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Computer dating is fine, if you’re a computer. – Rita Mae Brown

Relationships of trust depend on our willingness to look not only to our own interests, but also the interests of others. – Peter Farquharson

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but the seed you plant. – Robert Louis Stevenson

I’m amazed by how many nonprofit folks seem to think they can just jump into asking people for money. Think of asking for a gift was like getting married. We want to get married (get the gift) but we’re scared to death of meeting people. So we stall as long as we can, staying inside, not going on a single date. But at some point, our organization gets into a financial crisis, and we can’t avoid asking people for money. We really need to get married! So we panic and send lots of letters to as big a list of unqualified people—more “suspects” than true prospects. That’s like running into the nearest bar and asking the first person we see if they’ll marry us! Crazy, isn’t it?

What’s even crazier is that we get upset when they give us a weird look and say “No!”

Even if we do excellent research, it’s still probably too soon to ask for a major gift. We need to get to know people before we ask them to make a commitment to our organization. We need to engage them in the process.

Engaging involves being genuinely interested in people, not just in their checkbook. (Or your perception of their checkbook—some folks look well off but are simply “broke at a higher level.”) Take them out to lunch. Visit them when traveling in their area. Send them articles you think might interest them. Take note of what interests them, and what doesn’t. Do the courtesy of trying to find something in your cause that relates to their interests. There’s no point in asking someone to make a substantial gift to a cause they don’t care about.

As it is in dating, “engaging” within fundraising is a two-way process. I often let people know that in addition to being the chief development person for a hospital, I also am pastoring a new church in town. (I actually say, “I have a full-time job to pay for my pastoring habit!”) You would be amazed at how comments like this open people up. I think they start to see me as a real person, not just someone trying to reach into their wallet.

Study after study shows that people give to winning causes, not to needs! If at all possible, don’t talk incessantly about your needs. I often think we in the nonprofit world look like Bill Murray’s character in the movie “What About Bob?” whining to his psychiatrist, “I want. I want. I want. I need. I need. I need!” Donors aren’t motivated by that. Let them know the cool things your organization is doing. This helps them see that their gift will be well used. Show them how their gift can have the most leverage on your organization’s mission.

Today I met with a prospective funder to see if their priorities may match with one of our events. But I spent a good portion of the time practically bragging about some innovative things our hospital is doing. (We’re one of the first hospitals in the entire U.S. to voluntarily disclose its clinical outcomes on the web. We’re doing it right on our website so healthcare consumers can make an informed decision about whether or not they should get cared for by us. This takes guts!)

I feel the engage step is possibly even more important than researching. No one raises large amounts of money from behind a desk. As Si Seymour used to say, “You can’t milk a cow with a letter.” Fundraising is all about relationships. So get out there and meet your prospects!


Getting to Know You

As you get out from behind your desk, where do you begin? Start by exploring the interests of the person. A good approach to engaging your donors is to always remember why you got involved in your organization. What excites you most about your cause? These may be the exact aspects that connect with the other person.

I bet someone trying to watch me during my donor visits would get annoyed by how little time I seem to devote to asking the prospective donor for a gift. Instead, I love asking questions like:

  • So what do you do when you’re not eating lunch at this restaurant [or whatever activity you’re both doing at the time]?
  • How long have you been doing that?
  • Really? How did you get started?

Bob Burg’s book Endless Referrals is filled with great questions like this. I simply love hearing people’s stories. I find people generally like telling their stories if they see you’re genuinely interested.

Another way to get to know the other person is to look around the room or office. What awards and pictures are adorning the walls? What service clubs do they appear to be involved in?

Personally, I love books so I always look at bookshelves. Once I was in a home in California that had two small elegant wooden and bronze plaques on the bookshelves. They were two patents for freeze-dried coffee! This got me excited! Beyond thinking about the potential royalties or licensing income, I started thinking about all the challenges involved in earning a patent. This must have been something he committed years of his life to. We got into a fascinating conversation. (It turns out there were no royalties. Since he created this as an employee, the company owned all rights to the invention.)

Here are some other ways to engage people in the affairs of your organization that will help you when it comes time to actually ask them for money.


Getting Behind the Scenes

In his book The Anatomy of Buzz, Emmanuel Rosen talks about the buzz created by “behind-the-scenes” experiences. Rosen says we all love to feel like we’re getting a behind-the-scenes look at something. Even if we know it’s not really behind the scenes, we still feel special if it’s an “insider’s” tour.

I fondly remember Walt Disney World’s “Keys to the Kingdom” tour I took in 1998. For approximately five hours, we walked “back stage” and saw all the secrets of the kingdom. We knew that we weren’t really seeing all the secrets but it sure felt like we were. The tour certainly exceeded my expectations. And for a person like me, that helped increase my enjoyment of the park on each subsequent visit.

This is also true for our donors. This is one of the reasons international development organizations host tours of projects in the developing world. These behind-the-scenes activities help donors buy-in even more to a cause they already like.

You don’t need to be doing international work to give your donors and donor prospects an inside look. Here are a few ways to possibly include your donor prospects in a behind-the-scenes activity:

  • You could host a gathering at your construction site and have the general contractor or architect speak.
  • You might hold a relaxed Q & A with your CEO.
  • Consider giving a tour of something you don’t usually showcase—client homes, residence facilities, or anything else.

What I love most about the behind-the-scenes aspect of engaging is that it often can be done with little or no expense. Since it’s behind-the-scenes, donor prospects don’t expect it to be as glitzy or as polished as a regular event would be! The unsophisticated nature of the event actually adds to its appeal.

At one institution, I gave a behind-the-scenes feel to class representatives by creating a monthly one-page/two-sided newsletter called “Rep Rap.” Using a simple desktop publishing program, I developed this newsletter, photocopied them, and sent them out as self-mailers. The desktop publishing and photocopying was specifically intended to be non-flashy and create an informal feel. I wanted class reps to feel like they were getting something hot-off-the-press so they would know they were in an inner-circle. A glossy, four-color publication wouldn’t have done that.

As fun as engaging is, don’t get stuck in this step either. No prospect has ever made a significant gift just because you were friendly and engaging. People still need to be asked. So once you do your research and engage the prospective donor, it’s time for the moment of truth: asking for money!


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