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Low Stress High Impact Major Donor Cultivation

Posted by on Feb 20, 2014 in Fund Raising | 0 comments

Thomas JeffersonWhenever I am asked to work with a nonprofit board on major gift fund raising, I always intone the First Axiom of Resource Development: Fund raising is not about asking for money; it is about building relationships.  In addition, however, I present Laura’s Corollary: These relationships are built on mutual passions, which are centered on (1) the personal experiences of the board member and the funding prospect, (2) the societal issue(s) being addressed, and (3) the mission of the nonprofit.  An “ask” should be an opportunity for the donor to express deeply felt connections to the cause in question and to feel like an agent of change.  In my experience, if donors don’t see a gift as an opportunity for self-fulfillment (and, admittedly sometimes self-aggrandizement), they don’t write much of a check, if any at all.

I was introduced recently to the idea of a “Jeffersonian Dinner” through a webinar presentation by Jennifer McCrea and Jeffrey Walker.  More information about them and the Jeffersonian Dinner concept can be found at on their Generosity Network website. This model addresses the three elements of Laura’s Corollary—beginning with personal experience, connecting that experience to the larger trends and challenges in society, and then exploring the role of the nonprofit organization in addressing those challenges. The Generosity Network website lays out the advantages of this approach: A Jeffersonian dinner “enlists new allies…. helps to create and disseminate ideas…. expands attendees’ networks…. and spreads knowledge about and interest in your organization.”

Here is a basic outline of how it works: A dinner host invites eight to 12 people who will bring something to the conversation (expertise, interest, connection, etc.).  Each invitee provides a brief personal biography; these are sent to the group in advance of the dinner along with a “starter question.”  The question is designed to elicit personal stories that relate to the topic of the dinner.  For example, if the dinner is focused on the role of museums in K-12 education, the question might be “Tell us about a childhood experience in a museum that had an impact on your life, and why.”  A moderator manages the conversation, which moves from these personal stories to their connection with larger interests of the group around the topic; and then to the work of the nonprofit, how the organization could further its mission, and attendees’ interests in following up on the discussion.

The dinner follows Thomas Jefferson’s own decrees for dinner guests at Monticello—no one talks to his or her neighbor; there is only one conversation at the table in which everyone engages.  Jefferson also had a practice of what he called “pell mell seating,” where dinner guests were asked to just take a chair in no particular order.  He apparently thus offended any number of diplomatic and government guests, who felt their rank and stature were being demeaned by the seating arrangements.  The point that we carry forward to today is the egalitarian nature of the conversation—no one is a star, no one presents, no one monopolizes, everyone participates—as well as the purposeful nature of Jefferson’s own gatherings.

I have not yet had an opportunity to work with a client to try a Jeffersonian dinner, but the model is building its track record and enthusiastic practitioners.  I would be interested to hear from any readers who have convened such a gathering.

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Wishful Thinking: A Poor Strategy For Fund Raising

Posted by on Jan 3, 2014 in Fund Raising | 0 comments

If there is one thing we have found in our years of working with nonprofit organizations, it is that many people are looking for an easy way to raise money and would prefer someone else to be doing it.  The following are real things clients have said to us:

We need to find an angel.

We need a really good fund raiser who knows a lot of rich people.

Bill Gates ought to be giving us money.

I want to raise $40 million in endowment and never have to fund raise again.

We don’t have the time or money to go after small donors—we need to look for big donors.

Oprah ought to be giving us money.

This “lightning bolt” theory of fund raising fizzles out in the face of certain time-tested realities:

  • The most likely donors are always the organization’s constituents—people who receive the organization’s service, who volunteer, who are in the audience, and so on.  People who do not know you are not going to give you money.  Fund raising is about building relationships (our mantra).
  • The most compelling fund raisers are also internal to the organization—and are often volunteers.  One hundred percent Board giving and getting has to be the first step.
  • Big donors often arise out of small donors—you have to nurture relationships over time to grow the size of gifts.
  • Big donors often want to know that there is a broad base of support in place—people who have voted for the organization with their dollars.
  • The most stable fund-raising base is diversified, which makes smaller donors important.  Organizations that rely heavily on foundation support are vulnerable to changes in foundation priorities and decreases in foundation giving, and understand the importance of committed donors of modest amounts who will provide critical unrestricted support every year.
  • Fund raising never stops.  If you can put that $40 million endowment together in the first place—after a long period of donor cultivation—you still won’t be able to call it quits.  Organizational needs, budgets, and missions are not static, and relationships with donors and constituents will always be important.  We will never see the day that Harvard stops raising money, and its endowment is reported to be more than $30 billion.
  • If you think a particular rich person ought to be giving you money, so do millions of other people.
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