There is often a deep reluctance to re-engage with major donors after they have made a large gift. The capital appeal fundraiser moves on to new targets, the CEO or Chair becomes involves in landing a new fish, and their dread of offending an important person by badgering them to give again takes over. The result is all too frequently a long gap before any contact at all is made with the donor. Yet this is exactly the time when they are most excited about the organisation, feel part of an ongoing process and are eager to help ensure things go well. Do not forget to invite them to visit the building they have donated to see being built, and use that opportunity to sell them your ongoing vision of future development.
In a capital appeal there are clear targets, a range of events and lots of information going out to donors about the next steps in the appeal. Because very large sums are involve there is also a budget for that kind of activity; and all this allows the donor to feel that they are still part of the process after giving their gift and to be willing to meet and engage with people involved in the appeal.
It is more difficult when the appeal is finished, in ordinary major donor cultivation, but essentially the same rules apply. Do keep in touch with your major donors through your newsletters, or other form of regular communication e.g. personal email newsletter or special major donor bulletins. Invite them to events and to any special gathering. Take time to talk to them, thank them personally, ask again about their interests; both outside the charity world and how they now feel about the organisation and its work. Do ensure any questions are answered directly, but if you do not know the correct reply at the time ensure the question is answered by someone else, and ask them to copy you in on the reply or give it yourself.
This process allows you to introduce the next set of needs, in your organisation’s vision, that will form your future case for support and your next round of major donor asks. Do, however, also use your existing major donors as a sounding board for ideas, as door openers for others, ‘Do you happen to know X, I’ve always wanted to meet them and ask their advice about Y?’ and, for example, as a route to gifts in kind, ‘Do you know anyone who is changing their office furniture we need to equip six new offices in Y?’
Of course, some people may say, ‘This is a one-off so please do not ask again’. That is usually the result of insufficient cultivation and a sign the person has given reluctantly, perhaps for social reasons, not because they fully support the work. This should be regarded as a failure and looked at carefully to see if there was any way the process could have been improved. If major donors are asking their colleagues to help, and that process is going on away from any oversight it is understandable that it will not recruit permanent donors; but if your major donors are trained to ask properly, and their colleagues are brought to cultivation events, they may well become part of your major donor team too. If they really mean do not ask again then their wishes should be accepted (until they indicate otherwise) but they can still be invited to events where there is no ask.
Events can re-energise donors. It is often the side conversation with a cutting edge worked that triggers something in the donor, reinforcing their commitment. Donors often say, ‘It was a conversation I had with one of your people when he told me about this person he met…’ and a moving story of a client who has been helped comes out. It seems that human empathy may be best engendered by single cases when the listener can feel themselves in the shoes of someone who has suffered.
Major donors often create a relationship with a key figure in the organisation, such as the CEO and, as in all friendships, they are hurt if it comes to an abrupt end. The offer of lunch or just the occasional phone call can keep the relationship alive.
The role of the board
There is a saying that board members should ‘Give, get or get off’. In the UK one of the hardest tasks for a major donor fundraiser is to set in train the process whereby the board begins to accept its role and responsibilities in terms of major donor fundraising. This can best be organised through team work by the CEO and Chair of the board. If the capital appeal has shown that the current board members do not have contacts or inter-personal skills, new board members, who are prepared to engage in the major donor process, should to be brought onto the board.
A well briefed selection committee can look at prospective board members to ensure they understand their role, have the ability to engage with existing donors and possess a range of contacts at the highest level who they are prepared to approach personally, by phone or face-to-face not by letter. This needs to be spelled out at an early stage so no one becomes psychologically attached to an unsuitable candidate.
A well functioning board in terms of any major donor programme is a rare thing at present, but it is stunningly effective when it is in operation. Then key people have a real sense that they are welcome, that their contribution is being taken seriously and that their comments and ideas are appreciated even if they are not always acted upon. It is the continuation of these relationships that board members are particularly suited to maintain. When say, a new capital appeal is due, instead of looking at a long list of people who gave once a long time ago and have been ignored, you can look at a list of people who are up to scratch with current developments, feel part of the team and are ready to help by giving again and spreading the word. They are also likely to now be wealthier and have better contacts than before.
Some of these people may have retired, and no longer have the ability to give large sums, or the clout to elicit huge donations from colleagues; but if they have been kept on board, they will undoubtedly leave your organisation a large percentage of their estate in their will. This is particularly true of the baby-boomer generation who are both keen to see social change and not to leave fortunes to their children, which they often believe may spoil their lives.
So, how does one approach the ‘ask’ for the next gift after receiving a substantial donation? As you may have guessed: through the same cultivation route. Obviously your donor now knows the organisation well and has very good connections, so the process is much easier. In your conversations with the donor you (or their contact) will be finding out how they feel about the current work, and you will be introducing the next set of work that needs funding. Do not slip back into asking for general funds or broad core funds if you can possibly help it. At least give them clear links to an area that the donor really wants to engage with, and test the idea on your donor before actually asking for a gift. It is very tempting to try and use major donors to plug gaps in core income or in general budgets towards the financial year end. This is an easy way to lose your best supporters by giving them the impression you are not handling your resources properly and have not been listening to them.
In assessing if the prospect is ready you look for the same set of clues, do they understand and really agree the importance of the project you now need funding for? Are they really animated about it or just being polite? Have you checked their income and wealth recently? Have they just lost or trousered a fortune? Do you have the right person and opportunity to ask? Do you have a sum in mind?
Once a year is often the rate at which organisations ask their major donors face to face, but many also include all their major donors in their Christmas mailing. The latter is better than not asking at all, but should be avoided if you are to really maximise your income. The correct answer to the “how many times a year can I ask” question is that you can ask as often as the donor is willing to give. Know your donor is the whole of the law. Often donors are, however, fairly opaque and you will need to be bold and test asking them more often. Can they afford it? Yes, then why not ask for it? In time you will encounter people willing to give several times in one year and those barely willing to give once. The process of asking will give you an internal radar for the state of affairs, but to acquire this valuable tool you need to ask and ask again. Of course, it may not be you personally asking; but you need to be so close to the process that, though not actually present, you feel as if you were really there.
Maintaining your research on current donors, as well as potential prospects, is crucial because their circumstances may change radically; a new address, a new position, the sale of shares or the IPO of their company plus a myriad of other life-changing events can all affect your possibilities and indeed your relationship to your prospect. A change in family circumstances can make them likely to be either more or less keen on helping, and you should know what has happened in their lives so that you can pitch your conversation correctly. For example, if their partner was the person in the family most keen on your work and they have divorced, you might need to start almost from scratch in cultivating that person; and, of course, their new partner and their colleagues.
Research itself is a rapidly developing profession and research tools are improving every few months. It may be possible now to learn a lot of different facts that might just make the difference in your approach to a prospect first profiled a year or two ago. Do not forget to check your own database, as you may find a recent donation has just been processed indicating that next time a personal ‘ask’ would be inappropriate.
The balance of contact or separation from a major donor, once a key gift has been obtained, is one of the most difficult decisions in major donor work; because it is based on your reading of the individual. Yes, you will naturally keep in touch and offer them the opportunity to attend various events, and once they attend those events you will talk to them; but read their expressions, mannerisms and weigh their words carefully. This is important, whether or not they say they are likely to attend a future event, or express enthusiasm about a new project. Attention at this point will tell you how much you can push, though do not be over-cautious as major donors are rarely shrinking violets, and quite capable of saying no without becoming offended.
Widening the search
As your donor begins to become part of your family so you should become part of their life, and get to know their family friends and colleagues. Give them the opportunity to invite their circle to events. They will appreciate it and the extra unit cost will be negligible compared to the benefit you derive from having the whole family or their circle of friends behind you, with colleagues possibly opening doors on your behalf, or joining in tables at your fundraising dinners.
You may also find that family members have their own charitable funds, and though these can be for very different charities, they may also be pooled on occasions to enable an especially important donation to be made.
This wider circle is particularly useful when it comes to events like Golf Days, Art Auctions and Concerts, as they may be more likely to attend than your current low-level supporters and purchase the higher value tickets or the high priced auction items at events.
After the appeal continued major donor development is about the long term, but even when that large ‘donation of a lifetime’ comes through it is not the end of the story, only of that particular chapter. Read the ‘life position’ of your donor to see if are they at the peak of their career, not there yet, or are they about to retire or have they already retired? All these stages require a different approach by you and a different pattern of asking. Lastly – think beyond the donor and involve their circle in your activities.
The end of the appeal is the start of a new cycle of development, but now your organisation is on a new level. Its revenue funding may increase dramatically as you have a whole new set of enthusiastic donors, companies, trusts and other grant-makers keen to help you move into the next stage.
Your organisation must, however, clearly articulate that vision and it should build logically on the new building developments.