Fundraisers: Stop Talking About Your Organization. Start Listening to Donors

 photo: pathdoc/shutterstock

 photo: pathdoc/shutterstock

All too often, fundraisers and charitable organizations ignore or even reject the proven practices that unlock the largest gifts from philanthropic individuals and families. That’s why most nonprofits are only realizing a fraction of what they could be raising, according to Ron Schiller, a seasoned fundraiser who has been in four billion-dollar-plus fundraising drives.

One big (but constantly repeated) mistake, he said, is spending lots of time, effort and money focusing only on the organization’s needs, campaign goals and timeline, and then showcasing those needs in slick capital campaign brochures, videos, and other materials—before even talking with donors.

“We start with the organization’s needs and timelines,” but the vast majority of top donors, especially the wealthiest ones, aren’t motivated by the campaign end date, and they are much more motivated when an organization’s needs mesh with their own objectives, said Schiller, who recently led a session at the annual conference of the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners in Baltimore.

As evidence, Schiller cited recent studies of high-net-worth donors, half of whom have formulated a specific strategy for giving to the causes they care about. Research has also found that 78 percent of such donors give according to their own personal values; only 6 percent said they give in response to a compelling pitch.

Yet few charities take the time to start a relationship with potential donors by asking them the simple question of what they want to accomplish with their philanthropy, said Schiller, who also leads the Aspen Leadership Group, a recruiting company specializing in fundraising positions.

He gave the example of Ann Ziff, a philanthropist who gave $30 million to the Metropolitan Opera, among other gifts to cultural, educational, and environmental causes through her family foundation. Ziff told Schiller that no charity had ever asked her about her overall personal philanthropic goals and what she wants to achieve in giving.

As the former chief fundraiser in a $2.3 billion campaign for the University of Chicago, Schiller described how his colleagues took the time to learn what an affluent couple wanted to accomplish with their contributions. Learning that they were passionate about helping children in Chicago’s South Side, where the husband grew up, the university was able to craft a plan for the university’s medical center to partner with the donors to better serve South Side kids. The result: three eight-figure gifts from the couple.

Other glaring errors that Schiller has seen in his long fundraising career are emergency fundraising appeals by organizations on the brink of closure. Donors, he said, “don’t want to build a state room on the Titanic.” Nonprofits stress how needy they are at their peril, he said. The most successful fundraising organizations, Schiller said, are those offering exciting opportunities for donors to achieve what matters to them and the organization. As for the term ‘needy,’ he added, “take that word out of your appeals. Stress mutual benefit over indebtedness.”

Perhaps the biggest mistake charity leaders make is failing to allow donors to become true partners in their work, Schiller said. Instead, too many organizations treat fundraising as moving money from those who have it to an organization that needs it. Many, he added, fear giving the donor too much influence and even treat their most generous supporters dismissively, as if their only role is to give money for the nonprofit leaders’ far more important work.  

They see the fundraiser’s role as a solicitor, Schiller said, when they would do far better to see that person as a “facilitator, enabling philanthropic people to give with confidence, so that organizations and donors can accomplish something that neither could accomplish without the other.”