Friday, November 28, 2008

Capacity and Need

”How big a gift can we ask for?” The volunteer looked at me and I wanted to say, “As much as we dare.” But that really wasn’t what he was asking and, as so often is the case, the answer was far more complex than my flippant would-be retort showed.

Judging capacity is not something that can be done by simple formulae in a white room. How much someone can give and how much that person will give are not always easily related. Ability to give, desire to give to your organization and yes, how the ask is made and for how much all play huge roles.

As always, large organizations with resources often have a better shot at getting it right. But they don’t necessarily have a better shot at getting the gift. Beyond research, more than data, sometimes just asking the prospect, “What kind of a gift do you see yourself making” will get you closer to capacity than anything.

And then there is always the issue of your organization’s needs at this time.

As I write, many organizations are facing serious shortfalls. Unless you are an ostrich, you know the economy is beyond bad. Organizations’ traditional fundraising methods are falling short. New techniques aren’t quite taking off. What to do?

If you are facing a shortfall, your immediate needs are short-term. Quick gifts that will help to bridge the gap. If you are lucky enough to have a pool of donors, you may want to look at your likely large donors and ask them for a not-so-large gift. What you want here is a quick yes and an equally quick check.

When I first got into fundraising, my boss told me that if a prospect reached into his or her pocket(book) and wrote out a check for the amount asked, I probably asked for too little. In recent years, that so-called wisdom has changed somewhat and now the idea is if that happens add “A year, for N years,” to your ask. It plays well in the telling, but not always in the asking. A bird in the hand and all that may be where you are now. In today’s market, take the gift and say thank you. And then use that gift as the starting point for the next gift.

In addition to your need is the very real need of the donor. With the economy in such a tailspin your donor may be leery of committing too much. And, just as you are wondering about the donor’s capacity, she may be wondering as well. Keeping the ask to a do-able gift now may not get a listing in the Chronicle’s fundraising pages, but it very well might beef up your bottom line.

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

Friday, November 14, 2008

Keeping Us in Our Place

Not all that long ago, I found myself going from the security of a steady and fairly substantial paycheck to the vagaries of my own consulting business. Since I had no clue how long it would take—if ever—for me to make a reasonable living from this venture, I really pared down my life. As the end of the year loomed and those end of the year appeals starting coming in, one of the things I took a long, hard look at was my annual giving to a number of organizations.

There were several places I had been supporting for a number of years. My donations were not high. They ranged from $50 to $250 annually. In all cases, while I still believed in the work the organization was doing, I frankly didn’t feel much a part of that work. A few sent newsletters, but by and large, the only time I heard from them—and consequently thought about them—was when they were asking me for money.

I made an executive decision, and simply did not respond to any of the organizations’ appeals. Most the organizations took absolutely no action. I next heard from them in the normal course of events—when they sent out their next appeal. One organization sent a follow up letter reminding me that I hadn’t sent in my annual donation. It was as personal as the appeal, which is to say that beyond having my name and address on it, there was no difference from a “Dear Donor” letter. Not one organization made a personal call or sent a personal letter trying to find out why I—a long time supporter—had stopped supporting them.

Perhaps these are all organizations with thousands of supporters and losing one or two or three hundred donors doesn’t matter to them. Or perhaps they just don’t get that loyal donors are also likely larger donors, if only you would approach them in a different way.

There’s lots of research pointing to the fact that donors come to resent organizations who only contact them when they are being asked for a donation. Certainly that feeling of resentment factored into my decision to not send a year end check.

Had anyone at any one of the organizations called to say, “Hi, we noticed that you didn’t give this past year and we just wanted to know why. Is there anything we can do to change your mind?” I probably would have written a check. A handwritten note from someone asking the same questions would have made me at least think about my decision.

The point is that organizations seem to spend a great deal of time and money keeping donors where they are. That, in itself, is leads to ineffectual fundraising. That they do little or nothing to woo back (and note that among the synonyms for woo are persuade, encourage, entice) donors who become disaffected or simply do not respond to a very impersonal way of fundraising shows a basic lack of understanding about what fundraising is and why people support your organization in the first place.

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