A Donation Request You Should Not Do

Not too long ago I was having a conversation with a seasoned fundraiser. This person works with a large organization as a consultant. He told me that a billionaire had sent $1,000 to the nonprofit and that the CEO quickly sent out a letter to the billionaire requesting $50,000.

My colleague was lamenting about how much of a mistake this was, and I couldn’t agree more with the assessment.

Missing the Point

Although the CEO of the organization was excited when he saw the $1,000 gift from a high-profile billionaire, the last thing he should have done is to send an acknowledgment with an ask for more money. The reality is that the billionaire will likely never donate to the organization again. The letter missed the whole point of development.

Donor Has the Money

The first thing that likely came to the mind of the CEO who sent the letter was, this donor is a billionaire. He has the money! While that is, of course correct, just because someone has the money to give to your organization does not mean they have the propensity to do so. Think about it, why should they give to your group? No one wants to give money, even if they have a lot of it, to anyone and everyone. Additionally, millionaires and billionaires tend to get hit up with requests all of the time.

Better Approach

Many years ago, I served as the CEO of a nonprofit organization, and I’ve been in your shoes. I’ve had people that I’ve wanted to get to fund our group send a check, and I’ve experienced the excitement that comes from receiving one of those major gifts. But, like my colleague, I would never have sent the billionaire a letter in the mail thanking him for the $1,000 and in the same letter asking for more money!

Here’s what I would have done:

  • Sent a personalized thank you letter in the mail with a penned signature and perhaps a little note. I would have expressed my gratitude for the gift and informed the billionaire donor what would happen with his donation of $1,000.
  • I would have been aware of the fact that the $1,000 gift could have been given for a multitude of reasons, such as a friend asked him to donate, or he somehow came across our group. A likely reason was that he was also “testing” us with the $1,000 gift to see how a relationship could develop.
  • Therefore, I would have then followed up the letter in the mail (email is fine, but the chances are that a letter that is personalized will get opened because people receive too much email). My follow-up would have been a note, email or perhaps even a personal call to thank the donor.
  • I would have developed a strategy to figure out how I could get a conversation with him in person. All the while, I would have been sending information and regularly keep in touch to start building awareness of our group.
  • Once I had secured a personal meeting with the billionaire prospect, I would have gotten to know him. I would have asked about his background, interests, family, why he gave to our group, other philanthropic interests, etc. As CEO, I would have made it a point to learn as much as possible about the donor.
  • I would have recognized that getting to know the billionaire personally was probably the most critical activity I could do because it was the creation of a relationship. I would have served as his liaison with our group and the work we do.
  • Once I understood his motivations and interests, it would have been only then that I would have considered beginning to see how we could engage him more substantially with our group.

If you’re new to major gift fundraising or have limited experience in it, remember an essential point: Just because someone can give does not mean they have the inclination to do so. Having the financial means is only half of the equation. And, if it turns out that a leading philanthropist gives to your group and it is a small token, it can indeed be the beginning of more significant support, but they have to get to know you, and you have to learn about them. If you ever get a gift from a billionaire, pause and think carefully about your next steps.

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