Sunday, October 5, 2008

Longer Lines, Less Movement

Because there are an increasing number of philanthropy-seeking organizations employing more sophisticated wealth screening methods, you can safely assume any major prospect that your organization has identified has also been identified by many others. Chances are these prospects have not only been identified but are probably involved with other organizations and are being courted by even more. No prospect or donor is ours alone. And, if they are ours today, we should never assume they will always be.

When I think of a prospect of note, I imagine him or her as a monarch on a throne. In front of that monarch, I imagine a long line of courtiers. Some of those courtiers are long-known to the monarch and can easily gain access and command attention. Others are vying for time and attention. As I think about approaching the monarch-prospect, I see myself at the very back of the line. I realize I have little chance of gaining that prospect’s already divided attention by looking and sounding like everyone else. I try to think of what I could say, should the opportunity arise, to cause him or her to stop, listen, consider and want to hear more. I realize that if I am just another claimant with a similar list of wants, I stand little or no chance. But, what if I could offer something that would be more interesting or satisfying to that donor? But what?

I would prepare for that potential opportunity by learning as much as I could about that prospect, particularly his or her animating passions. I would look to see if there was a pattern to his philanthropy or to his avocations or civic engagements. I would see if he had written anything, or given any speeches, that would provide insight. I would try to be ready if and when the prospect noticed me from the back of the line and asked, perhaps wearily, “What do you want?” I would want to be prepared to say, “I think I know who you are, what you care about. I know you’re being asked to give by many organizations but I’d like you to give me the chance to prove my organization can best deliver what is most important to you. I’d like you to think about what would be most rewarding for you to achieve and to challenge us to respond with a proposal.” I may not use those exact words but that would be how I would try to position my organization.

While others might be asking that prospect to be loyal to their organization, I would be exploring if that prospect’s passions align with the aspirations and capabilities of my organization. I would be trying to project that we were not just asking what that prospect could do for us but what we could do for him. While others might focus on getting a gift, I might try to prove that we could best deliver on the promise. While others might be quick to ask, I would try to demonstrate a willingness to listen and to take the time to find or design a project that would align our interests. While others might be trying to secure a gift for broad purposes with no clear outcomes, I would lay out of business plan with specific goals to be achieved by specific dates.

We are now in a contracting economy. The lines in front of prospects may grow longer while they have less to give. Moving ahead will be even more difficult. What I’m suggesting is not about gaining a competitive advantage but about holding our own in a far more challenging philanthropic environment.

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