Fundraising is a profession that requires a broad variety of skills. As development professionals, we must have a great deal of poise, polish, and tact. We have very personal discussions with prospects about very significant investments in our organizations. Much of our success relies upon impressing the prospect with our professionalism and forging a true friendship between them and the organization.
On the other side of the coin, we also need to be persistent, bold, and aggressive as we advance the strategic vision of our group. After all, it is our primary responsibility to raise money, and that is the standard by which we are judged. We truly succeed when we know that we have gotten the greatest gift possible from that donor, under their current circumstances. Finding the balance between these properties of tact and boldness is a difficult task. Sometimes we have to push the edge of the envelope in order to know that we have done all we can.
Even though we rely on our donors for their gifts, we must recognize that we are the ones responsible for setting the agenda, pace, and timeline of any fundraising activity. We know what the organization needs and we know the best way in which to pursue it. As soon as we surrender that control to the prospect, or anyone else, we risk allowing our fundraising activities to go off track. Donors see themselves in isolation. They see their gift decision as a "stand alone" event. We know that it is actually one piece in a complex chain of events.
Lots of things can complicate the solicitation process with a particular prospect. Perhaps the prospect is an extremely busy CEO, and the very same leadership skills that make them so busy also make them attractive as a prospect. Perhaps he or she is retired, and spends much time traveling. Their flexibility makes them a great potential volunteer, but difficult to catch in the first place. Perhaps he or she is a particularly well-insulated individual, with many "gatekeepers" working to keep fundraisers like us at arm's length.
We cannot let these factors deter us. Maybe the busy CEO will agree to meet us for coffee early in the morning, or dinner in the evening. Unfortunately, our own schedules must be the first casualties of our desire to succeed! If they travel all the time, should we travel to meet them? Flying to Chicago to conduct a $250,000 solicitation should not be out of the question as long as it is relatively in expensive and the only reasonable way to make it happen. As for "gatekeepers", we simply have to work around them. You might call the prospect at home in the evening, or ask a particularly prominent board member to call, someone whose stature assures they will not be put off. If you believe that your cause is an important one, and that this prospect might share your passion, then these extra steps should not seem extreme.
There are a couple of ways to strike a balance between tact and boldness. The foremost approach is to effectively communicate how vitally important this project is. Everyone with whom we have contact should be made to understand that this is an extraordinary endeavor, whether it is the annual appeal or a landmark capital campaign. Sometimes, even the efficient gatekeeper can be persuaded to help you make contact: "Sally, I know that I am asking you to make an exception, but this is something I know Mr. Smith will find very important. Is there any way you could put me through, and it will be his decision as to whether we meet or not".
Sometimes it is as simple as refusing to take "no" for an answer, and extending your flexibility as far as you can to accommodate the prospect. This is best handled by the volunteer who will be participating in the solicitation. Their status as a volunteer provides them a little more leeway in how far they can push. They might say, "Tom, I know you're busy but we just can't move forward until we've met with you. Your participation is just too critical to our efforts. I know you will see that when we have a chance to speak in greater detail. We are happy to work around your schedule but we need to sit down and discuss this".
This logic carries over to the follow-up as well. We want to maintain control over the scheduling of any appointments concerning this gift. If the prospect says that they will get back to you, tell them that the rest of the campaign hinges on their decision, and could you please schedule a follow-up visit for one week from now. Major gifts are closed in sequence, meaning that we wait for one decision before moving forward. By giving the prospect control over when we meet to close their gift, we effectively give them control over the entire timeline of the campaign.
A imperative rule here: if someone has to postpone a solicitation or follow-up meeting for other than a death or family emergency, reschedule the meeting for the next available time while the prospect is on the phone. This is crucial, and will often save weeks of time spent playing "telephone tag".
If we have done our homework properly, and there is every reason to suspect the prospect will agree with our case for support, than we need not worry about pushing for the appointment. Oftentimes, getting the appointment is harder than getting the gift. It is one thing to say that we had a good solicitation and the prospect declined. We cannot make them say yes. However, if we fail to get the appointment then we have let someone else set the agenda for our fundraising. That is not a recipe for success, since no one knows as well as we do how the campaign is structured and where each prospect fits in the grand scheme. Always be tactful, but always push to steer the prospect toward what you know is the best possible outcome in the most timely manner.
Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS) is among the most sought after fundraising consulting firms specializing in the strategic planning and tactical execution of capital campaigns for non-profits throughout the United States and Canada. If you have a fundraising question, please call CDS at 800-761-3833 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.