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How Not to Ask for a Major Gift

Everything was working out as planned. I had hired a researcher to identify potential prospects for my client. His name was one of many who were long time board members of a simlar but much more established institution. He had made major gifts including one large enough to have his name on a prominent building. And when I called him to introduce myself and my client, he was willing to listen.

He asked me to send additional information including our financials. He looked them over and agreed to meet. After 4 cancellations, one of which came while I was on the train to New York just to see him, we finally met. Not only was he impressed, he thought we were right on target and that we were serving a need that the other more established institution was not. He told me that he wanted to hear more and that he was gong to check us out.

A month later the President of my client was in from overseas and the three of us met. The prospect loved what he heard and offered to help us. Here was his plan… He would ask his friends, all very wealthy as well, to check us out for him. Since they lived within an hour or two and he lived in NYC, it was a reasonable request. He said he would have 2-3 friends call the President to set up a time to visit.

Hungry for major gifts. the President asked whether he would be willing to ask his friends to match his gift to us. The man instead revealed his own plan. When his friends had checked us out, and reported back to him with positive feedback, he would ask them if he should make a gift to us. When they told him he should, he would aks them why, if he should, shouldn’t they? Brilliant. He was not only going to engage new donors for us, he was going to solicit them as well. Talk about a great fundraising idea and the ideal donor.

His friends visited. They were animated and the meetings were very positive. I spoke with the man and he told me he received positive reports. He was going to be traveling for a few months but we should get together when he got back after the first of the year. Then February. Now March. I meet with him in 2 days.

I had encouraged the President to call him to stay in touch, to say hi. They would meet on his next trip to NYC. But the President didn’t always like to pick up the phone. In fact, I learned just recently, several weeks after it was sent, that the President had sent the man a letter. My client never showed me the letter, but I understand he asked him for a gift of $5 million.

Yes, you may have guessed that as a fundraising consultant this is not my idea of either a great client, or a smart fundraiser. You do not ask for $5 million via a letter. The good news is that the man has agreed to meet with me. I have to assume that if he was totally offended by the letter, that he would not have agreed to meet. Then again, a colleague pointed out, perhaps he just wants to yell at me.

Now is the time to make lemonade. Perhaps we will ultimately receive a gift larger than we might have asked for intially. Usually I prefer to dance before getting intimate, to date before proposing marriage. But sometimes, things just slip out, and you work with what you are given. Of course I’ll let you know what ultimately happens.

In the mean time, do you have any ideas or advice on how you think I should handle this meeting? How would you do it?


  1. Perhaps your client does not understand the subtleties and nuances that go with major gift prospecting? It’s easy to feel like there’s an opening and blurt out your request for money.

    I’m fascinated by this process. As a novice, volunteer fundraiser, I’m starting to talk to prospective donors. I don’t understand the subtleties of asking. It doesn’t help that a lot of the advice I get involves not explicitly asking, but doesn’t really discuss how you do ask. Would you be willing to write a bit about that?

    Chas Grundy’s last blog post..On Recruiting Board Members

    Sunday, March 9, 2008 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Rosenrod wrote:

    Thanks.. Interesting – and always important to be aware!

    Monday, March 16, 2009 at 10:37 am | Permalink

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