By David A. Mersky
I had coffee yesterday with a long-time client. His nonprofit organization is beginning to plan for the construction of a substantial new facility, and they have begun engaging with architects, contractors, and such.
Naturally, thoughts of fundraising for this endeavor are already on the table. With that in mind, he shared with me his plans to fly to Los Angeles next week and talk to a major donor about providing a very substantial naming gift for the project.
I implored him not to take this step. After asking several questions, it was clear to me that this action at this time would be premature.
Why? Several reasons, which I explain in more depth below. But in short, effective fundraising is about much more than just “ask and they will give.”
Well Begun is Half Done
Nonprofit fundraisers are often in a rush to gain commitments for anticipated projects. That’s understandable. After all, without those funds, the projects will not get underway.
However, to achieve maximum effectiveness, a great deal of preparation is required. Critical questions must be answered prior to arriving at the door of a major donor. Some of these include…
What will be the outcome to the organization if a major gift is secured?
Sophisticated, thoughtful donors want to know what the vision is for the project at hand. What will the organization be able to do that it cannot do without their philanthropic support?
Are you trying to reinvigorate a youth development center… replacing an old building in disrepair with a modern facility, providing children who deserve more with a safe, comfortable, and welcoming structure?
Are you planning to build an inner-city charter school…to address the dearth of quality educational facilities in communities that don’t have the wherewithal to invest on their own?
Whatever the specifics, you need to help the prospective donor envision how the world will be a better place once you have completed the project for which this gift is the foundation.
How much money do you need?
In the eyes of many donors, this is an investment. It’s a business deal, not a blank check. Regardless of the degree to which they are in support of your organization, or the size of their bank account, they want to know that you have got your ducks in a row.
This means that you need to be much further down the planning road than just, “We want to build X.” How much will the project cost? How much money can you raise in the aggregate? What portion of the overall cost are you asking them to contribute?
You wouldn’t approach a bank for a loan without knowing how much you need and how the funds will be used. The same preparation is required when approaching a donor.
How will you leverage this gift to raise more money?
With rare exception, no single donor wants to fund a multimillion-dollar project on their own. Typically, they are attracted to the idea of collaborating with others of similar philanthropic interests and financial capacity. They want partnership and alliance.
Often, donors want to offer their money as a challenge: “I will contribute X if you can secure an equal amount from others.” They want you to succeed and this can help you to leverage their offer as a way to bring others on board.
Keep in mind as well that it can be risky to be overly dependent on one donor for a given project, should the donor have a change of heart or circumstance. That’s why we recommend a “pyramid approach,” with a few major donors atop a foundation of many other contributors at varying levels beneath.
Relationship First, Money Second
Above all, always remember that fundraising is about people.
Our first responsibility is to serve the donor well – to make sure the request is within the realm of possibility given their wealth, that it reflects their personal vision and the impact they wish to have in the world, and that it strengthens the bond between organization and individual.
Only through preparation and due diligence will you be equipped to take that cross-country flight, knock on that door, and come away with a commitment that improves the lives of all involved.