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What Does it Take to Have a Successful Fundraising Program?

by John Von Kannon
June 01, 2004

1. Pay Attention   

Several years ago, a Heritage donor and I were having lunch and he said, “I like the Boy Scouts and I like the Red Cross, but I really like Heritage."

 I asked him why. His response, “Because you pay attention to me.”

Paying attention. Some call it “relationship building.” The problem with the term “relationship building” is that it sounds like a process: check the boxes, fill in the blanks and collect the money. Getting to know donors is not a simple, run-through-the-motions process. It’s about paying attention and it teaches you a few important things.

It  teaches you how to ask. The details of the approach differ with each donor. Some donors don’t like to be asked for money. Others don’t mind being asked and many don’t give unless they are asked. Several donors give only when we are together, so I make sure to see them several times a year.

Paying attention also shows you what they like. Learn what interests them and what doesn’t. Don’t make the mistake that all of us have made, which is to ask for money for a new project that you think is important unless you have some reason to believe that the donor will think it important as well. But more than being important, how does your project tug his heartstrings? How will it help him achieve something important—important to him, not just you?

And avoid what you and your donors disagree on. Some people object to this, calling it manipulative. This isn’t manipulation. It’s common sense sensitivity. If you know that a donor disagrees with you on free trade, you don’t ask him to support your free trade project.

2. Prioritize and Plan

At Heritage we have a number of people who call on donors. Each of us puts down in writing the purpose of each donor meeting. For the vast majority of meetings, we write down no dollar sign. Mostly we spend time building relationships, trying to understand what will tug the heartstrings, paying attention.

But there is a problem with this approach. Paying attention and acting on what you learn can’t be done if you only see your donors once a year when you are asking for a gift. You need to see them when you aren’t asking as well. How do you do that if you’re both CEO and chief fundraiser? Bite the bullet and figure out what you want your organization to be. Then figure out what you must focus on to get it there.

That will most likely mean that you give up some things you really like to do. And even some things you’re pretty good at. I’m a pretty good proposal writer, and really enjoy writing proposals, but haven’t written one in five years. We decided that if we’re going to take the development department where it needs to go, I have to focus on other things.

You may need to bring someone on to help with fundraising. Or you may need to bring someone on to do other things so you can focus on fundraising. This is a big decision for you, your organization, and for the conservative movement.

3. Pass It Down

Start a legacy program. When the current generation of senior citizens passes away, there will be a $50 trillion transfer of wealth. Much of this money, of course, will go to children and grandchildren. A huge portion will go to charities. Is your organization in line for any of this? I don’t know many conservative organizations that are working legacy gifts hard. My fear is that all of this money will go to the other side purely by default. But if you pay attention to your donors and act on what you learn, you will build real relationships that will result in more money for your annual fund, more money for special projects and growth, and set the stage for legacy gifts.

Wills and bequests are easy, and that’s how 75 to 80 percent of legacy gifts are made. Another option to consider is to become familiar with DonorsTrust (www.donorstrust.org) and its affiliate Donors Capital Fund (www.donorscapitalfund.org)and steer your donors there. DonorsTrust is a public charity formed to promote conservative values. The organization offers donors a variety of giving options -- cash, stock, property -- all through donor-advised accounts, and without cost to you. If donors have a windfall, if they want a tax deduction now, but to spread the gifts out over time, the donor-advised funds at  DonorsTrust can be of real help to them.

DonorsTrust is  perfect for people who have highly appreciated securities, especially in a privately held corporation. If they set up a foundation, there are IRS-imposed limits on giving stock. Because DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund are public charities, the limits disappear. If you have a donor with this problem, you can help them solve a problem. That’s paying attention and acting on what you learn.

4. Perform, Perform, Perform

The best personal relationships in the world won’t work— or won’t work for very long— if your organization doesn’t perform, if it doesn’t meet its mission, or if donors don’t believe that your mission is important or relevant to them. Presumably all of your donors share your mission and vision. They want to solve the same problems that you are solving, so give them what they’re paying for—performance. If we do that right, the chances of getting the big gift go up dramatically.  

John Von Kannon is the Vice President and Treasurer, Development at The Heritage Foundation. In that position, he oversees the Heritage development operations. He is former Publisher of The American Spectator and also served as Vice President of the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento.   


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