Generally, the first step in asking prospects to make a donation is to send them a letter. This is true no matter the type of campaign or potential size of gift. In the small-gifts division of an annual campaign the letter may be the only step, although I would recommend having it followed up by a telephone call, if at all possible. Even in door-to-door solicitations, a letter should be sent first announcing the date of, reason for, and, in most cases, the suggested amount of the request. In the case of larger gifts, the letter announces that a solicitor will be calling for an appointment. We refer to this kind of letter as the proposal letter because it proposes that the prospect become a donor to an organization.
Proposal letters are usually signed either by the solicitor or by the campaign chair. In the case of the latter, the status and power of the chair are lent to what is essentially a request of the prospect to meet with a solicitor. If signed by the chair, you can also be sure the letters all went out by a specific time. This also forces solicitors to act by the time the letter says they will be calling for an appointment. However, not every solicitor will be able to make the initial calls in the same time frame. One or more solicitors may be out of town when the letter hits. Consequently, there is less likelihood of being in error as to when solicitors will be calling if the timing of proposal letters is left in the hands of the solicitors.
Proposal letters signed by the solicitors can be personalized to reflect the fact that solicitors and prospects have shared experiences or even know one another. It is best to make the determination of who signs and sends the proposal letters on a solicitor-by-solicitor and prospect-by-prospect basis.
This much is certain. If the letter indicates the day that someone will be knocking on the door, someone must be there on that day. If it says the prospect will be telephoned on Tuesday, the 25th, to be asked for a gift, that call must be made on the 25th. If it says the solicitor will be calling for an appointment next week, the call has to be made next week. When asking people for money, it is vitally important to do what you say you are going to do at the time you say you are going to do it.
In capital or endowment campaigns or when seeking larger gifts in annual campaigns, the proposal letter should be followed up with a phone call requesting an appointment. If prospects raise the question, “Is this meeting going to be about money?” solicitors should respond with a light touch, couching the request for an appointment in personal terms:
Don’t worry, you won’t need to bring your checkbook. I really would like to meet you, and I would consider it a distinct favor if you would give me the opportunity to share with you some of what is happening at the XYZ Institute.
Never let the phone call degenerate into a request for a donation. Just as big-ticket items are seldom sold over the phone, large donations are rarely made without a face-to-face meeting.
Once an appointment has been obtained, solicitors need to show up on time, ready, willing, and able to present the case for support. Just prior to a meeting, they should review with care the donor’s profile and the support materials in their solicitation kit. As a solicitor of funds for your organization, you must be ready to properly answer questions your prospect will most likely ask, such as:
- Is your organization at its best at this time?
- Will your organization perform the way you say it will?
- Will your organization remain at its best in the future?
- How will I be “paid back” with my investment in your organization?
The Opening: How It’s Handled Will Determine Its Outcome
The first meeting should not take place in a public space such as a restaurant with its distractions and interruptions. Solicitors should begin by talking with prospects about professional and personal interests, mutual friends and acquaintances, places and times where their lives may have crossed. However, solicitors should not forget why they are there. Quickly, but naturally, discussion of the campaign should be worked into the conversation. Solicitors should mention their own personal involvement and commitment to the organization as a way of explaining why it is of such great value to the community. They must convey how important the current fund-raising campaign is to the organization’s future. When appropriate, a tour of the organization’s facilities and the opportunity to meet others involved with the organization should be offered. Finally, solicitors should ask prospects to consider supporting the organization by making a pledge in the suggested amount.
Executing a fund-raising campaign means doing the same few steps over and over. Solicitors write, phone, present, ask, and report back – a process that is repeated with each prospect assigned to them. However, the process is seldom a straight line. There may be any number of phone calls to a single prospect. A solicitor might first meet with a prospect in the prospect’s office and then arrange a tour of the organization or, in the case of a capital building campaign, a visit to the construction site. After that, another meeting over lunch may be required to clinch the deal. All during this process the solicitor is reporting on progress to the team captain. To be effective a solicitor must:
- Not procrastinate in making appointments.
- Talk directly to the prospect and visit the prospect.
- Follow up with the prospect after each step.
- Never leave it up to the prospect to take the initiative.
- Follow up each solicitation with verbal or written reports to the team captain.
Persistent But Polite
A solicitor can be doing everything right and still run into a problem in getting appointments with prospective donors capable of making large gifts. People who can make large gifts are usually busy people. Simply getting to see them can take a few weeks. Then there is the time it takes to convince someone to part with thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars. The larger the sum of money involved, the less likely that a 30-minute appointment on a Wednesday morning will do the job. Solicitors must be prepared to put in whatever time and effort will be required to get a final answer, and they have to be careful not to pressure a prospect into a no response. Soliciting is exactly like selling. Prospects have to be made comfortable, shown the value of a contribution, and encouraged to make positive decisions. They have to be flattered, cajoled, appealed to, convinced, and ultimately sold.
Sooner or later a solicitor will get a final answer from a prospect. It will take one of four forms. The prospect will say:
- Yes, to the suggested amount.
- Yes, to a lesser amount.
- No, not at this time.
- No, don’t ever contact me again.
Obviously the first response is best, and the second, depending on how much less, isn’t too bad either. When you get one of those two answers, you say thank you, take the money or the pledge card, and leave. That day or, at the latest, the next, you report the gift to your team captain and send a thank-you note to the donor.
If the gift is less than hoped for, even if it is substantially less, never show disappointment. Don’t say, “But we were hoping for more.” Don’t frown. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t even ask why it is less. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the donor has already told you why. To ask now embarrasses you by showing you weren’t paying attention and embarrasses the donor by forcing him or her to go back over the reasons why he or she was unwilling or unable to give at the suggested level.
Can You Take No for an Answer?
When the answer is no, not at this time, it is still necessary to thank the person for considering your request. You should try to find out if perhaps later in the campaign the situation could be more favorable. If you are told it might be, you put that in your report and encourage the organization to follow up at the appropriate time. If there is no chance of a gift for the current campaign, give up. Don’t poison the well. Graciously accept the no, and leave the prospect for the next campaign and the next solicitor. After all, it might be you.
When the answer is no, don’t ever contact me again, you need to leave with an understanding of the reasons why the response was so adamantly negative. If you have been listening, you probably already know. If you are getting this response over the phone, ask why the prospect wants to be dropped from the organization’s list. Take this information back to the organization and let the person responsible for development deal with it.
Rejections Are Opportunities to Correct Real or Perceived Problems
When I was conducting telefunding campaigns as development director of the Cleveland Orchestra, I would look at the reports on persons who the night before had asked to be taken off our list. Some of them would be people who had given us $250 or $500 or even $1,000 in the past. I would call them and say, “I know you said no, and we will take you off our list, but I want to be sure we are taking you off because of something that we can’t fix or is out of our control.” They would, invariably, appreciate the call and would tell me if they indeed wanted to be taken off the list because of a grievance. Sometimes the reason was something we could fix. Sometimes they would even reconsider and make a gift, but I never asked them to. The purpose of my call was to save these prospects for the future, if possible, and to find out if we had done something wrong.
Once a prospect tells a solicitor no, you have to honor that answer. To do otherwise, to try to pressure, shame, or intimidate a prospect who has clearly said no, is to compromise your organization. Such tactics rarely will bring in any money and nearly always create bad feelings.
If you are always looking for the right moment to ask for the money, you will never find it. You have to be ready, willing, and able to close the sale. You have to take the risk of hearing no. If that happens, don’t take the rejection to heart. The person is saying no to the organization, not to you. Once you have presented your case ask for the money, either close the “sale,” find out what the objection to giving is and overcome it, or get your turndown and move on.
About Tony Poderis
Tony Poderis was for 20 years director of development for The Cleveland Orchestra and its Summer Home, Blossom Music Center. He was responsible for Cleveland’s largest annual institutional fund-raising campaign. Since 1993, Tony has been a fund-raising consultant serving the needs of all non-profit institutions to develop and maximize their potential to raise annual, endowment, capital, and sponsorship and underwriting funds.
Tony’s experiences have won him a wide audience at hundreds of workshops in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. He has addressed every facet of raising contributed income for social service, medical, educational, religious, and cultural institutions, and has been a speaker/specialist consultant to the United States Information Agency and the Mexican Government.
He is the author of the widely used and praised book It’s a Great Day to Fund Raise, a step-by-step guide to help volunteers and professionals be as successful as possible as they carry out their fund-raising responsibilities.