ID-100255663Liz Henderson asked Gail Perry about the best methods to cultivate donor relationships that she has used to help nonprofit organisations raise hundreds of millions in donations.

As you will already know, building relationships with your donors and prospects is at the heart of good major gift fundraising. But actually doing it can be easier said than done. So Liz Henderson put some questions about how to get it right to Gail Perry, CRFE, when she was in Australia presenting workshops for Xponential Philanthropy. Here, the US-based, international fundraising consultant, speaker and thought-leader shares some of her insights – gained through 25 years as a nonprofit philanthropy expert – that have attracted 21,000 subscribers worldwide to her renowned ‘Fired-Up Fundraising’ blog.

What is your No. 1 tip for more effective major gift fundraising?

I have two mottos. ‘When in doubt throw a party’ – not a fundraising event, but just make it fun for donors. Then they’ll get more involved and they’ll stick with you. My other motto is ‘when in doubt shut up’! If you let the donors talk they’ll enjoy being with you. Let them give you their advice and input. Give them your thoughtful attention because that honours them.

Are there any personal qualities major gift fundraisers should work on?

It’s important to develop yourself as a person with interests and current knowledge so you are an interesting person for the donor to chat with – so you’re worth their time. I encourage fundraisers to be out and about in their community in civic affairs, maybe politics, because it raises your stature as a human being and community leader, especially in a smaller community where people tend to know each other.

Another great key is to be nice to every single person you deal with when you’re connecting with your prospect: If they like you as a person they’ll help you out. Charm the receptionist or the housekeeper as you are being welcomed, because that person probably has a trusted relationship with your prospect, and their opinion of you matters.

How can fundraisers build authentic relationships with prospects?

If you listen to the donor you’ll know where his or her interests lie and then you can follow up with them about that, for example for a hospital it could be the emergency room, the heart surgeons, the wellness centre. I think that’s a big part of an authentic relationship – that the donor leads the way.

Feeling intimidated can be a barrier to that process. How can nerves be overcome?

It’s hard. I had one billionaire donor I was getting to know for a university I was working with, and there was a Picasso on the wall in his office that I’d actually studied in my art class. My strategy to overcome nerves is ‘When in doubt shut up’. Let your donor speak, and just listen to them. I developed quite a solid relationship with this donor, and then for a capital campaign we secured an eight-figure gift from him. What not to do is talk the entire visit, like our chancellor did the day he visited with the same gentleman. As we waited at the elevator to leave, the donor – who was now my buddy – leaned over and said: ‘Don’t ever bring that man to see me again.’ I tell that story a lot because it was really educational – especially for academics who are trained to talk. When you’re nervous you talk even more. But you need to listen instead!

What’s the best way to make the ask?

Be informed about timing and the donor’s capacity to give, and have your donor warmed up. I believe in seeking their permission to make an ask – saying, ‘Is this something you might like to talk about?’ I think that’s good manners, because nobody likes to feel pounced upon. Also, I like to frame the ask in terms of a terrific opportunity. If you’re inviting the donor to be your partner in solving a human challenge, that’s a pretty powerful ask. So you must lift your sights as much as you can to make sure the vision you’re asking them to support is a noble cause, and exciting to them.

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