Preparing for the Successful Major Gifts Solicitation

When Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy turned to Judy Garland and the gang and said, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show,” he was in the mainstream of American fundraising. Anytime an organization confronts the need to raise funds–whether for the Annual Fund or some special campaign for program, endowment or capital opportunity–ideas abound. People may suggest gala, black-tie dinners with silent auctions, theater parties with commemorative journals or telethons. Or, a walk for, jog for, run for (fill in the blank)–the current version of “let’s put on a show.” Of course, great public awareness is achieved. A mass of humanity engages in worthy endeavor. Everyone feels good.

But, this is “friend raising” not fundraising. Oh, do not misunderstand me. I am not disparaging the importance of these wonderful vehicles for gathering large numbers together for the enterprise. Indeed, it is important that any organization create an army of friends involved in its mission. But, if you want to raise substantial amounts of money, then the best way is when one person–or better, two people–asks another. The solicitor requests the prospect to consider what my friend and mentor, Jerry Panas, calls “a truly outrageous, consequential gift.”

To succeed in major gifts’ solicitation, you must prepare and manage myriad details. If “well begun is half done,” then fifty per cent of your success is in the preparation. What you know about your organization and your prospects is only the beginning. The next step is then, following the general principal that the prospective donor is at the absolute center of your concern, to develop the relationship and create the strategy for solicitation that will brings you half way home.

A vital question to answer is why are you raising this money. You need to articulate the mission of the organization and the case for support in clear, unshakable terms. What are the specific differentiating features of your agency and why are they important to your prospect? Is the case for support donor—centered and focused on opportunities and not needs?

Next, can you list your top prospects? The best place to look for your major gifts’ prospects is among your leadership and repeat donors who have financial capacity beyond what they are presently sharing with you. Once you have identified the prospects, you have to gather information about these folks. What is your internal research capability? Can you name at least five volunteers who can provide information about each of your prospects?

Before you ever approach a prospect for a major gift, you should develop a profile that addresses the following:

  • area(s) of primary interest
  • link to your organization
  • involvement with your organization
  • prior giving
  • gifts to other causes/organizations
  • financial status
  • assessment of giving potential
  • connections with peer volunteers

As it relates to your prospect, ask yourself, is he or she sufficiently committed to your organization? Are you confident of the rating of giving potential? Has a peer of the prospect concurred? Finally, who are the people who should be part of the strategizing and solicitation team?

Once you have sufficient research (There is never enough. It is an ongoing process, even after the gift has been made–there is always the next gift.), you begin the process of creating a cultivation and solicitation strategy. What cultivation, intentional or serendipitous, has occurred in the past. Is it necessary to cultivate the prospect prior to an ask? To what specific functions should you invite the prospect? What about recruiting the prospect to serve on a committee or advisory board? Who should invite the prospect to participate as to ensure acceptance? Will the prospect have the opportunity to convince him or herself of the value of the agency and or the project for which he or she will eventually be solicited?

At some point, you will have overcome your anxieties of asking or the prospect will be begging you to “take the money.” In either event, a formal request is now in order. But, there is still time for more thoughtful preparation. And, of course, more questions to ponder. How much are you going to ask for and for what specific purpose? Will you take a proposal to the solicitation? What will it say? Who signs the cover letter? Or, will you follow up the meeting with a formal proposal? Who is on the solicitation team? Is each member of the team financially committed to the program? Have you “scripted” everyone? Does each understand his or her role? Are you projecting opportunities and not needs? Who will ask? Is everyone prepared to remain silent once the request is made? Have you analyzed every potential objection and have you role-played responses?

Once you have answered all of the questions in this column–and perhaps a few more that are unique to your own situation–you are assured of a fifty-fifty chance of success. You have begun the process of donor focused strategic solicitation.