Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Ten Biggest Mistakes Made in Soliciting Gifts

1. Soliciting Too Soon
This is the big one. Every other mistake pales in comparison. Here are the cold, hard facts: the more abruptly we solicit, the less likely we are to receive a commitment. If we do receive a commitment from an abrupt ask, it is likely to be well below the donor's potential. The more time we take to elicit (see my blog post, "Elicit Before You Solicit") the prospective donors' passions, values and life's lessons, and the more thoughtfully we align the donors' aspirations with those of our institution, the more successful our solicitations will be. We must respect the time it takes a donor to make a major financial decision and commit ourselves to work within it.

2. Soliciting Under False Circumstances
It's what I call the ambush -- inviting the unsuspecting prospect to a seemingly benign meeting or event and then springing "an ask" on him or her. When this is done, the donor is not psychologically prepared to consider the request and will vow silently not to fall into a similar trap again. All philanthropic organizations suffer from the ham-handed approaches of the worse practitioners. I wish I could tell you how many times I hear this horror story from philanthropists. There is the completely blind ambush which occurs when a fund raiser asks for a commitment to a project, initiative or institution that the philanthropist knows next to nothing about, and the "sagebrush" or thinly-veiled ambush in which the donor is asked to come to one information or brainstorming session and then hit up.

3. High Pressure Solicitations
At its worst, this approach consists of something like getting an executive of an organization to solicit his employees or getting someone who has social or professional power to suggest that giving is a requirement if one wants to have any position in the organization or social group. A solicitation should be a respectful request with no suggestion of negative consequences should the prospect decline.

4. Failing to Ask for Something Specific
Don't just ask people to put money into some great big bucket like "financial aid" or "medical research," or, even worse, "our unrestricted fund." Ask for a specific project, something with concrete goals and time lines, something that defines who will benefit, how and when.

5. Pushing for a "Yes" Rather Than Avoiding a "No"
Sure, it's nice to get a "yes" but many solicitations reveal a donor's misunderstanding or need for more information or simply more time to consider. A skilled practitioner and a true agent of philanthropy will recognize these needs and accept the dialogue has gone as far as it can for that day and that a seed of a future partnership has been planted.

6. Assuming "No" Means "No"
If a prospect says "no," it is perfectly professional to find out why. Does the donor like the project but have too many other philanthropic commitments? Is there some way the project can be modified to make it more acceptable? I like to ask, "Are there circumstances under which you would consider support for this project?" This often surfaces previously unexpressed concerns or frustrations or pre-conditions that a donor would like to see met. Learn from the "no." Does it mean "never" or "not now" or "no because there's something about your institution I don't like."

7. Not Putting Out a Number
Yes, philanthropists need to know the overall project costs and exactly what you are asking them to give. If you leave it to philanthropists to guess, they will guess far less than what you had in mind. The number you put out suggests the significance of the project. If you haven't established that in advance, the solicitation will sound unreasonable.

8. A Failure of Confidence
If you've done your work; if you've come up with a truly credible, compelling project that aligns with the donor's philanthropic propensity and if you are asking for an amount that comports with donor's capacity, you have to look like you believe in yourself and your institution. You can undercut something worthwhile and well-designed by fawning or apologizing or looking sheepish or going into a full-body squirm. Remember, it's not about you; it's about the cause or institution you represent. If it were for my personal use, I'd have a hard time asking for a dollar. But if it is something I believe is good and necessary, I can hold the gaze of the toughest prospect.

9. Putting Out an Unreasonable Number
I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "You really can't ask for too much. If it's more than a donor can give, they will be complimented that you think they are capable of giving such a large amount." Yeah? For every one who is complimented in some weird way, there's another hundred who will think you've been noshing your way through the medicine cabinet.

10. Not Knowing When to Accept Less
Okay, if a donor offers less than what you asked for, should you accept it or find some graceful or clever way of restating your request? In the vast majority of the cases, I would advise that you accept the offer, put the money to the best possible use, steward the hell out of the relationship and then go back and say, "If you're happy with the results of x, imagine what could be if you gave y." But there are exceptions. If, for instance, you are looking to launch a very significant project, a new building let's say, you must start by finding a lead gift that represents a significant portion of the total tab, no less than one-fourth. The lead gift is a proof of concept and you shouldn't start accepting smaller gifts until someone commits to it. Let's say, you have identified your very best lead gift donor, someone who's made the most noise about the need for this new building. He has a passion for the project and the clear capacity but, when solicited, he offers something much lower. At that point, I wouldn't hesitate to say, "Beauregard, this project has your name all over it. You've chaired the cancer center board through a period of unprecedented success. No one else is more closely associated with it; no one has pushed harder for it. You deserve to have your name on it." Let's say Beauregard harrumphs at this point. I would then say, "You are the most logical choice. If not you, who? There's no one on our prospect list that lines up with this project like you. It's not even close. You've demonstrated leadership at every step along the way and we respectfully request that you exert it again, now when it is most needed." If Beauregard sticks to his guns and repeats his earlier offer, I'd come back with, "Well, Beau, we appreciate it very much. It's very generous under any circumstance but this project isn't viable until we get a lead gift. We can't get there with smaller gifts. If we find the lead gift elsewhere -- and I don't know where that will be -- we'll take you up on it. But, for now, we need to focus our energy on getting this project off the ground." And, yes, I've been in a similar situation, one that resulted in the desired lead gift -- after nine meetings with the one and only viable lead gift prospect.

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