What to Do about “Billy Big Bucks”

Posted by David G Phillips on Aug 9, 2018 9:19:13 AM

As a national consulting firm, our team of professionals conducts business in a wide variety of communities across the country. As we compare notes among ourselves, we discover there are a few opinions often voiced by the clients we serve and the non-profit executives we meet. One that seems to come up in most communities is when an organization’s representative says, “Great news! Billy Big Bucks lives in our town! We can ask them to fund this project.” “Billy Big Bucks” is my code name for any wealthy celebrity, whether a movie star, athlete, author, or any other profession.

Our reaction to this is typically one of guarded enthusiasm. It is certainly valuable information to know that there are people of capability, even vast wealth, within the geographic area of the organization. However, too often an organization blinds itself to other, more likely, possibilities in an unsuccessful effort to add Billy Big Bucks to their donor list. As the fundraising business teaches us again and again, there are no easy answers. There is no shortcut to the top of the mountain. If we can incorporate a well-structured solicitation of Billy Big Bucks into our fundraising effort, then by all means, he is a great prospect. If we are counting on Billy Big Bucks to single-handedly save us because he is rich, then we are building castles in the clouds.

Relying too heavily on Billy Big Bucks can be a symptom of a much larger disease. The organization may be basing its fundraising efforts on the premise of “They’ve got it, and we need it.” This violates a couple of the prime laws of successful fundraising. First of all, “we” never have needs; our constituents do. That is to say, our patients, students, grant recipients, whomever we serve. Donors want to know what their donation will do once it passes through the organization, not what it will do to impact the organization’s balance sheet.

Second, few things will turn off a prospective donor faster than suggesting you have requested their support because you know they are capable of making a substantial gift. Wealthy people know they have money. That is how they amassed their assets; by keeping close tabs on their finances. Potential donors do not want to be presented with a bill; they want to receive an opportunity. They want a chance to make a difference in the lives of those served by the organization.

All of this is as true for Billy Big Bucks as it is for people of lesser means. Once you have the proper philosophy and tone for your delivery, what remains is to get an opportunity to make your case in a face-to-face meeting. There are a couple of avenues for accomplishing this. The best possible scenario is that Billy Big Bucks already has some affinity for your organization. Perhaps they have attended some event in the past, or made some nominal gift. If they are within your sphere of influence as well as your geographic area, then you have a leg up. Too often the opposite is the case, or at best the charity does not know if Billy Big Bucks shares their mission. When an organization tells us, “Great news! Billy Big Bucks lives here!” our response is often, “Does he know what your organization does and share it as a priority?” Too often the exuberant response is, “Who knows! He’s Billy Big Bucks!”

If you know that Billy Big Bucks shares your mission, then the straightforward approach is the best way to go. Make contact with him and ask for an opportunity to meet with him and discuss a giving opportunity. Have your most well-known and well-respected board member or other volunteer make the initial call. Show Billy the respect he deserves.

If you know of no connection between your organization’s priorities and Billy’s, then you have to build a bridge to him through your other donors. Remember the old theory that just six degrees of separation connect each of us to every other person on this planet. Thanks to the geographic proximity, it should only be a few links between you and Billy Big Bucks. Find out who those connective people are and bring them into the fold of your mission one at a time. Successful fundraising projects are like ripples in a pond; they expand outward into new, uncharted waters. Identifying, cultivating and soliciting new donors should be at the core of your responsibilities. If that new donor happens to be Billy Big Bucks, then so much the better.

Anyone with whom you can build a connection should be considered a prospect for your fundraising efforts. One of the strictest rules I apply to the campaigns I direct is that it is very easy to get on the prospect list and very hard to get off. Or, as someone else put it, there are two kinds of people in the world: donors and prospective donors. The key to going after the really big fish, the Billy Big Bucks, is the same as soliciting anyone: approach them in a structured, compelling, methodical way. Remember, Billy Big Bucks puts his pants on one leg at a time. His emotions are influenced by the same compelling arguments as those that move the hearts of less capable prospects. Stick to the fundamentals: build a compelling case; involve an impassioned volunteer donor; communicate a sense of urgency; and show them how critical their gift is to your mission. Even Billy Big Bucks will respond.


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 info@cdsfunds.com.

Topics: Campaign Feasibility and Planning Studies, Capital Campaigns, Communications and Networking, donor relationships, Fundraising Principles, successful fundraising, volunteers

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