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How to Ask For A Major Gift

OK, before you get too excited about that title, you have to first read the previous post on How Not to Ask for a Major Gift. This is not a primer on how to do it from the beginning, but the continuation of the story on how I had cultivated a donor for a major gift when my client decided to write him a letter, without telling me, in which he asked for a $5 million gift. Needless to say, I don’t recommend solicitations for millions of dollars by mail.

So when we left our fair fundraising consultant, he was about to visit the potential donor, the prospect, “the man” as I referred to him in the last post. Did he agree to meet with me to give me a piece of his mind, or to give me a piece of his estate? Should I mention the $5 million letter, or not? There were many questions, but one thing was clear, it was time to ask for the gift in person, the right way.

Normally if I were going to solicit a prospect for a major gift, I would insist that my client be present, and possibly do the asking. Of course I would provide a full briefing and we would rehearse the ask and all the possible answers, trying to anticipate and prepare to parle any objection into a good reason to make the gift.

But my client was overseas and had already written the letter. We had no indication how the man would respond, only that he had not been available to meet for several months, including the past 2 since the letter was sent. Maybe I was just the fundraising consultant, but I had started the relationship, cultivated the donor, introduced the President, and now I would have to be the one to make the ask.

I arrived early and at the appointed hour I was shown into his office. He immediately asked me what was knew at my client’s organization and I shared with him a few minor things before noting the eagerness to make progress on the capital campaign for our latest building.

He told me of the pressures he was getting from the other charities which he had been involved in for 30 years or more. They needed to expand in the areas he believed in and with the weakness of the dollar, donations were not going as far as they used to. I responded by asking how much they raised each year. “$100 million?” I asked, knowing the number was higher than that. He noted that they raised more than that. I tested the waters, telling him that a $1 or $2 million gift to us would go much further than the same to them.

My research had told me that he might be capable of a gift that large but that the more likely gift size was $250,000. Given the $5 million letter, I thought I would try a little test and see if there was a reaction. There was very little other than an acknowledgment that I was probably right.

He told me that they were expecting a chunk of change to be coming in at the end of June and so he needed to make a decision before then. The family would be meeting in April. I asked if he needed additional information from me, and he asked for a couple of pages of information to share. Basically, he said, their comes a time in any transaction when the sale has been made and the buyer just needs to commit. There was nothing more for us to do other than to call back after the family had met. He wanted to make the gift to us, he just needed the agreement of the rest of the family.

Clearly he already had a number in mind and was just making a decision whether it would be coming our way, or going the other way. Normally I always advocate asking for a specific number. “Please consider a gift of $500,000 that will go so far to launching our new initiative that will have an incredible impact on our youth…” I might have said. (Actually, I would have said it better and more specifically, but as you might have figured out, I’m trying to hide the identity and even type of organization of my client.) But here it was clear to me that the number was already in his head, and choosing the wrong number to ask for might be dangerous, given the faux pas of the letter.

“How much of an impact are you considering having on our institution,” I queried. He said that it would be about $250,000, just as I had thought. This would be his first gift to us and he noted that he is o push over. He listed the other institutions that had all asked and he had turned down. But he believed in us and our mission and that we could succeed in providing a critical service.

I asked about his friends that visited on his behalf. They both gave rave reviews but when he had asked them to give as well they told him that they had other priorities right now. Though his plan had not worked, he had opened doors for us to two very wealthy prospects. I thanked him and assured him that my colleague will be following up with them. He was pleased that we had a plan.

Finally, knowing that the man is well into his eighties, I wanted to open a door to his estate plan. Whenever a donor tells you that he wishes he could do more, there is usually an opportunity for him to do through a variety of planned giving vehicles, or even something as simple as a bequest in his will.

I assured him that normally I would not bring up the subject so early in our relationship, but he had noted earlier that wishes he had more resources to give. I was curious in his long experience as a philanthropist whether he had established any charitable trusts or whether he had included his favorite institutions in his will.

He noted that they had established 2 CLATs, charitable lead annuity trusts, and I knew before he acknowledged it that their main purpose was to pass assets to the next generation. He described them, noting that the income from the trusts was going into the family foundation. It was clear that income was not an issue, so we didn’t discuss other types of trusts and it was too early to ask to be included in his will. There would be time to do that at a later date, another meeting.

I thanked him for his time and for his tentative commitment. I promised to send him the information he asked for and I made a note to myself to have my colleague send him a list of appropriate naming opportunities, with a proposal for each one. At that level there would be 3 or 4. We agreed to talk again after April 15, and we will.


  1. daleroy wrote:

    Great war story.

    We’d love to hear more about (from paragraph 3) how to “rehearse an ask” and change “any objection into a good reason to make the gift” in your future posts.

    Looking forward to “April 15”.

    Saturday, March 15, 2008 at 11:21 pm | Permalink
  2. very helpful post! I don’t usually reply to posts but I will in this case.

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink

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