The Asker: Remembering a Fundraising Luminary



We lost a fundraising legend—one of the great askers of all time—earlier this month: Jerry Panas, founder of Jerold Panas, Linzy and Partners and the author of numerous books on fundraising.

As a young journalist covering fundraising in the charitable sector, I got a call from Jerry in the early 1990s. “Kid,” he said, “I like what you’re doing. Why don’t we write a book together?”

I was flattered, but I never had time to work with Jerry because of my endless deadlines. In those days of my career, Jerry also wanted me to write a fundraising profile about him. “Nobody deserves it more than me,” he proclaimed.

Admittedly, that self-serving statement turned me off. But over the years I came to see Jerry’s contributions as what they were: Outstanding with a capital O.

Jerry was a giant in the fundraising profession. And I’m glad that I was finally able to write about his contributions, less than two years before he passed away.

My husband and I drove to Ridgefield, Connecticut, to visit Jerry in the home he shared with his wife Felicity, an avid gardener.

Jerry cared a lot about style, which I’d noticed many, many years ago when attending a house party that he threw during a conference of the Association of Fundraising Professionals in San Francisco. Jerry and Felicity lived in that city for some time in a beautiful home—I remember lots of white wood—with a crow’s nest at the top. As someone who once dreamed of working in the fashion industry, I could appreciate this aspect of Jerry’s personality.

When we visited him more recently in Connecticut, Jerry was, as always, immaculately dressed. He seemed annoyed, I noted with interest, by his wife’s small, yapping dogs. And having reached my late 50s, I was amused that he still called me “kid.”

He told me that he’d had a difficult relationship with his father, a Greek immigrant who ran restaurants. He left home at a young age, 14 as I recall, and never returned. “Don’t put that in the article,” he said, and I agreed. After all, I thought, this familial detail has nothing to do with fundraising, the focus of my article.

After my interview with Jerry in Connecticut, my husband, a very good photographer, took Jerry’s picture. Then the four of us went out to share a restaurant meal. It was late afternoon. Jerry Panas ordered an omelette.

During the meal, he smiled at me several times, a brilliant smile that left me thinking how handsome he still was. In reporting calls for my article about Jerry, I was struck by the many accolades I got from his clients, which included multiple overseas organizations. Another client was the Greek Orthodox church near New York’s World Trade Center, which was being rebuilt in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks and needed to raise money.

The leader of the church told me he needed a fundraiser who not only understood Greek heritage in America but was also a world-class expert. No one was more perfect than Jerry.

He set a high bar. As I look back at my long career as a reporter covering the nonprofit world, I’ll never forget being singled out by this singular fundraising expert who believed in my work.

Thank you, Jerry. 

Below is an excerpt from the article I wrote about Jerry Panas last year, looking at his 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.”