5 Fundraising Lessons I Learned from Seeing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Last week I was lucky enough to witness Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg have a one-on-one conversation with an old friend, Senior Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya.  While the hour was filled with her soft-spoken inspiration, there was one moment at the very beginning that was meant to be a fundraising lesson. Ok, maybe it wasn’t explicitly for fundraisers, but I think there were definitely key points to be learned for those who have to ask people to be generous on a regular basis.

The story:

Judge Selya is a friend from their time at Harvard Law School and he shared a funny story about an encounter they had a few months after she became an Associate Supreme Court Justice. I am paraphrasing but the story went something like this:

When Ginsberg first became an Associate Supreme Court Justice, the Rabbi of a local congregation (and a good friend of the Judge), asked if the Judge would be willing to speak to Justice Ginsberg on their behalf. The synagogue was hoping she would come visit and share her wisdom. Coincidentally, the Judge was going to be in DC a couple of weeks later and met with Justice Ginsberg in her new chambers. He was building up the confidence to make the request for the congregation when he asked the Justice the largest difference in her life now that she was a member of the supreme court (aside from the actual legal work). She pulled open a drawer and said, “how to handle the 200 invitations to synagogues.”

We all laughed, but there are a few good lessons that can be learned from this telling story.

The facts:

  1. He had a personal connection and was able to get a meeting with an Associate Supreme Court Justice.
  2. He waited to ask in person, placing him as number 201 on her list of invitations.
  3. After seeing the drawer, he never asked her about a visit. He read the situation and realized he would probably get an immediate, “no.” Instead, he waited 25 years, until it was easy for her to say, “yes.” Which she did. Captivating us with her remarkable tales of changing the world.

The fundraising lessons:

  1. Really listen to your prospect. Don’t just pretend to listen while you are waiting to give the information you want to give. What they say may change what you are asking for or when you ask for it.
  2. If you are making a big ask, patience may be required. In this case it was over two decades, but asking at the right time helped him achieve his ultimate goal.
  3. Waiting showed that he valued the Justice and her interests more than his own interests. This is the same reason you raise more money when your direct mail solicitations focus on the benefits to the donor, not just benefits to the nonprofit.
  4. Be nice to everyone. You never know which of your friends or colleagues will become the next Supreme Court Justice or help you see one in person.
  5. If someone offers you a ticket to see Justice Ginsberg, go. She is quiet, taking long pauses, and proving that being loud is not the only way to achieve momentous goals.


Want to read other articles on fundraising?

How Nonprofits Create a Connection with Donors

The 3 Cs of Fundraising – Capacity, Commitment and Connection

Meaningful Major Gift: From The Heart And The Wallet