Cosy gatherings with your best prospects often play a role in the major gift process. Liz Henderson outlines the role of these special information functions in the lead up to an ‘ask’.

Major gift fundraising is a staged process. The first steps are deciding who you will ask, how much you will ask for based on designating a table of hoped for gifts in accordance with a prospects’ giving capacity, and of course identifying and articulating your case for support internally.

The best way to then open the conversation with your prospects is with a special information function: an intimate and low-key gathering, perhaps a dinner or even a meeting in the location of a planned build, where you can let them know what you are doing and what part they can play.

This was the recommendation of DVA Navion’s Michael Downes at Fundraising and Philanthropy Magazine’s one day seminar in November called The Art and Science of Major Gifts Fundraising. “People give as they understand, not as they are able, so they must understand what you are on about and the outcomes before you ever ask for money,” he explained.

Choosing your guest list

Not surprisingly the method of selecting people to invite is vastly different to a regular event – and it’s one instance where size of the guest list nearly doesn’t matter. The initial phase, says Downes, is deciding on a group by the amount you would like them to pledge, for example $25,000. Only 20 people in your donor base might have that capacity.

And as they RSVP, that guest list will get shorter still. When you’re seeking major gifts, though, this is a good thing, Downes notes. A ‘yes’ signals solid engagement and interest, while a ‘no’ filters out those who would not give anyway, meaning time is not wasted in fruitless follow-ups. “The eight that aren’t there, I don’t care about,” he says. “But that 12 that are there have put up their hand and passed the first milestone and screening point… They’re there to listen to your story.”

Messaging at the information function

Exactly what kind of information should be conveyed on the day? “You’ll tell them about outcomes from the project when it’s successful because that’s the primary motivation,” Downes says. “You’ll talk about the case. You’ll have your most passionate member of your team talk… It could be a doctor, it could be the head of the school.”

Then after that, “Somebody from fundraising will stand up and say here is how we need to fund it – receiving pledge gifts over a five year period. We’d like to think the sort of gifts would range from say $5,000 a year to maybe $15,000 a year. You set that for the audience.”

It is equally important to explain to guests during the function what you are expecting from them next – namely a phone conversation to arrange a time to meet in person. Each person is then given a copy of the case for support brochure to take home which echoes what they heard at the function.

The phone call

What comes after, Downes explains, is a phone call from the fundraising team or the major gift project champion, seeking an appointment for a meeting. “It’s special, it’s face-to-face, it’s in their home, your home, wherever,” he points out, “but it is just to concentrate on how they might help you in this campaign.”

The visit and the ask

The next phase capitalises on what Downes calls “the stew factor”. “I’ve found that about eight days from when they were at your information function to you seeing them is the most productive time,” he notes. “You leave them much longer and they don’t think you care. If you go too quick, then in fact probably you’ll get a lower gift.”

A handy technique when you are conducting the ask at the meeting is requesting that the prospect “consider” a gift amount. As Downes puts it, “The word ‘consider’ is the most important word in asking for a major gift.” The ask he proposes might be something like: “Would you consider a gift of $5,000 per year for five years, a total gift of $25,000 and tax deductible?”

What comes immediately after that question is nothing. Or more specifically, a silence: literally keeping quiet and waiting for the prospect to think and frame a response.

“He who breaks the silence loses,” says Downes. “The person who must break the silence is the prospect who’s thinking about this and then they can say whatever. ‘Oh, that’s a bit rich.’ And if you have got it a bit rich, most of them are flattered thinking that you think they can give that much. But I tell you what is worse, you’ve got a hoped for gift where you’ve said $5,000 a year. [They answer:] ‘Yes of course!’ As fast as that. And you think, ‘oh no, I got the number wrong, we asked too low!’ ”

Liz Henderson is the editor of Fundraising and Philanthropy Magazine.

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