A Fundraising Luminary Shares His Secrets of Attracting Wealthy Supporters

  Photo credit: H. Allen Irish

Photo credit: H. Allen Irish

Among the legions of wealthy and famous people solicited by legendary fundraiser Jerold Panas is one remarkable but reluctant donor: the former Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor.

The twice-divorced Baltimore socialite who sparked the love affair of the 20th century, causing King Edward VIII to relinquish his crown to marry her, was “certainly not beautiful. Hardly that,” Panas writes. Yet, he adds, “she had perhaps the most arresting features of anyone I’ve ever met.”

The Duchess, who died in 1986, taught Panas some valuable fundraising lessons—mostly what not to do as he sought a large gift on behalf of the American Hospital of Paris. As a trustee on the hospital’s board, the Duchess was completely unaware she was expected to make a financial contribution.

Panas’s job: asking the Duchess for money. Before he got up the nerve to do so, he visited her four times at the spectacular Paris villa the French government provided for her and the Duke after he left England. 

“I was afraid to talk with her about money,” he recalls. “I was frozen in a state of intimidating awe, just being in the presence of the Duchess. Have you ever had a prospect you’ve called on many times and you know you probably should have asked for the gift two visits prior?… It was happening to me.” 

The former Mrs. Simpson, he notes, was more of a taker than a giver. In addition to living in the elegant villa provided by the French government for next to nothing, her formidable wardrobe was provided gratis by Chanel. Why not? It was free advertising for the design house, and the Duchess was happy to oblige. 

Six weeks after Panas’s last visit, the Duchess finally gave. How much? He declines to say but hints the amount wouldn’t have made her a top donor at an American community college. 

One of the brightest lights in the development profession, Panas has written 19 books including Asking, which Amazon.com touts as “the bestselling fundraising book of all time.” He started his consulting firm, Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners, in 1968. Now in his 80s, Panas manages the Chicago firm from his Connecticut home while maintaining a busy schedule of speaking and teaching at, among other venues, the Institute for Charitable Giving, which he co-founded in 1991.

In 2014, Panas won the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ highest honor, the Chair’s Award, given by another veteran fundraiser, Bob Carter, the association’s immediate past chairman. In 35 years, the award has been given only 17 times.

“Jerry and I were competitors, but I always had enormous respect for him,” says Carter. Citing Panas’s contributions, he wrote to the consultant, “you have influenced philanthropy in a way no other fundraiser has.” 

Unlike other well-known fundraisers such as Kent Dove, now retired from his alma mater Indiana University, Panas’s enthusiasm for raising funds has never dimmed, despite the growing pressure on development officers, which has only increased since the Great Recession.

After building his companies and his fundraising reputation, Panas now has the luxury of raising money only for those causes he is most passionate about. One example is an ongoing campaign to raise at least $50 million to rebuild New York’s Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. The church was destroyed in the 2001 terrorist attacks. 

Overlooking the two fountains where the Twin Towers once stood, the sanctuary now under construction has a special appeal to Panas, the only son of a Greek immigrant father.

Searching for a fundraiser to guide the project, now within striking distance of its campaign goal, “we had to get the greatest in the world who can understand the importance of the immigrant story,” says Father Alexander Karloutsos, the priest who Panas has accompanied on many solicitations. “I thought Jerry would be the perfect fit.” 

Panas is “a guy who loves the business, he is a joy-filled fundraiser,” says Paul Edwards, a fellow instructor for more than two decades at the Institute for Charitable Giving. Panas, he adds, “worked in initial years through his own uncertainty and doubt about raising money.”

Ever the consummate fundraiser, Panas is, like most ambitious people, driven. And he is not without a few faults. “Nobody has ever accused me of being a great manager,” he admits. His firm, he says, “probably would have grown more if I had put a full-time manager in place rather than try to be the manager.”

Panas offers the following advice to fundraisers, based on his decades of experience:

It’s not about your organization or its needs. Fundraisers spend lots of time with other leaders on donor presentations, carefully mapping out the organization’s needs, but donors don’t give to needs, Panas says. Donors might make a token gift to meet a need because someone they know asks them, but they reserve their biggest contributions for opportunities that excite them.

That’s why it is so important for fundraisers to ask good questions and, above all, listen to what donors say about their interests and passions, then find a way to connect that information to the charitable cause. Yet few fundraisers are trained in the art of listening, Panas notes. On fundraising visits, he recommends that an organization’s representatives talk about 25 percent of the time, mostly asking questions and letting the potential donor do most of the talking. In that way, Panas says, fundraisers “listen the gift.” 

Dream big. Like other exceptional fundraisers, Panas urges nonprofits to come up with projects that go beyond their immediate needs with the potential to tap into donors’ dreams of doing something truly meaningful. That’s what he did as a longtime trustee at the Council of Independent Colleges when the organization held its first public information campaign to tout the benefits of private education.

“We’d never done anything like this, and we tended toward very modest academic titles like ‘Strengthening the Liberal Arts College,’ says Richard Ekman, the council’s chief executive. “But Jerry said, ‘You don’t want to be too modest. These colleges do a better job [than public universities], and the future of America is at stake.’

As a result, the council chose ‘Securing America’s Future’ as the tagline for its awareness campaign. “We gradually got used to this very grandiose idea, and nobody called us pompous idiots. So he was right,” Ekman says.

Go in person. With the rise of technology and people being bombarded with so much competing information, Panas concedes that it’s harder than ever to get face-to-face meetings with potential donors. But people never make their most generous contributions in response to letters, phone calls, emails or social media messages, he says. That’s why he believes fundraisers must use planning and innovation to get in front of prospective supporters if they want the largest gifts. 

“It is harder to get an appointment than it is to secure the gift,” Panas writes in Mega Gifts, another of his top-selling books. “Always remember: getting the appointment is 85 percent of getting the gift.”

One of the best ways Panas recommends for fundraisers to get meetings with potential donors is to have a friend of that person or another influential person request the appointment. It's helpful to make it clear that the individual opening the door is not going to ask for money. This person, he adds, is usually not the best solicitor for multiple reasons. 

Avoid taking donors to restaurants. “A meal—with all of the clang and clatter, table hopping, and irrelevant chatter—takes away measurably from the focus of the meeting,” Panas writes. It is much better to visit a potential donor in a quiet place such as a home or office where he or she is at ease and can devote full attention to the conversation. 

In cases where an office visit is frequently interrupted by phone calls and other work distractions, Panas says, I will say Would you prefer that I come back at another time?’ That gives a signal” that the potential donor is not paying adequate attention.

Don’t limit the number of people visiting donors. Many people believe that having more than two people visit a potential individual donor or couple is overwhelming, but Panas says he’s found the opposite to be true. He recommends taking three or four people as long as each one has a speaking role. 

“The prospective donor knows he’s in for a formidable time, but somehow seems to enjoy the fuss,” Panas writes. “He is impressed that so many important people are taking time to make the call. It must be an important program.” 

Believe in the cause and your ability. It almost goes without saying that a fundraiser needs to believe in the mission of the organization he or she represents, but what may be surprising is how much emphasis wealthy donors place on solicitors’ enthusiasm for the cause, Panas says.

“There needs to be a near-militant belief in the mission,” one affluent donor tells Panas. “When someone calls on me, I can tell if there’s a passion for the organization. I can actually feel it. If the fundraiser isn’t deeply committed, how can they expect me to be?” 

Equally important is believing in one’s personal ability to secure large gifts, Panas says. “Engage the extraordinary power of the possible,” he writes. “Make a giant leap of faith. If you’re fairly certain you won’t get a gift, odds are you won’t.”

Remember to ask. Panas has a good story about a well-known minister he knew. The minister was a faithful visitor to one of his congregants, a hospitalized woman who was affluent, childless, and spoke often of all she hoped to do for the church. 

A month after the woman passed away, the minister heard from her attorney, who also happened to be a member of the church.  The woman had left her entire estate to her husband’s alma mater and nothing to the church.

What happened? The president of the husband’s university had visited the sick woman at the hospital and asked her for a donation.  “That’s all he did. He asked,” the minister told Panas. “It hadn’t occurred to me in all the time I had known this lady and in all my visits, I never asked for a gift. I took that for granted.”

Not asking “remains one of the major stumbling blocks of the fundraiser,” Panas writes. “You must ask for the order! It is absolutely amazing what you don’t get when you don’t ask.”

Focus on your board and staff. “Boards are not as strong as they used to be in terms of affluence and influence,” Panas says. In his view, board members should be recruited because they exemplify the four W’s: work, wealth, wisdom, and wallop, which Panas defines as the ability to influence a charity’s constituents.

Unfortunately, he says, “I see weaker boards than I did six or eight years ago, but the board is an organization’s future and its destiny.”

Few charitable organizations, Panas says, work as hard as they should, under the direction of the chief executive, to identify and recruit the most capable trustees. Instead, he says, “the organization gets the board it deserves rather than the board it ought to have.”

Also important to an organization’s fundraising success is getting the right employees in place, with several wealthy donors telling Panas that they make their largest gifts only after making sure an organization is properly staffed and managed.

“Major donors,” he writes, “respond to staff. They give to vital, strong, dynamic staffs. And they make gifts far beyond what they might have initially considered.”

Choose the right recognition. While many donors insist that they don’t want public attention for their gifts, they do appreciate some form of acknowledgment and for others to know what they have done, Panas says. 

He recalls visiting the office of one wealthy donor who told him that recognition was unnecessary, but the man had nevertheless covered his wall with numerous certificates commemorating his donations and board service. 

The key is to find a way of thanking donors that’s meaningful to them, Panas says. For example, one woman who gave generously to aid an addiction treatment facility was thrilled when the organization suggested naming it after her brother, who had died of an overdose.

In another case, a couple who gave a large gift to a high school wanted to name the institution after their teenage son who was killed in an auto accident. But they hesitated because their daughter was a still a student there, fearing that she would not welcome the extra attention her brother’s name would bring. The solution for the family was initially to make the gift anonymously and subsequently rename the school after the daughter graduated. 

Panas also advocates the “rule of sevens,” the idea of finding seven ways to thank donors for one large gift. “I don’t believe in formula-guaranteed answers to fundraising,” he writes. “But this one really works. I promise.”

One of the most effective ways to thank people for big donations made early in a fundraising campaign is to show them how their gift influenced others to contribute, similar to the way yeast causes bread to rise, Panas says.

“Early gifts are the very best and most important,” he writes. “They have a multiplying impact and establish the pattern for gifts to follow… remember EMILY: Early Money Is Like Yeast.”