Unexpected (?) fundraising tool: your ears as your moneymakers

“Recently a charity asked me if I had put them in my will. I was astounded and felt insulted by this question. After the conversation I immediately went to my notary and changed my will. I deleted all three of the charities that were in there. My kids are once again the only beneficiaries.”

I posted this quote on Twitter about a year ago, after a ‘kitchen table’ conversation with one of the major donors of a charity I work for as a consultant. The conversation was part of a feasibility study for a major gifts and legacies program. A fellow fundraiser has asked me to blog about the subject.

Well, here are my thoughts.

The impact of just saying ‘thank you’

What was the reason for the quoted donor’s frustration? She had been an annual €500+ donor for 8 years and had never received a personal thank you. Yes, she saw these two words on some bank statements and in a letter that also asked her to upgrade her gift. But she never heard those words, because she was never visited or phoned by any of the charity’s employees. Actually, I was the first person she ever spoke to who represented the charity — me, a consultant!

The funny thing was, when I asked if she would appreciate it if I suggested that one of the program managers visit her and tell about what the charity spent her money on, she refused (out of humbleness, I guess). A phone call maybe? A letter? No. That would cost the charity time, and time equals money, and money should be spent on the mission.

A few questions later, I found out what she would really appreciate — an unexpected, genuine and personal ‘thank you’. It could be as simple as a handwritten sticky note (and think of how low-cost and easy that is!).  Another few questions later, she agreed that an invitation to tour the charity’s headquarters, or even, to my surprise, an unprompted visit by the previously mentioned program manager, would actually be greatly appreciated by her.

This example is not just about expressing your appreciation for a donor’s gift, about literally saying ‘thank you’. It is also about personally giving the donor the suitable amount of attention. It is about acknowledging the interest and trust that he or she has shown in your cause through his gift(s), and showing in return that you value him or her as a person.

Even a grumpy old man can be your major donor

Normally it’s very easy to set up an interview with one of my clients’ major donors. The CEO of the charity sends an invitation letter, and then I follow up with a phone call to set the appointment. Well, that wasn’t the case with Mr. Big (don’t bother to look him up in the Dutch Quote 500 or American Forbes 400 list, it’s a fictitious donor). Never in my entire career had I needed to use so many arguments to persuade him to meet with me. It wasn’t about him not wanting to welcome me, he just needed to hear why and why him. After a 45-minute phone conversation, he finally agreed to meet. I could visit him at his home office.

But the visit itself proved even more challenging. He really gave me a hard time. He acted like a typical grumpy old man and wasn’t positive about a single thing the charity has done. I can handle grumpy old men; in fact, I like being challenged in a conversation. But never in one of my interviews had anyone been so negative about a cause or charity that he/she had financially supported.

During the interview Mr. Big couldn’t stop talking about how another, cause-related, charity delivered much better work than the charity I was representing. This other charity supplied him only with information he really cared about, and thanked him for his gifts. As a matter of fact: the relationship manager of this other charity thanked him personally, she visits him every year. He could even tell me that they both love to play golf.

Looking back on the 1.5-hour conversation, I think I only asked him 5 questions. There was no Pareto Principle in this interview. If I had filled even 2% of the time with my questions, it would have been a lot.

On the drive home, I really thought that I had failed the interview. I knew I had to report this back to my client, but the resistance I felt caused me to put off picking up the phone.

It was only one week later that my client called me. She was ecstatic. “What have you said to Mr. Big? What was your conversation with him about?” An uncomfortable feeling crept from my toes to my stomach. Before I could respond, and to my big surprise, she finished her sentence, “Today we received a €15,000 gift from Mr. Big! Never before has he given this much.  Not even his lifetime value approaches this gift level!”

Although this may be a unique experience, I learned a very important lesson. Just being there, and being patient enough to listen to a donor’s story (whether it is a complaint, a compliment or a personal experience), can be enough to move him to give again, or to upgrade his gift. My role was that of catalyst between Mr. Big and the charity. But it could have just as easily been the development officer, the relationship manager or another employee of the charity.

Your ears are your moneymakers

A lot of fundraisers and fundraising consultants have said this before, but the value of a good conversation with a donor is priceless. Taking the time to listen to the personal stories of the people who support your cause, getting to know them, keeping the conversations ongoing by servicing donors in the ways they appreciate most — it all sounds so simple. Still, a lot of charities (or should I say ‘Dutch charities’?) really underestimate the power of listening and investing in it.

So, beloved fellow fundraisers: take a break from investing in major donor mailings or other direct response activities to raise money from high value donors. Instead, get off your chair, jump in that (hybrid) car (or train) and visit the people who support the values of your organization. Have your own kitchen table conversations with your donors and thank them, listen to them, connect to them, and further commit them. Use your ears, and I am sure they will be the best moneymakers you’ve ever had.

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