Life is not a straight line. It is always 3 steps forward, then 1 step back – or 1 step forward and 3 steps back. Why are we so bothered by side trips, failure and things that don’t turn out as we expected?
Perhaps that’s it. We expected this, and that is what happened. How tragic.
All of life ebbs and flows. Business does it. Relationships do it. Even our good earth does it. Yet when we come to major gifts, we hire a MGO and expect it to be roses, parades and celebrations by next week. Goodness. It just doesn’t happen that way!
Take one donor on your caseload. Just one relationship. Forget about all the rest of them – just look at one. Now, can you predict exactly what that donor will do and when? You might be able to get a fix on the general direction and the general timeline, but the exact details and timing will elude you for one basic reason: the donor is in charge, and you aren’t.
Management usually doesn’t understand this point, which is the basic difference between direct marketing and personal marketing (major gifts). In direct marketing, you test and place the message (direct mail, online, TV, Radio, etc) and wham, the response comes back within certain percentage points of the expected. In fact, if the response is lower than expected, then more testing occurs with an objective to sharpen and lift the response. You know how it works.
In major gifts, it can sometimes be predictable, in that “Mrs. Jones has always given at least $10,000 every year in the fall.” But what you can’t predict about Mrs. Jones is how long she will do that or what other circumstances may come her way that will prevent her from doing it. It could very well be 2 steps back with Mrs. Jones. And so the straight line becomes crooked, and the journey wanders a bit.
That is how it is in major gifts – which is why Jeff and I, and our team of associates, are constantly telling management that if we manage the caseload well, we will have both individual victories and setbacks. We will have a $3 million gift from one enthusiastic donor, as well as the donor who can’t give us his annual $100,000 gift because his business just tanked.
But here is the good news, which is illustrated in the picture at the top. If you manage your caseload well, the trend line will be up, even though the individuals in your caseload may go up and down. The value from those donors who can’t give as expected will be made up by the value from those donors that give beyond what was expected. It almost always works that way.
But here is what you have to make sure you do to secure this outcome:

  1. Be sure you are working with qualified donors. I know you are getting tired of hearing Jeff and me say this, but I have to say it because there are still hundreds of MGOs who have heard this basic point but are not following it. You need to be talking to qualified donors. If you aren’t, you cannot manage the trend, and you are wasting your time.
  2. Have a specific plan with each donor on your caseload that matches their interests and passions. We’ve said that before, too. But for some reason some good MGOs are not doing it, and they still expect to have success. It will not happen. You need that plan. And it must have a great deal of cultivation and stewardship in it so that the donor knows (a) that her past giving has made a difference, and (b) that there is a problem to be solved that she is interested in and that you will eventually be talking to her about it.
  3. Be bold in your ask. If you have done a good job in matching the interests and passions of the donor to the a need, then you should not assume that the ask amount should be the same as in past years. Part of your work in building relationships is to determine the level of interest the donor has in a specific program or project. That level of interest and your successful match of the donor interest to it is what should drive the ask amount, NOT necessarily past giving. Be bold in your ask.
  4. In some cases, ask again. Conventional wisdom states that you only ask a major donor once every year. Jeff and I state that you should ask the donor as many times as he wants to give. That could be two or three or even five times. What if the project/program is so interesting and so compelling to the donor that there is way more the donor can give? If so, you should give him that opportunity. Don’t just ask once. In fact, if a program that interests the donor has phases or steps, and the donor chooses to fund a part of the first step, why not ask for the other steps?
  5. Be gracious and strategic with the “no’s”. Remember that a “no” is nothing more than a doorway to a “yes”. A “no” sheds light on your path. It is a good thing. So when you get one, ask questions and find a new path. Do not, under any circumstance, get defensive or angry.
  6. Value the long term. Major gifts is, at its core, a long term, long cycle relationship with a donor. It is not at all like any other fundraising except for its cousin, planned giving. The best MGOs, as we have written earlier, know to give good counsel and go with the ebb and flow of the donor. This means they and their decision-making will not always fit your budget year. I know that is frustrating. But it is true, which is why it is so important to value the long term in each relationship. This does not mean that you don’t pay attention to your organization’s financial needs. No. You are obligated to do that. But it is the marriage of the organization’s need and the donor’s need that makes everything work in major gifts.

So as you go about your work in the weeks and months ahead, remember that your life as a MGO and your relationship with your donors is not a straight line. It will bend and weave. You can resist it, or just do what we suggest – go with the flow and take the journey.