A ‘big idea’ is often the first step on the path to successful major gift fundraising, reveals Michael Farrell.

Fundraising is not about money: it is about ideas. Bigger gifts are about bigger ideas. 

A good example of this is the experience of some friends of mine on a school committee. Some years back, they were raising $25,000 to build a children’s playground. The idea that resonated with the whole group was “all kids need a place to play.” The next step was approaching 30 prospects, each of whom were capable of giving $1,000. Two weeks later the committee met again, demoralised. Not a single commitment had been made.

Then one mum remarked that it didn’t matter to her anyway. Her son Joey had spina bifida and the closest playground for him was a 25 kilometre drive away. Everyone knew and liked Joey with his wide smile and infectious personality. Suddenly the room buzzed with animated conversation. What is an accessible playground, exactly? Why isn’t there one locally?

Thus a new plan was born – raising money for a playground for disabled children. This time the target was a much larger $65,000. But the commitments came pouring in. The difference? The idea.

Passion sparks big ideas – and it’s catching

Generosity is inspired when donors are invited to think in terms of the major impact they will have, rather than focusing on the transaction itself. What big ideas do is create a platform for this, enabling fundraisers to share their passion for their cause with others and truly involve them in the quest. 

That means fundraisers need to avoid getting bogged down in procedure and technique and once again tap into their own passion for what they are doing. Often this will occur when the cause gets personal, as it did for the playground committee.

Every interaction is a chance to remind supporters of the broader mission. More likely, though, a charity’s website or newsletter will celebrate what happened at the latest golf tournament, gala or cheque presentation. When the story that would communicate why the organisation exists is: “I run this tournament every year because your organisation saved my brother’s life. I do this so that others like him will be helped.”

Seven steps for shifting donor giving

The challenge for fundraisers is to go back to their core mission and communicate their big idea. What is a good way to do this? Look at it from a donor’s perspective. They want to be part of the solution. So when you are planning something bigger or initiating a new program, why not seek their input?

Often charities will spend an inordinate amount of time debating how supporters might respond to an idea when the best donor research is a conversation. Approaching donors using a process that creates seven points of contact can fundamentally change the dynamics of the relationship, at the same time as informing them of the undertaking so that a larger gift request in future will not be a shock.

To the donor, your appeal for help might look like this:

  • I received a letter today from a person I know on the board alerting me to a new program and seeking my advice.
  • They called to follow up and arranged a meeting with me in my home.
  • When I agreed, I received another letter with more detailed information.
  • The day before my visit I received a confirmation call.
  • I had a great visit. We had a frank and informal conversation about the new program. The executive director sought my opinion on the new idea and all aspects of the organisation’s work. She also explained the importance of the new program and answered my questions about the community support and leadership that are required to make it a reality.
  • Two days after the meeting I received a handwritten note in the mail thanking me for my insight and for making time to meet.
  • Three weeks after the meeting I received a project update.

Getting started

For busy nonprofits the challenge is getting started. In larger organisations this may involve a change in the emphasis of your major giving department.

In small teams, you could set aside one morning a week to prepare materials and commit to conducting three donor interviews or major gift calls. Focus on a manageable number of your best prospects and invest the time to change their relationship with your charity.

Most importantly, remember big ideas are not the exclusive domain of big organisations with budgets to match. After all, passion is free. Take the example of a small school committee of volunteers who in embracing a bolder mission with enthusiasm, captured the imagination of a local community. So what is your big idea?

Michael Farrell

Michael Farrell (find him on Twitter @JBMFarrell) is principal of Philanthropy Coach & Counsel and one of Canada’s foremost fundraising leaders. His 25 years experience in large and small nonprofit organisations includes overseeing a $100 million capital campaign as president and chief executive officer at the Hamilton Health Sciences Foundation. He is also a faculty member of Fundraising Institute of Australia’s ‘Madison Down Under’ program.

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