I was a featured speaker at the May 2017 Compass Conference sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Her presentation, “Story Telling:  Best Practices in Major Gift Fundraising,” featured real donor stories that illustrate key principles in the cultivation and solicitation of significant gifts. Here is one of those stories.

An international human rights organization had recently launched a $40 million endowment campaign. As part of the campaign’s leadership gift phase, the CEO and the chief development officer were planning solicitation visits with the organization’s most loyal donors. Donors Jean and Don Smith [1] agreed to meet with them to discuss the campaign. The Smiths had met the CEO once before and had been visited several times by the gift officer. The consensus was that they were ready to be asked for $100,000, a gift that was clearly within their capacity to make.

After a pleasant conversation, the CEO asked for the gift—and the Smiths said “No.” Since the donors offered no explanation, the organization’s team changed the subject, concluded the meeting and left crestfallen. No one could explain what happened, and certainly no one wanted to revisit the situation.

Fast forward six months. A new director of major gifts had joined the organization and made an appointment to introduce herself to the Smiths. They developed a rapport and the Smiths invited her to dinner at their home. During the dinner, the gift officer asked a series of open-ended questions about the ill-fated visit. How did the donors feel about the CEO? They liked and respected him. How did the Smiths feel about endowment? They supported the concept. Would they ever reconsider the $100,000 gift? Yes, they would. Would they be willing to make that commitment now? Yes!

Emboldened by this success, the gift officer asked if they had ever considered including the organization in their estate plans. The Smiths replied that family obligations would likely preclude that.

A few months passed, and the gift officer received a note from the Smiths, thanking her for her holiday card and notifying her that they had included the organization in their will for a $1 million bequest.

What lessons can we take from this story? First, the decision process to commit to a major gift can be less than straightforward, and we sometimes need to follow the donor’s lead.  Second, it’s important to analyze what “no” means:  Is it timing, the solicitor, the case or other commitments that stand in the way of the gift? Third, keep building the relationship so that it leads to a “yes” in the future. And finally—persistence pays! Donors’ lives and circumstances are constantly changing, and we need to keep our organizations in their sights until the time is right. Imagine what would have happened if the insightful director of major gifts in our story had never picked up the phone.


[1] Names are fictionalized

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