Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Keith Rhodes, the new Senior VP of Major Gifts for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, about his experience with major gifts. Here’s a snapshot of our conversation, followed by some additional commentary to help you boost your own major gift giving.
Question 1: Most Exciting Major Gift?
AE: What was the most exciting major gift (not necessarily the biggest) you ever received and how did it come about?
KR: A few years ago [not in his current position], I was working with an individual who had become disenfranchised with [that] organization but still wanted to help children. I was determined to reestablish the relationship.
After a few short “friend-building” visits to determine what things where important to this donor, I was able to secure a $1 million gift, which led to a $20 million planned gift.
AE: Wow – impressive! How did you do that?
KR: I was very honest and transparent about the organization and the nonprofit sector as a whole. I was able to show the impact for every dollar donated. Donors are brighter and savvier than ever, and we need to be able to show them metrics and outcomes.
You need to show that you can do even more with their money – and help them encourage others to do the same. We were able to be on the cutting edge and leverage their gift by turning it into a challenge grant. The donor was very pleased.
What a great success story.
I’m sure you’ve experienced donors who have become disengaged or even upset with your organization. Have you worked to turn things around and get them reengaged? How have you been successful?
As Keith mentioned, the key is to focus on the children (or whatever your mission is) and not the money. Get them reengaged on a volunteer level if you can so they can see directly the impact that your organization is having.
Question 2: Tools and Techniques?
AE: What tools and techniques do you use to stay motivated and keep your staff motivated?
KR: We maintain a working pipeline of prospects that is reviewed weekly as a team. We also review an “outstanding ask report” as well as our revenue forecast. This gives the team the opportunity to strategize about the possibilities and collaborate with one another.
I tell them that it takes 40 no’s to receive a yes, so they need to make several coordinated asks. The probability of getting a “yes” goes up significantly after you’ve received no’s from individuals in your researched pipeline.
AE: That is a lot of no’s. Anything else?
KR: We have a cowbell in the office. Anytime someone gets a major gift, they get to ring the bell, and we all know that a gift has been secured!
I absolutely love the idea of a cowbell in the office. I am a big believer in celebrating success. However, if you’re just getting started with major gifts and/or your big successes are few and far between, you should celebrate the little successes as well as getting gifts.
For example, celebrate when a meeting is scheduled, or when you have a great call with a donor. Your celebration could be ringing a bell, taking a walk, listening to your favorite song, dancing around the office, or 5 carefree minutes of surfing the web.
Question 3: Greatest Major Gift Challenge?
AE: What do you find most challenging about raising major gifts?
KR: Unfortunately, I am not seeing major donors cultivated and stewarded in the right way. They are not being informed about how their money is being spent or even acknowledged properly.
We need to operate more like a business. The major donor is more likely to support you if they think their dollars will do more.
AE: That certainly is a serious problem, especially because two of the main reasons that donors give for not making a subsequent gift is that they weren’t thanked properly and/or that they don’t know how their money was used.
KR: Yes, there needs to be a plan to perpetuate future growth. DOD’s aren’t thinking about how to expand upon the current gift for future gifts.
This is such an important point!
You should be thinking about the next gift while you’re asking for this one, and treat your donor as such. Be in it for the long haul. Be thinking about that mega-gift and planned gift down the road.
Question 4: Any Major Gift Advice?
AE: What advice do you have for others who are trying to raise major gifts?
KR: Study the art of major gifts and pick up as many books on the subject as you can. I highly recommend any of Tim Seiler’s books. You need to really understand the art of the major gift ask and what moves management means.
AE: Great suggestion. Tim Seiler is at the Fundraising School at Indiana University and has authored and co-authored many books on the subject. Anything else?
KR: Yes, think of donors as your friends.
It doesn’t matter if they act or think differently than you do, but a friend is with you for the long haul. You don’t need to ask a friend for money, because they ask you, “What can I do to help you?” They ask simply because they are concerned about the needs of the organization.
AE: What a great note to end on. BBBS is certainly lucky to have you. Thank you for taking the time and sharing your expertise and insight with me today.
Keith made some great points and I appreciate his taking the time to share his expertise.
There are so many great resources and books available to help you raise major gifts, including my own book on the subject. Do you have a favorite? If so, please share it in the comments so others can benefit as well.