There are some basic principles in major gifts fundraising which, if you follow them, will lead you to success. All the rest of it is about being emotionally intelligent, relational and donor-focused. This is where intuition and “gut” make a difference in whether you will be successful as a MGO.
I have met many MGOs who religiously follow major gift formulas, don’t succeed, and then wonder why it didn’t work. That is why the writings on marketing by Drayton Bird intrigued me, because they brought to light some thoughts that I think apply to major gifts. Here is his list, with my major gift application.

  1. Hardly anybody studies. Drayton says: “Marketers (or major gift fundraisers) imagine theirs is a profession. It isn’t. There is little proper discipline based on precedent as in a real profession or trade. Few firms or agencies invest properly in training their people. Most do not train at all. People make it all up as they go along. People think they can succeed almost by chance – by being charming, good-looking, knowing the right people; anything except studying what works, and why. And you can do pretty well that way. But not for long. And only if you’re lucky.”

The operative words here are “knowing what works and why.” Do you know what works with caseload donors? Have you studied it? Have you measured cause and effect? If not, time to get busy.

  1. Most marketing fails because most marketers do not measure the results of their investment. Drayton says: “If you don’t know what your (marketing/communications) money produces, you are like a man driving blindfold. Why don’t people measure? It is because of a fatal misunderstanding of the purpose of marketing. The second big discovery I made back in the late 1950’s was that advertising and marketing were divided into two opposing camps. Some people just ran advertisements they liked or their wives liked or their friends liked. They made no attempt to measure return on investment. Other people only spent money on what they knew made money – because they measured. The first kind of person saw advertising as a cost or overhead – a luxury they could do without if times were hard. The second realized that it should be an investment: the lifeblood of their business. How could I ever have dreamt that fifty-odd years later many – I would say most – marketers are still pretty clueless.”

This is a huge subject for Jeff and me – measuring cause and effect. What caused the gift to come in? It is true that direct mail, in the early stages of the relationship with a new caseload donor, may be the “cause” of a gift; but over time, after the MGO has had the opportunity to develop the relationship, he cannot not just automatically say that he had anything to do with the gift that came in from direct mail, unless the response envelope was the “carrier” of a gift motivated by the actions of the MGO. This is a delicate area. But the point is this: you need to measure cause and effect so know you are doing the right things.

  1. Marketers confuse cleverness and entertainment with effectiveness. Drayton says: “This is the third discovery I made – and the confusion is quite natural. That is because marketing uses media otherwise used to entertain or amuse – like TV, radio, magazines – and now the internet. It seems natural, then, to conclude that if it does not entertain it will not get any attention. But advertising is not a subset of entertainment. You are in the selling business. As my former boss David Ogilvy observed, ‘I don’t want people to say that is a good advertisement. I want them to say “I want to buy that product.’ In fact your messages have to stand out amidst the buzz of entertainment. To do so you must appeal to people’s self-interest so strongly that they will prefer your message to the ones that amuse them.”

This is another important area that Jeff and I see operating all the time – where the MGO has the graphics person design this “wonderful and pretty” communications piece that is devoid of any program content, societal needs that must be addressed, urgency, etc. Instead, you would think the MGO is trying to win a prize for creativity, rather than to communicate what needs to be done to address human need. Don’t fall into this trap.

  1. Marketers are foolish followers of fashion. Drayton says: “They follow every new sexy idea. As marketers do not measure, they cannot evaluate the impact of their activities. They cannot put them to the test and check the results of one approach, incentive or medium versus another. And they squander millions as a result. Today’s big fashion is for ‘social media.’ Results show that, to give one example, emails are about 40 times more effective at selling than Facebook and Twitter combined. Yet billions are being thrown away on these relatively unproven media. One hugely misleading signal guides many, if not most marketers. It is surveys into what other marketers are doing. This is almost always irrelevant for two reasons:
  • What marketers are doing now is very often behind the times. You should be looking for what is about to work, not what is working today or has worked. It is a parallel with the world of investment. What made most money last year may well not do well next year because everybody is investing in it.
  • What you should be watching is not what competitors are doing but what customers (donors) are doing, because they pay your wages. Very few marketers indeed do the obvious: be a customer (donor) yourself. Experience what your customers experience. Until you have done so, how can you know what they want?

The reason marketers squandered so many millions on the video ads mentioned in the report mentioned above is simple: everyone else was doing it.”

What is working for XYZ non-profit may or may not work for you. I really like what Drayton suggests here – to put yourself in the donor’s position. Do it with your passions and interests. Then “serve yourself” and see what it feels like. Also, remember that the fundamental “formula for success” in major gifts is matching donor passions and interests with the needs of the organization. Are you really doing that with all your caseload donors? Or are you doing things others are doing? There IS a difference.

  1. Nothing breeds failure faster than success. Drayton says: “This lesson was learned when I started dealing with large clients at a senior level. As soon as a business starts to do well and get big, the entrepreneurs tend to lose favor and corporate politicians move in. They are better at climbing the corporate ladder than serving the customers. If you’re not careful they end up running the business. That is when the rot sets in. It is extraordinarily hard to keep in touch with your customers when you spend your day in meetings talking about slogans and strategy or playing golf with your agency toadies, whilst they – the customers – are thinking about how to make ends meet. Marketers, for the most part, are not in touch with where their money comes from, or what makes customers part with that money. This is fatal. If you want to succeed, be your own customer. Email your firm with a question and see what happens. Buy something. Is it easy? Could it be easier? How was the sale followed up? Then do the same with your competitors. Are they doing a better job than you? Where are they weak? Where are they strong? Can you outdo them somehow?”

You could apply this point when a MGO secures a large gift from one donor on the caseload. Suddenly, the goals for the year are met (not really), and the MGO can just relax and not worry. When you get that large gift – that’s when you need to start being afraid. Not can’t-sleep-all-night afraid, but alert and cautious. There is something that happens to all of us when success happens. We are less vigilant, less urgent and more complacent. Long ago I learned to see success as a trigger to watch myself more carefully. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the success. It just means I try not to fall into a “don’t worry about it” mentality. If you do that, you will start down a path of failure.

The last thing Drayton quoted in his writing was a statement by Peter Drucker: “There is only one profit center in your business – your customer.” I love this. Change it to: “There is only one source of revenue in your non-profit – your donor.” (If fees are a source as well, then you can use the customer version of the statement.) We need to remember constantly that the money comes from outside, and we need to take care of those good people who give it to us.