The Heritage Foundation hosts the 35th Annual Resource Bank meetings and conference in Colorado Springs on Thursday, April 26, 2012.  Photo by Shealah Craighead

The Education of a Fundraiser

As we were getting this issue ready to go to print, our friend and colleague John Von Kannon passed away. John was not merely a good fundraiser for our causes. He was also a teacher for the entire conservative movement, training thousands of fundraisers in the art of connecting with donors’ passions. John shared his wisdom broadly so that the conservative movement as a whole—not just the particular organizations for whom he worked—would become stronger. And it did. There can be no substitute for having him with us still, but we are lucky to have a few of his lessons written down. We present here John’s brief essay sharing lessons from a lifetime of fundraising. Thank you, John. We will miss you.


TOO OFTEN PEOPLE THINK that fundraising is about asking rich people for money. Most books and manuals on the subject usually say that “the ask” is the most important part of fundraising. If we’re splitting hairs, I suppose it is—and for the rather insipid reason those manuals and books say so: If you don’t ask, they won’t give. There’s a flaw in this logic, though: Even if you ask, most people won’t give. Asking might be the most important thing in fundraising, but it’s also the most basic thing. You might as well say that breathing is the most important thing in life. The statement is true but rather meaningless, right?

If you’re a good fundraiser then everything you’ve said to a potential donor before the “the ask” renders the ask itself redundant. At least, that’s been my experience. I’ve asked plenty of people (thousands in fact) over the years for money. Very few gave. Even fewer gave me money twice.

Nevertheless, I am a very successful fundraiser, a profession that is a bit like baseball. Whether you’re a good hitter or a bad hitter, everyone in baseball gets out more than he get on base. We’re all batting well under .500. And while there are many things that separate the good fundraisers from the bad, that the good ones ask and the bad ones don’t is not one of them.

Step-by-step fundraising guides that read like a cooking recipe are a dime a dozen. What’s often missing is the big picture. What I want to do in this article is offer some lessons that I have learned from a 42-year career­—an approach that has given me a tremendous amount of success in the fundraising business. The lessons I want to share are these:

  1. Find people who share your organization’s beliefs and then encourage them to join you.
  2. Donors are people who spend a small amount of time writing checks to charities (their donor role) and most of their lives living and working. They have lots of interests and passions.
  3. You can learn about your donors’ interests and passions if you are curious enough to ask questions and then truly listen to what they say.
  4. Donors don’t care so much about your needs, but often respond to stories about problems, solutions, goals, and dreams.
  5. Spending time with people is much more productive than looking for that elusive silver bullet.

These lessons have served me well in a fundraising career that has spanned four decades, raised a billion dollars, and has provided me with a front-row seat in building one of the world’s foremost nonprofit networks—the American conservative movement—into a model of effective donor outreach.

How did I learn these things?

Learning by Doing

In the late 1960s, Indiana University became the first in the country to elect a student body president who was a member of the radical Students for a Democratic Society. Two years later it became the first to elect a Black Panther Party member. A group of us students joined R. Emmett (Bob) Tyrrell, Jr., who founded a campus magazine, now called The American Spectator, to provide an alternative point of view on politics and policy by combining serious writing with satire. We were funded primarily by selling copies at 20 cents a pop (up from 15 cents for the first issue) and $10 to $25 ads from bars, restaurants, and a local florist with libertarian tendencies.


Me: I don’t know anything about raising money.

Bob: You’re a likable guy. Just go see people.

After a while I learned not to talk so much, but to bring up one issue on campus and ask what they thought about it. Then listen.

So I began literally knocking on doors in Bloomington, Indiana, starting with the florist, of all people. I carefully explained the cost of printing, rent, and the necessary, but modest, salaries. The first week I made 20 calls and went zero for 20, as I recall, perhaps not so quickly realizing that my need (to pay the rent and salaries) wasn’t theirs. So I went out the next week and told people about how we are fighting the radicals on campus—some of whom actually had set off an explosive in the library, destroying books on military history—and training young conservative writers. My success rate climbed to about one in three.

The checks were small—$25, $50, maybe $100 each. After a while I learned not to talk so much, but to bring up one issue on campus and ask what they thought about it. Then listen. Then ask for a check to help us meet the concerns that the person had expressed and that we shared.

Even at this early stage, I had already figured out that conversations about values and goals are more productive than talking about financial needs. The new challenge was to identify people with similar values. One problem in 1972 was that there were very few people who identified themselves as conservative donors. There wasn’t anything remotely on the scale of what we know today as the conservative nonprofit world. On the flip side, there wasn’t much competition for conservative dollars either.

So my next visit was with M. Stanton Evans, then-editor of the Indianapolis News, who had been very helpful in identifying writers for the magazine and giving us publicity on his editorial page. I asked if he knew anyone who might like to support us financially. Stan led me to the office of insurance entrepreneur John Burkhart, who had a reputation for generosity to Republican and conservative causes. I got an appointment, had a great conversation and received a check for $1,000. I believe it was John who introduced me to the head of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, who gave me a list of Chamber members he thought would be interested and allowed me to use his name. I collected a few more $500 and $1,000 checks.

Another conservative organization during that time was the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), which organized lectures on campuses and hosted summer schools teaching conservative and libertarian philosophy. ISI had a regional office in Indianapolis then headed by a young Southern gentleman named Richard Hines who was most gracious. He allowed me to use his office when in town and urged me to write a letter to his fellow South Carolinian, Roger Milliken, the highly successful textile entrepreneur who supported National Review with advertisements for his carpets. I wrote the letter. A few days later a check arrived for $5,000. An interesting thought struck me at this point: This was fun!

Next in line? Henry Salvatori, a major conservative donor. The Salvatori family had immigrated to America from Italy when Henry was a young boy, and he went on to become an engineer who made a fortune in the oil fields. He moved to Southern California where he supported Republican and conservative candidates, along with National Review and ISI. (Salvatori was the man who convinced Barry Goldwater to allow Ronald Reagan to give a nationally televised fundraising speech on behalf of the Goldwater presidential campaign in October 1964. Reagan did and the speech raised a million dollars. That speech also launched Reagan’s political career.)

OK, so how did I get to meet Henry Salvatori?

Well, I also knew that Salvatori was a major donor to ISI and close with its president, Vic Milione. I had been a member of ISI since my freshman year, so I called Vic and asked if he thought Salvatori might be interested in supporting the Spectator. Vic agreed to call Salvatori on my behalf and urged me to also enlist help from ISI trustee Henry Regnery. Regnery was the son of a Chicago textile manufacturer and a Renaissance man. He had studied engineering and economics, helped start Human Events, the first of the three existing conservative publications. He started and ran the Henry Regnery Company, a conservative book publisher, and was a member of the American Conservatory of Music and the Chicago Literary Club.

These two incredibly kind men got me an appointment with Henry Salvatori. My first meeting with a millionaire! I nervously booked a plane ticket to Los Angeles. I scouted out where his office was located and booked a nearby room at the Travelodge across the street from the Mormon Temple so this country boy from Indiana would have a landmark to find his way back to the motel.

I entered Mr. Salvatori’s office and was greeted by a sweet, if intense, man in a cloud of cigarette smoke. I had written and memorized a list of talking points, but before I could say a word he bombarded me with questions. What is your background? What is Tyrrell like? What does Bill Buckley think of what you are doing? How does your magazine differ from National Review? What kind of reception are you getting on campuses? How do you find writers? What is your budget?

Then Mr. Salvatori said: Well, I don’t have a lot of money now. I just gave $250,000 to Sam Yorty’s campaign [for mayor of Los Angeles.] Would $10,000 help?

He had the check written on the spot and handed it to me. Our entire annual budget was about $120,000.

At this moment, I decided that fundraising was for me.

The education of a fundraiser continued for me days later after returning to Indiana. Next stop: Chicago. No airplane ride needed. (I drove the four hours from Bloomington.) And no luxurious Travelodge. (I slept on a sofa in a friend’s apartment near O’Hare Airport.) I remember well an early-morning meeting with a low-level executive at Hart Schaffner Marx, an American manufacturer of tailored menswear. Attempting to demonstrate our influence, I handed him a binder with news clippings. Within minutes he was sound asleep, binder resting comfortably on his chest.

That same day, I met with the McDonald’s Corporation. I was proud of my pre-meeting insights about McDonald’s: Founder and CEO Roy Kroc was a real entrepreneur. They paid minimum wage which then, as now, was under attack for being unjust. And they made lots of money. All of this suggested that they should be interested in supporting us. Their response to my description of the Spectator: You are supporting free enterprise on campuses? Well, we give money to the Black P. Stone Nation [an infamous street gang in the Chicago area that formalized as a Black Nationalist group].

I was speechless. In fact, I briefly considered a career change. I wondered why a corporation would act in such a way.

Chalk up two more early lessons: 1) corporations don’t always act in their own self-interest; and 2) avoid thinking that tells you that someone “should” support your cause.

John Von Kannon talks with Heritage Foundation trustee Brian Tracy and his wife Barbara.

Whether the meeting was successful, after each one I would replay each conversation in my mind. What did I do well? What should I have done differently? Did this meeting provide general lessons, or was this person just an outlier (the sleeper at Hart Schaffner Marx)? And I took notes so when I saw that person again I would have a firm memory of what happened, what interested the person, what he was like. Over time, I could perhaps learn some general lessons. (I later learned that these meeting notes have a name: call reports.)

It was at this stage in my very short career that the realization about “the ask” dawned on me: While asking for money is important, it is even more important to make the case for support. And I eventually learned that the case for support varies from donor to donor, and that’s OK as long as the donor’s interests are in line with the organization’s mission. The case for support is based on the mission, as well as stories that describe activities, results, and aspirations. And it is based on what the donor is interested in. In the case of The American Spectator, the mission was fighting radical ideas on campus and promoting conservative ideas on campus and training young conservative writers.

That’s what the donors wanted to know. And over time I learned the best way to tell them what they wanted to know.

Entering the Big Leagues—And Striking Out

After several years at the magazine, I was ready for a change, so I approached Ed Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation, then a 7-year-old organization that was re-defining the role of think tanks. The universe of conservative organizations was still fairly small and Ed and I had worked together over the years. (In fact, Ed, Vic Milione, Don Lipsett of Hillsdale College, and I met with some frequency to share fundraising ideas and strategies.) Ed hired me. In 1980 Heritage had a $3.7 million budget provided by a few major gifts, a couple hundred $1,000-and-above gifts and 120,000 smaller-dollar donors who gave through direct mail.

Coming to Washington, D.C., from a little magazine in Bloomington, Indiana, was a heady experience. We had a large enough budget that I could stay in hotels instead of on friends’ couches. I could take airplanes and rent cars instead of driving my ancient stick-shift Volvo for four or five hours a trip. I started thinking big. And I began forgetting some of the early lessons.

One of The Heritage Foundation trustees at the time was Jack Eckerd, founder and CEO of the large eponymously-named drug store chain. He had supported Heritage for two years, for a total of $20,000. I persuaded Phil Truluck, Heritage’s Executive Vice President who knew Jack well, to go to Florida and ask Jack for $1 million. After all, Jack was rich and a trustee who knew us well. What could go wrong? Phil, believing me to be the expert, dutifully went, made the case for support and asked for $1 million. Phil reported that Jack laughed in his face and said: “I’m not going to give you $1 million.”

How many lessons can we learn from this disaster? Don’t ask someone to make a gift that equals 25 percent of your budget. Don’t fall back on the “You have money; we want money; give us some” approach. Don’t pull a dollar figure out of your hat, but think what would be reasonable for a $10,000 donor who knows you well. Clearly, we learned that asking a donor for 100 times his previous donation wasn’t the correct calibration. Don’t forget to learn before you ask: What does Jack like about us and what would he like us to do more of?

The real lesson for me: Don’t create an embarrassing catastrophe for the guy who does your salary reviews.

A silver lining to the Jack Eckerd story: The next year he and other trustees were discussing office space problems facing our growing organization and decided to purchase a second building. Jack wrote a check for $100,000. Phil is convinced that had we not placed a large figure in front of Jack earlier, this gift would not have happened. Perhaps. But what I do know is that a fundraising request for almost any amount works better if it is tied to something that the donor is interested in, or, even better, passionate about.

When fundraisers talk with donors about their plan and how they will execute it, they don’t inspire. When they talk about their dream, why they exist, they can connect with people who share that dream.

As these stories illustrate, successful fundraising involves “what” to do and “how” to do it, but the real focus is the “why” we do things.

Start with ‘Why’

Advertising executive and author Simon Sinek tells us in Start with Why:

There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it. When I mention manipulation, this is not necessarily pejorative; it’s a very common and fairly benign tactic. In fact, many of us have been doing it since we were young. “I’ll be your best friend” is the highly effective negotiating tactic employed by generations of children to obtain something they want from a peer. And as any child who has ever handed over candy hoping for a new best friend will tell you, it works.

When fundraisers talk with donors about their plan and how they will execute it, they don’t inspire. When they talk about their dream, why they exist, they can connect with people who share that dream. Most fundraisers focus on the former and their causes suffer because of that.

In order to inspire gifts you must understand why someone would give money to your cause. It recognizes that fundraising is not a “win-lose” proposition but one where both the fundraiser and the person giving win by knowing that they have advanced a shared goal. This insight means that you must think about others as well as yourself and do so not in a manipulative way (benign or otherwise) but with a true sense of empathy. This approach also results in great relationships and often even deep friendships.

Over the past few years there has been a lot of talk in the fundraising world about “building relationships” and it’s obvious that relationships are important. But why do you establish relationships with your donors? To understand your shared values so you can create scenarios with two winners. Too often fundraisers act as if relationships are simply an activity, a technique built, perhaps within a “moves management structure.” Too many fundraisers focus solely on the process.

Several years ago I was visiting a longtime donor in Fort Lauderdale. She is a generous donor to many other organizations as well. Over lunch she said that a downside of her generosity is that she is inundated by requests for support by mail throughout the year and with requests for meetings in the winter months when so many fundraisers invade South Florida. She told me about a particular young lady whose name I recognized as an attendee at a fundraising seminar I had given on the importance of relationships. The young lady said that she would be visiting Florida and asked for an appointment. Our longtime donor replied: “I am just not going to take on any new organizations.” The response from the fundraiser was: “Oh, I am not coming to ask for money. I want to build a relationship!”

Checking boxes is not building relationships. Much of what you do in the world of fundraising is focused on process: database management, hiring and training, board development, as well as all sorts of techniques of benign manipulation. Those things are important and you should learn them. But if studied alone, they miss what I believe is the essence of our business. If you are to be a truly successful fundraiser you must understand donors as people, what they need, what they feel, what interests them. You must learn to understand why people give.

Donors are people too, and people have many interests. Our job is to discover those common interests. Leave the judging and the politicking to the pundits.

Donors Are People, Too

I am a philosophical and political conservative and I hope that this advice will be especially useful to my colleagues in the conservative movement. The donors I work with are motivated to give to the organizations that promote conservative values or policies or to oppose Left-liberal policies. But that’s just part of the “why.” Donors who are motivated by these values have many options of causes to support within the conservative movement. Which means that even with my four decades of understanding of what motivates conservative donors I still have a lot of work to figure out the “why” for my particular organization.

At the same time, most people are not one dimensional. Even those of us who care deeply about political and policy issues care about our communities, our churches, a particular disease, our schools, and our fellow man. So do many of the people who support us. The key is to motivate their financial support through inspiration.

In late June 2014 the liberal political commentator Lawrence O’Donnell returned to the air on MSNBC after a car accident sidelined him for 75 days. Describing his harrowing accident, O’Donnell told his viewers: “The first words I saw when I rolled into the hospital was the name David H. Koch,” who with his brother, Charles, are major donors to conservative and libertarian ideas and candidates, making them the bête noir of Left-leaning political observers. He went on: “I agree with Harry Reid’s critique of the Koch brothers’ contributions to American politics, but that is not the only thing they contribute to.” O’Donnell concluded, “You can be outraged by what the Koch brothers do with their money in politics and you can appreciate what they contribute to hospitals and medical research, and you can do that at the same time and still retain an ability to function. And so, yes, I feel some gratitude to David Koch.”

Lesson? Donors are people too, and people have many interests. Our job is to discover those common interests. Leave the judging and the politicking to the pundits.

My passion is to promote conservative ideas to return America to the vision of our Founders. Most books on fundraising aren’t written for those who share this passion. Alan Factor is a good friend and highly successful fundraiser. At lunch one day he said: “John, I have figured you out. You aren’t a fundraiser. You are a conservative who raises money.” At first I was put off by Alan’s remark, but on reflection I realized that he was right. While my job includes countless hours spent on “what” and “how” activities, my real contribution is figuring out why people give. I hope you will make that task the central activity of your fundraising career, too.

Mr. Von Kannon oversaw The Heritage Foundation’s development operations for over 30 years. Before coming to Heritage, he helped found The American Spectator. He also served as Vice President of the Pacific Legal Foundation for two years.