Major Donor Fundraising in 10 Slippery Steps

Everything I know about major donor fundraising I owe to Rachel, who headed up a remarkably successful fundraising department. Surveying an impressive room at No.10 Downing Street, stuffed full of millionaire potential donors, she hissed in my ear, “Okay, which one of you bastards is going to give me a million”. It took me years before I twigged she was paraphrasing Shirley Conran’s start to ‘Lace’. Now after years with the International Fundraising Consultancy I am still in awe of her.

Back in her office, Rachel, channelling the heroines in the bonkbusters lining her shelf, was determined to have it all, feet on desk and bottles of champagne clinking every time she opened the drawers. Below I have taken some liberties in summing up the main ideas behind her major donor fundraising strategy.

  1. “I just love the smell of wealthy people”  

Rachel loved everything about wealthy people: their hair, complexion, teeth – even their apparent air of condescension. But to many people in this sector they represent the enemy who have caused the very problems we try to fix and in whose world they would feel uncomfortable. If you are going to raise megabucks that attitude needs a 180 and fast.

Rachel dressed professionally “It’s Chanel lite, darling,” did her hair and got her teeth fixed (they had been worrying her). As she said, “Above all, you should be in your element, confident and engaging.”

  1. Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance 

This phrase was stuck on her wall in caps – need I say more?

So, plan your major donor strategy. Set out the research, think through the engagement events, then how you are going to develop the relationships and consider the ‘ask’. Especially “the ask” – who is going to ask, when, where and, crucially, for how much. Set out who does what, when, over the next three years. More on all this later…

  1. “Network like Nigel…”

I never did figure out who Nigel was, but we all live in an age of mega data which, as every nerd riding a unicorn knows, is a pure gold mine. Yes, we have regulations but if you can’t quote them at the drop of a tiara then why are you doing this job? Yes, you can research your prey, I mean target market, and no you probably don’t need to look at anyone in your donor base as you will most likely have been asking them for nickels and dimes, and a request for half a million could be fatal.

The afore-mentioned Nigel grew up knowing everyone in his circle and quite a few other circles too, but you are just going to have to do it the hard way. There are only six degrees of separation between you and Mr Darcy, Poldark or whatever shirtless… Anyway, think about everyone you know, including the trustees. Google them and other Boards they sit on, etc. so you can bring them a list and innocently ask, “Do you know anyone on this list?” Otherwise, they just say, “I don’t know anyone”. If I had a dollar for everyone who has said that to me, I could take my shirt off too.

Then seek introductions and work them fastidiously. Look at all the people thanked in similar organisations reports and accounts. At this data-gathering stage seek advice not donations and doors will open. Pass through them quickly – they won’t stay open for long. Cancel that holiday you shouldn’t have booked it then anyway.

Join every prestigious club going and work the rooms. The people in Chanel will be glad someone interesting has come to talk to them. PPPPPP – doesn’t it just.

  1. Getting to know all about your potential major donor

You will be asking your potential donor face to face for a significant sum of money so find out how else they give; maybe through a trust, company or private office etc. You should avoid that route at all costs and one of the best ways of doing this is to invite them to see your work in action. Nothing is more heart-rending and donation-inducing than witnessing the problem first-hand and experiencing the solution. But I get ahead of myself and a visit is usually the step after your potential major donor has learnt a little about your case for support.

  1. Ridic prestigious venues

Rachel knew from experience that nothing gets a ‘yes’ to an invite faster than a request by a very prestigious host asking you to come to a ridiculously prestigious venue, preferably their own house. A Royal Palace (well not all of them), No.10 or 11 Downing Street (though the Maybot did abandoned such events they will be back), Lancaster House, the House of Lords tea-room etc. and what about the boardrooms of relevant companies or the impressive Livery Companies?

Rachel’s letters accompanying her invitation cards were never sent without a national celebrity’s name being virtually embossed prominently in the text. Rachel always went for a dozen Patrons “If you only have one, they are never on the right continent.” She loved events in celebs own houses, “Stay there whilst I snoop in the toilet and give their bedroom the once over”, “Ooh, you’ll never believe the soap they use and… “ 

  1. “Events, dear boy, events” 

History being rather too flexible for comfort, I am reliably informed (by Wikipedia) that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan didn’t say that, though it has gone down in history as about all he did say.

Once you have No.5 set up, then the event runs something like this:

  1. The host says why she supports the charity.
  2. The CEO gives the charity 101 (5 mins max).
  3. The star worker talks about the work that needs funding.
  4. Three children (or equivalent) stand up and break people’s hearts.
  5. You stand up and ask them to open the envelopes your kids are handing round. Take out the form and tick a box then put the card back in the envelope and hand it back – right then and there. No one is allowed to take an envelope home.
  6. Break for expensive canapes and lashings of champagne. “Don’t expect millionaires to enjoy cardboard and dishwater, darling”.
  7. Circulate and chat to everyone. Then before your home team is allowed to go home note down all they have learnt.

Okay, since asked, on the card it says something like:

  1. Please keep me in touch with the campaign.
  2. I would like to visit and see the work.
  3. I would like to talk to the CEO about a donation.
  4. Name and preferred contact method.

7. “You’ll never eat lunch in this town again” 

Don’t follow Julia Phillips or Rachel’s habit and drink that first glass of champagne. That’s the one that does it not the second, blurred or frowth. Don’t stuff yourself with canapes whilst you circulate and network either. If you can’t remember your icebreakers write them down but don’t forget to embark on the charitable giving discussion and personal stuff. Don’t break the ice and then skate off.

  1. “What are your intentions Col Davenport?”

It’s all a bit like courting – at some stage the question must be popped. Rachel said, “Never on the first date” but I had my suspicions. “Wait”, she would say, “and you will have a clear, if sometimes subtle, indication they are ready to give”.

Having said that, without the deadlines associated with a capital appeal, many major donor programmes just collapse as no one will ever consider it’s the right time to ask. The fear of asking can be paralysing. After a while it seems far too late and the potential donor believes that they have been of serious benefit to you by gracing your events with their presence. After all, you haven’t said otherwise. On the other hand, sometimes they just think you are wasting their valuable time.

  1. “Will you… Or won’t you Mr Darcy?”

There is a lot of debate about who is the best person to ask. Rachel thought it should be her and she was probably right as she was ace at it. However, your CEO or Chair of the Board could be right too. The question to ask is whether or not they have the guts to, can they actually ask a wealthy person for a major donation. I have seen more than one arrogant CEO demand the role then fluff the ask repeatedly and sink the whole campaign. I was always told the best person to ask was someone in the target peer group who had already given substantially. By the way, if you have that person and you are running a capital campaign then they should probably be the Chair of your major donor committee.

Think about where this should happen. Probably not in their office, though that may be inevitable, and probably not over lunch (too much can go wrong), though, again, that may be the only chance you have. Maybe it’s best to do it on your premises where you can control the ask.

Start with small talk. Then remind them of the heart-breaking issue – ask for a significant sum and shut up! Wait for them to respond and ride out the social tension welling up inside you. If they say, “No” see if they will split the total over two years. If it’s still a “no” refer them to your gift chart.

  1. Finishing School…

As any fule kno say, “Thank you!” and mean it, but then ask how the money will be paid and suggest a date by when it would be useful (that’s your chase-date sorted). Remember what the Arab’s say, “Trust in Allah but tether your camel.”

There you go! I hope you enjoyed these tips for a successful major donor fundraising strategy and now know exactly which “rich bastard” to approach and how to do it.

John Baguley, Chair International Fundraising Consultancy