we’re hemorrhaging financially, losing money hand-over-fist, but before we fix that by actually asking people for a gift can we take a step back and do more research?” Research can be an easy way to chicken out of asking without looking like a coward. That kind of thinking will kill any fundraising effort. Sometimes, you just need to go for it and make the ask.

Research also helps you feel more secure about your ask before you even get in front of the donor. Research ends up helping the donor as much as it helps you. If you found out they’ve written editorials against your cause, you won’t waste their time asking them to support it!

Now that we’ve established some of the advantages of research and some simple ways to do it, let’s move on to our next part of getting R.E.A.L.: engage.


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