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Season 2, Episode 28

In this episode, capital campaign experts Amy Eisenstein and Andrea Kihlstedt encourage you to stop practicing your talking points and instead, review everything you know about that donor and why they might want to support your project.

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This episode was recorded as part of a live webinar held Monday, February 28, 2022. To participate in future webinars, register at ToolkitTalks.com.

Amy Eisenstein:
We are talking about preparing to solicit the largest gifts for your campaign today, and whether you’re talking about those top, top gifts, the leadership level gifts, or maybe the more mid-level gifts to your campaign, they are big gifts for most organizations. And it is terrifying for many nonprofit leaders to think about soliciting those leadership level gifts, but in order to have a successful campaign, that’s what we want to do. So why don’t you start us out, as always, with some initial thoughts on how to think about soliciting those big, big gifts that you need to do to kickstart your campaign?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yes. Thank you, Amy. What a great and important topic, I think. And let me begin by reminding you all that the more you do it, the better you will get at it. Just like we have learned from on doing these webinars, you will get better at soliciting big gifts the better you do it. One of the reasons you will get better at it, and one of the reasons we have gotten better at this, is because we have relaxed into it. We have become less stressed, less anxious, less hand-wringing about it. And the paradoxical and ironic thing about soliciting your very largest gifts is that they are the gifts that take the most ability to listen and the most ability to be present in the moment and the most ability to be on the same page as the people you’re talking to about those gifts.

And that takes a certain amount of mental relaxation or presence. The more anxious you are as you go in, the less present you will be in the moment. And the less present you are in the moment, the less attentive you can be to what’s really going on in the room. So I think that’s really worth paying attention to. Some of you know that over these many months, I have periodically talked about my client in Providence, Rhode Island that has done so very well with its campaign. And they had raised some decent gifts before, but the campaign has really pushed them to raise a lot of money in a very few large gifts. And very few. By now they’ve probably solicited 30 or 40 pretty good-sized gifts.

And when asked what surprised him most about the campaign, what the executive director said, “You know.” He said, “I’ve been really amazed and surprised to realize that the bigger the gifts that I ask for, the less formal those asks should be, that the more personal and more informal they are for me to do it well.” And I think that’s a great concept to start off this. He didn’t mean that he wasn’t prepared. He didn’t mean that he hadn’t thought about it a lot. He didn’t mean that he was flaky about it. This is not a flaky human being.

But he meant that they really were person-to-person conversations about something that was important to both of them, and those conversations are what led to finding the right gift for that donor that was appropriate for the campaign and for that organization. And it takes some serious practice to get really good at that, because you have to get over your panic, that there are so many zeros, and that if you don’t get the gift, your campaign will fail. That’s the anxiety. It’s like, “If we don’t get this million dollar gift, we’re in trouble.” I’ll control my nasty mind, my nasty tongue.

Listening Our Way to Gifts as Fundraisers

Amy Eisenstein:
Listen, I think you’ve made so many good points in there, Andrea. I’m trying to figure out which ones to highlight and reiterate. But I think that for anybody who’s new to big gift solicitation, I want you to really focus in on what Andrea’s just said about it being a conversation and really listening to your donor. Because we talk about listening our way to a gift as fundraisers, and then we get asked about how to make a pitch. And there’s such a disconnect there, right? It’s not a pitch. And although your project is specific and outlined, you’re still working with donors to make sure that the gift feels right and is accomplishing what they want. Now, we’re not going to let the tail wag the dog. The donor is not dictating the project or the program or the service or the campaign, but you need to have enough conversations with them so that they feel their way into the gift that feels really good to them.

If your donor feels like they’ve had their arm twisted or they were guilted into a gift, it’s not going to be good for anybody. They need to be excited about the project. They need to be glowing from the inside out when they make a gift. They need to feel proud. They need to feel excited. And when donors make big gifts to a campaign, the really successful ones, that’s how they feel. And so you’re really having a conversation with donors. You’re not pitching at them. You’re not twisting their arms. You’re not begging them. You are collaboratively doing something that is going to raise the whole community.

Bridging the Wealth Disconnect

Andrea Kihlstedt:
I think that’s so right, Amy. And one of the reasons it’s challenging for many of us, and I include myself in that, is that often there is a discomfort even just talking to people whose wealth far exceeds your own. That you may see yourself as having come from a very different place in the world, or you may see yourself as being significantly younger and less experienced than, or there’s so many ways in which we can see a disconnect between ourselves and our positions in the development field and these people we’re talking to for gifts of a million dollars or more, or five million or $10 million. And that just personal discomfort about, “Am I worthy? Should I be here? Are they going to listen to me,” can be so pervasive.

I mean, I remember that from when I was young and when I was in my 30s in this business and going and talking to some of the foundation heads and feeling like… I mean, I never said that to them. I didn’t say it to much of anybody, but in my heart, I felt like I don’t really belong here. I’m young and I don’t really yet know what I’m doing. And so all of these things conspire to make you anxious, and it’s something to think about, something to talk about.

Acknowledging Your Own Inexperience

Amy Eisenstein:
It is. And I think you can acknowledge it with donors. You can say, “Listen. I’m not experienced with this. I’ve never asked for a million dollars before.” I might even think about saying, “I hope you’ll work with me because we both care about this issue and this organization, and we both want to see this project be a success, but I’m really nervous about asking for big gifts. Can you tell me how it feels to be a donor and be asked for big gifts, or what can you teach me?” I think there is an opportunity often, before you’re asking for the gift, to have a conversation with donors and to be open and honest and say, “Have you ever given a large gift to a campaign? How did it feel to be asked? How should you be asked?”

You can learn from your donors. They can teach you. You can teach them. I don’t think that that’s a terrible thing. Start with people closest to your organization, like board members, and practice on them. The only way you’re going to get better at this is to get out there and do it. And it’s super interesting. I’ve had a few conversations in the past week with organizations that want to outsource the asking and the campaigning and the planning. And to me, that is a real missed opportunity for nonprofit staff members to learn how to do this, to get better as professionals, to get more experienced in the field. And the only way to do it, the only way to get better is to practice and to ask. All right.

Give Donors Space to Talk

Andrea Kihlstedt:
There are, however, some other things to know about how to ask for large gifts. And if you’ve ever taken a solicitation training, you’ve probably encountered things like make the case and overcome resistance. And a lot of solicitation trainings are based on overcoming a donor’s resistance. And honestly, I’ve always asked questions about that. Do we really want to go into a solicitation thinking that we should be able to overcome a donor’s resistance? Is that the right frame? What if we go into the conversations not thinking about creating resistance? Let’s not think about resistance. Let’s think about finding agreement. Let’s think about getting the donors to talk themselves into a gift. Let’s think about giving the donors plenty of room to tell us what they think about the project and what’s going on in their lives and for their giving for this project.

And then work with them to find the right gift. Now, we can put a gift amount out, and we should put a gift amount out. That is an appropriate standard in the field. But I encourage you to think less about, “How am I going to overcome resistance,” and more about, “How are we going to have a robust conversation so that I can then show them the gift range chart and suggest that, would they consider giving a gift at this level in the gift range chart?” And then see how they respond. It’s amazing when you get out of the resistance frame how much more open you become to listening to what people say and asking them how they might make something work. If they say, “I don’t think I can give at this time,” then you say, “Well, that’s fine. Let’s talk about what kind of a timeframe would suit you fine.” That’s not overcoming resistance. It’s just trying to hammer out the realities of their situation.

Amy Eisenstein:
It’s the same thing when you ask for a large gift and they say, “I don’t know if I can do that,” or, “That’s a lot of money.” Say, “Yes, I agree. What did you have in mind, or what might you be able to do? What would you consider doing? How might we make this work?” So it really is a conversation. It’s about asking the donor questions. It’s about asking your way into a gift. I think those are really good points. What else should we think about when trying to figure out how to solicit the largest gifts?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Well, I think, and Amy, you may have talked about this before, but I think it bears diving a little deeper into it. If you are having a conversation with a large donor and want to ask them to give a large gift, and this is the first conversation you or your organization has had with that donor, you’re probably doing it wrong. You’re probably not barking up the right tree, because these conversations should grow out of an understanding of where the donor is, and it sometimes takes a while to get there. Now, there are some situations in which you sit down with a donor not really intending to ask them for a gift, and they turn around and say, “Amy, how can I help you today?” And you better be ready to make an ask if they ask you that question.

But sometimes you can go in without a determination that you will ask unless the donor is ready to be asked, which actually raises a technique that I’m very fond of, which is asking the donor if it would be okay to ask, if they feel ready to have a conversation about what you hope will become a large gift to your campaign. And let them tell you, “No, not ready yet.” “Yes, this is fine going in.” Asking questions about the conversation is a powerful and effective way to move the conversation forward in a way that engages the donor.

Be Up Front with Donors

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. Very frequently I’m asked, “Should we tell the donor when we’re coming to ask for a gift?” And my answer is, “Absolutely, yes.” You don’t want to catch the donor off guard or have them be surprised that you’re asking them, whether it’s $10,000 or $100,000 or a million dollars. If they are caught off guard, what is the chance that they’re going to give you a large gift? I want them thinking about, “What do I want to do for this organization?”

Because if you tell them, “No.” You’re not going to tell them, “No, I’m not coming to ask for money,” but if you sort of beat around the bush, say, “Listen, I want to come talk to you about the campaign we’re thinking about or that we’re having, and the role that you might play and the needs that we have. So can we have that conversation?” They should be willing participants in the conversation, not sort of caught off guard or… And people say, “Well, what if they don’t want to have a conversation with me?” Well, guess what? Then they’re not going to make a gift. It’s not that you’re going to trick them into meeting with you and then trick them into making a gift. No. You’re partners in this process.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Amy, you know how many horror stories there are of people inviting someone out to lunch, maybe with the president of the institution, and I’ve heard this about college presidents. A specific story I have in mind is about a college president, and the head of development and the college president were going to go and have a meeting with a major donor to the institution. And it was their intention to ask that donor for a significant gift. The president was terrible at asking for gifts. And they invited the person out to a lunch at a lovely place, and they sat down, they all had a lovely lunch. And the president, whose job it was to ask for the gift, didn’t ask for the gift and didn’t ask for the gift and didn’t ask for the gift, and the check is on the table. Finally, the check is on the table. The donor didn’t know he was going to be asked. Finally, someone blurts out, “Gee, John, would you consider giving $10 million to this campaign?”

Amy Eisenstein:
Oh, no.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Terrible. So you don’t want to do that.

Amy Eisenstein:
Well, that’s an interesting example, because I actually, for a long time early in my career, did primarily invite people to lunch until one day it dawned on me, this is not a good place to ask people for $10 million or a million dollars or a $100,000 or $10,000. Restaurants are noisy. I mean, listen, now we’re in the pandemic. You’re probably not taking so many people out to lunch anyways. But in general, be in a quiet space. Be in their home. Be in their office. If they don’t feel comfortable with that, invite them to your office.

But you’re having a confidential, private conversation. You don’t want to be interrupted. You don’t want to be sitting too close to the people at the next table. This doesn’t have to be an hour conversation. It doesn’t have to be over lunch. Then eating gets in the way. So what do we order? Where do we go? Cut the nonsense. Just say, “Listen, I’d like to have a conversation, an important conversation with you about the future of this organization. Could I stop by your home or office at your convenience for 35 minutes? What would work best for you?” Right?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah, I think that that’s so important, that you don’t want to trick someone. You don’t want to ask them for a big gift at a restaurant where there’s a lot of noise and waiters coming and taking the attention. And I’ve often wondered and thought about the phrase that we use, which is face-to-face solicitation. And I always think it works better if you don’t sit face to face, that there’s something confrontational.

Amy Eisenstein:
You’re in a face-off. You’re in a face-off.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
It’s a face-off. It’s too intense. So my preference, actually, is not to sit face to face, but is to sit corner to corner, or almost side to side. Now, in the Capital Campaign Toolkit, we encourage people to use what we call a donor discussion guide, which is a big one-page sheet of paper which you can put it on the table in front of you. And if you have that, then you can actually sit side by side with magic markers, and you can be drawing on it. And it feels like a more collaborative process than staring someone in the eye and saying, “Would you be willing to consider a gift of a million dollars?”

Asking for Gifts Virtually

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. So listen, I want to add to that before we wrap up this conversation that you can ask on Zoom, right? We’re now in a world where we have a new tool in our fundraising toolbox, and when you can be in person, great, do it. It’s nice to shake someone’s hand, to give someone a hug, to sit next to them or on the corner.

Don’t let COVID be a barrier to asking. And I know so many organizations and nonprofit leaders that are using it as an excuse. “Well, we can’t get together. We can’t get together.” Okay. It’s time to resume your asking on Zoom, your meetings, your conversation, whether it’s Zoom or another type of video chat communication. But to me, this has become a normal part of life and become a normal part of business, and 99% of your donors can function on video chat, and it’s not an excuse not to have these conversations simply because you can’t actually be in the room with someone. So don’t let that prevent you from making progress on your campaign.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
You know, Amy, we haven’t talked at all… Can we just take another two minutes and then we’ll stop?

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. Yeah.

Materials to Provide to Donors

Andrea Kihlstedt:
But we haven’t talked at all about material to send, whether you should send material in advance or not send material in advance.

Amy Eisenstein:
Good.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
What’s your take on that?

Amy Eisenstein:
I think it depends on the circumstances and how familiar the person is with the project. Hopefully, if you’re asking for a lead campaign gift, you’ve actually already discussed a lot of the details of the project and the program with your potential donor. So I don’t think you need to send anything in advance. And a lot of the times, I don’t want to present them with anything at the meeting either. I want to have a conversation, and then I follow up with materials. I’ll send something afterwards, these days as an attachment to an email, because I don’t want the documents distracting from the conversation.

And what I’ve seen happen too often is that somebody will bring in their briefcase with them, an ask letter, an ask amount, a proposal, and then the conversation takes a turn, and then everybody’s sort of struggling. Do we hand this proposal that we had prepared when the conversation changed, either the gift amount changed or the project, something about something changed? So I don’t know. I think it’s fine to follow up with things. You may have shared documents in earlier conversations about the campaign. What about you? Do you bring documents to a solicitation?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Well, I rather like this donor discussion guide, which isn’t really a full-fledged document. It’s like a little infographic. It’s kind of an outline where you can easily point to things. And as I said before, it sort of puts the attention… You’re sitting in the room with someone, next to someone with magic markers. You can be writing on this big piece of paper. You can point to little phrases that call out what you’re doing so everybody can make sense of it. I rather like those, but I certainly don’t want to bring anything that’s going to take a lot of reading. I’m not fond of decks, of —

Amy Eisenstein:
Right, it’s not a pitch.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
… fancy decks and bringing an iPad and then showing your pitch deck. I mean, people talk about pitch decks. I don’t want to have a pitch deck.

Amy Eisenstein:
Right. You can have one photo, one outline of the blueprint, one page of statistics or something if you need, but that can be sent in advance if appropriate, or certainly afterwards, or it was likely shared at an earlier meeting. If they want more statistics, you can certainly follow up with it, or a budget or an outline or whatever. Do your materials based on what people’s needs are and what their requests are. Otherwise, have a conversation, and then you’ll feel your way into it.

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