Practice Your Way to Major Gift Success

Blogger, Nicolas Cole, states, “To succeed, you have to love practicing more than you love any goal or reward.”


Could this be true for major gift fundraising, that you have to love practicing more than you love closing, more than hearing that joyful “yes” to your artful solicitation?

You’re goal-oriented.  You have to raise x dollars by y date and to do that you have to close z major gifts.  People are counting on you.  The love of the close is paramount.

Maybe not.

Don’t you have to be GREAT at strategic conversations?

Don’t you have to TERRIFIC at listening to understand?  Don’t you have to EXCELLENT at storytelling, sharing impact, creating meaningful and productive engagement opportunities?  Don’t you have to write the smartest, most strategic and tailored donor plans?

Major gift fundraising is a craft.  The best way to get good at a craft is to do it, to practice.

You’ve probably met them.  Those folks who don’t believe they have anything new to learn.  “This has always worked for me.”  They attend conferences to network only, enjoy the lunch.  The consultant’s advice rolls off of them, leaving them untouched and unmoved.  As their supervisor, you can’t get them to try a new idea, or burnish a deficient skill.

Being good at anything means you have to practice, continually acquire knowledge, learn from you mistakes and experiences.

So, maybe Mr. Cole is correct.  You have to care about practicing more than the end goal or the reward for true major gift success.  You can practice your way to inspired, joyful generous “yeses.”

Get the Most Out of Your Board Retreats

Board retreats are a powerful tool in effective board development and organizational management. However, too often, they lack key elements leading to missed opportunities and frustration. Check out Laurel’s webinar to make sure your next board retreat is not only productive and enjoyable, but also a strategic part of achieving your organization’s goals.

4 Steps You Can Take NOW to Strengthen Major Donor Engagement

Major Donor Engagement

Strategic engagement leads to increased investment. We all know this. Yet, we often offer a too small selection of ways to engage our major donors and potential donors.

  1. Help us fundraise
  2. Attend an event (fundraising, alumni, cultivation, stewardship luncheon)
  3. Take a tour
  4. Join our board (or a committee)
  5. Meet with me

That’s often it.

We shoehorn our donors into one of these five boxes. Some fit nicely, but for others, none of the above lights a fire. Even worse, they fail to move the potential donor closer to an inspired, joyful and generous, “Yes.”

Our goal, however, is to tap into all of our donors’ personal capital – human, intellectual, network, and financial. We want them to be “All In.” Women demand it. Men respond to it. Millennials love it. Gen Xers and Boomers, like most men, give more even though they say they don’t have time or don’t need it. People of color like being part of a larger group who are also involved.

It doesn’t matter who you are. Asking for more than money and contacts makes one feel valued. When we tailor that engagement to interests and skill sets, we have a winning formula.

Step One: Assess your current major donor engagement options.

Involvement and engagement are not the same. A major donor engagement opportunity is interactive, two-way, flexible, taps into emotions, intellect, and skills and requires ACTION. A tour, for example, can be either involvement or wonderful engagement. You can walk people through, talk at them, answer questions. OR, you can open by asking the major donors a question taking involvement up a level to engagement.

“You are going to see a lot of our work first hand over the next hour. At the end of the tour, we’d like to discuss your responses and recommendations. What did you find most compelling? What were your impressions of our effectiveness? What are some of your takeaways?

In addition, it is sustainable by your office. It isn’t busy work but rather MEANINGFUL AND PRODUCTIVE. For example, if every time that certain committee meets you are scratching your head about what to do with them, this is not a good major donor engagement activity. They know it isn’t important and you know it.

Finally, a good suite of major donor engagement options has variety. Some need to be highly personal like hosting a small “consultation” gathering in one’s home with the CEO and other major donors. Others should be longer term like heading a task force or serving on a committee.

Bring your team together. Define engagement so everyone understands the difference between involvement and engagement. Provide easels, flip charts and markers. Stand around each flip chart in groups of five or six. Then, ask which of our current major donor engagement opportunities meet the criteria. Write them all down on the first page of the flip chart. Which almost meet them and could if we just tweaked them (like the tour example above)? That’s page two. For page three, ask which don’t even come close and we should stop doing them. Have the teams report; discuss why they put some opportunities on one page or the other. Come to agreement.

Step Two: Brainstorm New Major Donor Engagement Opportunities

Using the same brainstorming technique, think about what you would like to add. Start by telling your team to remove constraints from their minds. Don’t start with, “we tried that and it didn’t work,” or “we can’t afford that.” Instead, dream big. Report out and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of some of the new ideas. Make sure they meet the criteria.

Karen Blog SmartArt - August 2016

Step Three: Create your new suite of major donor engagement opportunities

Here is one way to organization the brainstorming results:

High Impact

  • Can be tailored to the needs and desires of the major donor
  • Highly interactive and steeped in mission
  • Taps into intellect and skills
  • Meaningful and productive
  • Sustainable

Harder to Maintain or Get Started: Requires budget approval, or more help from outside your office, coordination and time

High Impact

  • Can be tailored to the needs and desires of the major donor
  • Highly interactive and steeped in mission
  • Taps into intellect and skills
  • Meaningful and productive
  • Sustainable

Easy to Implement:  Already doing it well or only needs minor tweaking, easy to add

Lower Impact

  • Isn’t mission infused and hard to do so
  • Mostly presentation, no room for conversation
  • Not really needed by staff, more on the “busy work” side

Harder to Maintain or Get Started: Requires budget approval, or more help from outside your office, coordination and time

Lower Impact

  • Isn’t mission infused and hard to do so
  • Mostly presentation, no room for conversation
  • Not really needed by staff, more on the “busy work” side

Easy to Implement: Already doing it well or only needs minor tweaking, easy to add

Step Four: Take Action

  1. Act on High Impact and Easy to Implement
  2. Plan for High Impact Harder to Implement
  3. Improve the Lower Impact Easy to Implement or drop
  4. Drop Lower Impact Harder to Implement

Making Data-Driven Event Decisions

Event season is almost upon us, but it’s not too late to set measurable goals to maximize your events. It’s also a great time to take a step back and determine if you should repeat this event again next year.

This month’s Chronicle of Philanthropy has a great article on Killing Sacred Cows, letting go of those time-honored strategies that might not be the most effective. One of the most prevalent examples of this is special events.

This isn’t a new topic. You’ve probably read many articles about event return on investment. But, have you taken the step of collecting data and doing an honest assessment of your events? Of course, this assessment is dependent upon knowing what our event goals are in the first place.

So what are your event goals?

Many people would answer this question with the dollar amount listed in their budget. However, there are several potential outcomes, such as identifying new prospects or generating publicity. And, while raising money might be the primary goal, these secondary outcomes are often the reasons given as justification for holding on to an event that might not be seeing an adequate financial return.

It’s completely legitimate for an evenevent decisionst to have goals beyond raising money, but they have to be deliberate objectives, not rationalizations. So, how do we make sure that we’re setting intentional, strategic goals, measuring achievement of these goals, and ultimately, using that data to make decisions about an event’s efficacy?

  • Raising Funds: If raising money is your primary goal, then you should be netting no less than 70%, including staff costs. If raising funds is not your primary goal, then you might be able to justify a higher cost per dollar raised, but this should be for legitimate, measurable goals and not arbitrary excuses.
  • Non-Revenue Development Goals: Events can play a critical role in building a prospect pool, engaging potential donors and stewarding existing donors. In fact, you may have several events that are intended solely for this purpose. In these cases your return in investment should be measured against the annual and lifetime giving of the donors engaged in these events. But, they should be real numbers, not assumptions about how the events are influencing donor engagement.  If events are a key strategy in your donor development program then you should have measurable new prospect goals – how many do you hope to attract to this event, for how many did you capture contact information? And, if you’re using events for donor cultivation, are you implementing strategic initiatives or “moves” at the event? And, did you secure a “yes” to a next step from at least 80% of those engaged?
  • Marketing and Public Relations: Beware, this one is a slippery slope. As the Chronicle of Philanthropy article pointed out, many organizations use the idea that an event generates publicity and builds awareness as a reason to maintain it. In some cases, this is true, but many events fail to generate the kind of publicity or awareness they are looking for to see long-term results. If marketing is truly a goal of your event then you have to measure it – how many media impressions did you receive, how many new attendees were exposed to your message, etc. And, to make this goal meaningful, you must have a plan for following up to further engage and enroll potential donors.  Identify your “think, feel and do” messages and make sure you deliver them in a mission-infused way. What do you want your participants to think about your organization because of this event? How will the program and activities during the event achieve this? How do you want them to feel and, most importantly, what do you them to do after the event. A good event should be part of a continuum of activity, not an end unto itself.
  • Attendance Goals: For too many of our events, we only measure attendance in quantity – last year 300 people attended and this year 350 attended. But what about quality – did the right people, the people you most wanted, attend? And, if your event is annual, are you looking at retention and what that number tells you about the event’s effectiveness in long-term donor strategy? And, don’t forget board participation. Your goal is to get them there AND get them working the room on your behalf – delivering messages, asking questions, helping you meet new people and securing follow-up visits.
  • Programmatic, Volunteer Recruitment: As with the previous examples, this is a completely legitimate goal for your event, as long as you’re measuring the event’s ability to achieve it. Anecdotes about meeting a guy at that event awhile back that ended up becoming a volunteer don’t count. Track the number of inquiries you receive from your event and the number that ultimately become involved in your program. If you can’t justify the costs of the event based on the number of volunteers you’re recruiting, then you might have to let it go.
  • Stewardship: An event isn’t worth doing if you don’t have a measurable follow-up plan. Do 100% of attendees receive a thank you note within 72 hours of the event? Do 100% receive a stewardship touch three to six months after the event? Make sure your plan includes special impact communications to top event donors, volunteer fundraisers, and hosts. And, don’t forget to follow-up with those whom you invited and wanted to attend but couldn’t.

True assessment requires brutal honesty. Data helps with that. It’s hard to argue with hard numbers. But, as we all know, it can be easy to put a spin on numbers that allow us to rationalize keeping an event that we know isn’t giving us the results we need. By setting measurable goals, we limit the ability to give anecdotal justification and are able to objectively analyze events and make data-driven decisions that can best benefit the organization.

For more information on making data-driven decisions, check out this webinar.

Fund Development Plan: Your Key to Success

In the last couple of years I’ve learned a lot about myself, as a consultant and a trainer. One thing I’ve come to realize is that I really like to talk about the fundamentals. In fact, just last year I wrote a blog post about the fundamentals key to development success.

As I reflect on 2015 and what I could write in my last blog post of year, I find myself coming back to the basics. I’ve said it before, real success isn’t about silver bullets and is rarely bright and flashy. In fact, success often lies in what we can read in black and white, in a strategic and thoughtful fund development plan.

So I was particularly excited by a recent study by Heather Yandow of Third Space Studio. In her report, posted by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, she shares that in the organizations she studied, the clearest predictor of success was the existence of a formal fundraising plan.  Additionally, she found some interesting correlations between investments in staff, time spent on individual donors and the effect of face-to-face meetings. But these correlations could only be found in those organizations that had a formal plan in place.

The work we do is highly quantifiable with a number of ways to measure progress and effectiveness, and yet, many organizations look at one metric, revenue, to determine success. A solid plan to reach revenue goals, supported by action steps, timelines and progress metrics allows fundraisers to create a clear path that is as helpful in determining what they will do, as what they won’t.

How many of us have heard “you know what we should do, we should have a (insert event name here)” or the classic “that organization does a (insert event name here) and they raise a ton of money, we just need to do one of those.” Having a plan in place allows you to sort through these ideas from a strategic perspective. Maybe a new fundraising activity fits perfectly with existing strategies, or you find that your plan won’t allow for the extra staff time and resources a new event would require. Either way you can point to the development plan as the rationale for your decision.

An effective plan puts you in control of how you spend your time and allows you to prioritize strategies. It puts front and center those activities that you believe will provide the greatest return on investment and creates a system for measuring effectiveness and adjusting strategies when necessary. In fact, we explored this in more detail during a webinar earlier this year.

Yes, writing a development plan takes time, and yes, reviewing your progress toward that plan takes time, but the truth is, you’re already spending that time spinning your wheels on ineffective strategies and a lack of prioritization. The good news is that once you have a plan in place and make a few adjustments in your management systems, you can start to see immediate results.Image result for make a plan

For help in creating and implementing an effective fund development plan, join me on Thursday, January 28th at 2:00pm EST for a free webinar: Register Now

Engaging Your Board in Year-End Activities

The end of the year typically brings a flurry of activity between #Giving Tuesday, year-end appeals, holiday stewardship activities, and much more. This is a perfect time to engage your board in supporting fund development activities and build momentum and enthusiasm for growing their participation in the new year.Engaging Your Board in Year-End Activities

If you were unable to join us for this webinar or want to watch it again, click here:

A Relationship Lesson from Lemurs

Last month was my friend Chris’ birthday. Chris has a love of lemurs and his wife started a campaign on to give him a day trip to a lemur center.  I don’t particularly share Chris’ fascination with lemurs andlemurs it wouldn’t be my choice of birthday of celebrations, but I contributed. In fact, as I look back, I realize that I have given several gifts in the past few months to a variety of things that my friends were raising money for.

Through sites like GoFundMe and Kickstarter, I had supported friends in the achievement of things that were important to them, both professionally and personally, but none of them were tied to a not-for-profit organization. I won’t get a tax write-off for these gifts and I don’t care, because I was giving purely because I believed in their individual causes or dreams, the achievement of something special for people that are special to me.

Here at the Osborne Group, we often talk about the “Rights”. Having the RIGHT person ask for the RIGHT amount of money for the RIGHT purpose at the RIGHT time. My experience over the past few months has left me contemplating one of those rights in particular, and that is the RIGHT person.

I hear from a lot of development professionals that are frustrated by the lack of response from current and prospective donors. We’ve all been there, donors that won’t return phone calls or reply to emails (even ones that don’t ask for money) or asks that we felt incredibly prepared for, but just fell flat. It can feel like you’re continuously running into a brick wall when trying to engage people who seem to be interested and supportive of your cause, but are consistently unresponsive.

As you dissect the mystery of why you can’t seem to move forward with a prospect, I encourage you to take a lesson from the lemurs. Instead of focusing on HOW you are reaching out or WHAT you are trying to engage them in, take a moment to focus on the WHO. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • As you conduct research on prospects, employ peer screening with board members, staff and volunteers to find out potential connections and relationships
  • Utilize those connections when making your donor engagement plans to determine the best roles for everyone to play in the process
  • If there are several people connected to the same prospect, take a team approach – determine each person’s strengths and deploy them when most appropriate
  • The WHO isn’t just about making the ask, but is also about making sure the RIGHT people are involved in engaging prospects and delivering personal, high-impact stewardship
  • When in doubt, ask someone who knows. Don’t try to guess what a prospect wants or why they might be unresponsive, ask for advice from people who know them. Even board members or volunteers that are reluctant to get involved with engaging or asking a prospect directly will usually be happy to offer up advice on how to best move forward.

Whether you’re running a Friends Asking Friends campaign online or developing a major gift prospect, the WHO is a critical component of success. While increased personal fundraising might be seen as more competition for dollars, let’s instead look at it as a learning opportunity to figure how we best take their example to harness the power of relationships in our own endeavors.