Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Focused Fundraising

When I first got into this business, major fundraising campaigns were few and far between. Now, of course, they are ubiquitous, with the Campaign for This, morphing into the Campaign for That, and immediately running into the buildup for the Campaign for the Other Thing.

The reason for this, of course, is because campaigns are successful. There are two main reasons for their success.

First off, everyone gears up for a campaign. Resources are poured into development programs, proving yet again that it costs money to raise money. Staff and leadership buy-in, count heavily into why organizations can raise more money than ever during a campaign.

Even more important, however, is the fact that campaigns are focused.

I’ve worked with and at too many organizations where priorities are not clearly identified. That results in what I have elegantly begun to call “Pig in a Poke” fundraising. In effect, you are told to go out and raise whatever you can.

This takes the concept of donor centered fundraising to extremes. Instead of the organization developing needs based on forwarding the mission, the donor gets to make contributions based on whatever floats their particular boat.

The danger, of course, is that their boat may be tied up to a very different marina than the one your organization belongs to. While you need funding to enhance programs that help your clients or constituents, the funding you get may fund a program that is orthogonal or off to the side of what is important and necessary for your mission.

Donors are not, however, the villains here. They are generally genuinely trying to help you to do good. In a vacuum, all sorts of things rush in. If you don’t define what you need, you will get what the donor wants.

As someone who has been on the front lines of fundraising, the big monster that I see in unfocused fundraising is the difficulty it presents in approaching prospects. A generic “this is what we do” conversation goes just so far. Even when a prospect is jazzed, even if the prospect is a current or recent donor, at some point you need to turn the conversation to a gift. “Whatever floats your boat,” is not a good solicitation tactic.

Nor is it a good idea to be vague about the amount you are asking a prospect to give. There are all kinds of studies out there that point to the fact that you will do better if you ask for a specific amount than if you simply ask for a gift. You might not get what you ask for, but the odds of getting something are far greater.

Focus and specificity are two of the underrated strengths in a fundraiser’s toolkit. The more a prospect can understand how his or her gift will make a difference, and the clearer they are about how much of a gift it will take to make this difference happen, the easier it is to turn that prospect into a donor.

If you make sure that you report back to that donor on the success of their gift, and talk to them from time to time without asking for anything, the more likely it will be that this donor will become a repeat donor, probably at a higher level of giving.

Janet Levine is a fundraising consultant. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at

Thursday, July 10, 2008

MegaMillion Dollar Donors

I read the Chronicle of Philanthropy and get depressed. A gift of $20 million here, a $10 million gift there, three at $5 million over nearby. Rarely during my career have I worked at organizations that commanded such largesse.

To be honest, there have been times when getting a $500 check seemed like a major victory. No wonder I often felt like Sisyphus, pushing that crummy rock uphill only to have it crash on my head. It was all too easy to give up.

I have no resources, no support, and I’m spending all my time diddling with these really small gifts..

So much easier to focus on less frustrating things: Friend-raising, administrative chores,, meetings of one sort of another. What can I say except: RESIST THAT TEMPTATION!!!!!

Your job, or at least some part of it, is to raise funds for your organization. And unless you are working at an organization whose operating budget is in the mid to high 9 figures, forget about mega million dollar gifts. It is not very likely that you will get a gift that is larger than your operating budget.

Focus, instead, on what is a reasonable major gift for your organization. Which segues nicely into the question of what, exactly, is a major gift?

When I first started in development, the institution where I worked defined a major gift as one that was not less than $25,000 and paid out over not more than 5 years. I always wondered what that made a gift of $5,000-$24,000 paid out in one year. Chopped Liver?

All right. I know there needs to be markers, a line which, when you cross it, changes the landscape. But rather than numbers or percentages, I’ve always been fond of Tony Poderis’ definition of a major gift: Any gift currently making a significant and positive impact on our organization, or any gift with the potential to do so, is truly a Major Gift.

In short, a gift is major because there is a commitment that says your mission is a priority and helping to move it forward is important. It is a commitment that needs to be on both sides. The donor’s commitment shows itself via financial support. Your commitment is in ensuring the donor gets something for his or her gift.

This something is not the perks or presents often given to major donors, though those can be very good things to provide. Nor is it only the additional attention these donors receive from staff and volunteers (and, depending on your organization, your clients), though this attention is crucial if you are to develop repeat major donors.

It is a heightened relationship, a partnership really, that ensures your major is involved (as well as invested) in what you do. It means more than simply thanking your donor to making sure that they know how their gift made a difference and why that matters. Beyond telling, you need to show them. Above all, you need to turn these major donors into insiders who have more than a passing interest in what you do.

Next time, we’ll talk about how you do that.

Janet Levine is a fundraising consultant. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at