Sunday, June 28, 2009

Before You Ask

Let's start with a very simple assumption -- we want each and every solicitation to be successful. The question then becomes what we can do to ensure they will? Here's my check list.

1. Choose the right prospects. Are your prospects real philanthropists or just wealthy people? Do they have a philanthropic record? Have they given before to your organization or any other, or been involved in some civic, community or charitable affairs? If those prospects are over forty years of age and the answer those questions is "no," your chances of securing their support is low, even if they have been somehow engaged in your organization. If those prospects are given to highly conspicuous consumption and an opulent life style, the probability is even lower. True philanthropists begin giving in their early adult years, become involved in various causes, and don't wear their wealth on their sleeve. Indeed, many very significant philanthropists live lives that belie their true wealth. If you have found a true philanthropist, look for a pattern in their giving. Do they give primarily to art, medicine, education or some other area? And if they have a philanthropic focus, do they correspond with the strengths of your institution?

2. Interview the prospect. So you think you've found someone who gives to something your organization does well. Now find someone to interview that prospect to further probe the possibility of that alignment. Who does that prospect know and trust? Who will he or she open up to? Who can conduct that interview in a graceful, non-threatening manner? All too often philanthropists are reluctant to meet with development professionals because they assume every call on them will be a solicitation. They are wary of every request and weary of being suddenly solicited by representatives of organizations or causes with whom they are not familiar or for whom they have no real interest. Capable practitioners now have to go to great lengths to get an appointment and convince prospects that they will not be ambushed, or to find intermediaries who can meet with those prospects on their behalf. If you are able to get appointments with viable prospects, in person or by "staffing" someone else, the keys are to clarify the prospects' philanthropic priorities, their awareness of your organization's relevant strengths, their opinion of your organization's capabilities, and whether they would be receptive to learning more -- again, reassuring them that getting involved in an exploration of common interests is not a subterfuge for soliciting them at the next meeting.

3. Find the right project. If you have solid prospects with an interest in learning more about your institutional strengths, carefully select the projects you put in front of them. First of all, is it really a project or just a category of funding? How well can you define the difference to be made if you receive the support you need? How precisely can you describe who will benefit, how and when? Who is spearheading the project? Why should the prospect have confidence in the project leader's ability? What other resources will your organization bring to bear to ensure this project's success? How carefully have you calculated the costs and the potential return on investment? The greater the precision with which these questions can be answered, the higher the likelihood that you have a project worthy of discussing with you most carefully chosen prospects.

4. Preview the prospectus. Put your promising projects in front of your prospects in draft form. If you've already developed a four-color brochure for the project, you're telling the prospect that there is no room for negotiation or improvement. In effect, you're saying you've got it all figured out and all you need is their money. It is far better to present your prospects with a draft prospectus and to invite their candid reactions and specific suggestions for improvement.

5. Align expectations. If the prospect suggests specific ways the project can be improved, a true opportunity has been presented. If the suggestions are eminently sound, they can be incorporated into the project plan which can only impress your prospect. And by incorporating those suggestions, you have taken a fateful step toward joint project ownership between your organization and that prospect which is highly predictive of forthcoming philanthropic support. If the suggestions are a bit off base, it is a great opportunity to negotiate with prospects so that they can better understand what you organization can and cannot do given the realities of the situation. You can explain the difference between what you would like to do and what you would have to do and see if you can bring the prospect along. It is far better to surface any potential difference in expectations and to negotiate their resolution early in the process than to blur them over until the gift is received, then try to placate an angry donor.

6. Review project preparedness. Before taking the next step with the donor, make sure your organization can deliver on all the promises implicit in the pending solicitation. This is no time for wishful thinking. The credibility of your organization is on the line. We live in a time where the public has less faith in ALL institutions than ever before. Philanthropy-seeking organizations must take great pains to ensure that they are capable of immediately using the money for the intended purposes and agreed outcomes before soliciting the gift.

7. Preview project timetable and budget. Now take the prospect through all the necessary details, including a detailed time line so he or she knows what to expect and when. Present a budget that demonstrates precise planning and fiscal accountability. Make sure to only ask for what you need. Don't throw out nice round numbers. Show that your organization can be resourceful with a sharp pencil.

If you and your organization have done these things, you are ready to solicit with a high probability of success. You have also increased the probability of project success which will produce a satisfied donor, one is likely to give again, and to spread the word of your institution's effectiveness to other influential personages and affluent prospects.

Yes, this approach requires us to spend more time, both in selecting our prospects and developing their support, but it will require us to spend less wasted time with those who are not inclined to give, and to engage in fewer awkward unsuccessful solicitations. In short, the long way will prove the shortest way to more rewarding results -- for donors and those who solicit their support.

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