Take the Time to Ask

Ronald J. Schiller is founding partner of the Aspen Leadership Group and author of Belief and Confidence: Donors Talk about Successful Philanthropic Partnership.

Take the time to ask: Pay Attention to the Philanthropic Priorities of Individual Donors

For the most part, institutional fundraising departments separate “individual giving” from “corporate and foundation relations” or “institutional giving.” Staff members rarely move from one to the other, though chief development officers may come from either background.

Staff members who work with foundations spend as much time getting to know the philanthropic priorities of their prospective donors—the foundations—as they do getting to know the philanthropic priorities of the institutions they serve. Their principal objective is to identify matches—where foundation-funder and institutional-recipient priorities align such that, working together, donor and beneficiary can accomplish shared objectives.

Individual giving programs can benefit from applying some fundamental principles of “foundation relations” to their work with individuals and families.

Individuals Have Philanthropic Priorities Too

I recently asked a group of 10 fundraising leaders in a university advancement program to tell me their top three philanthropic priorities, for their personal giving. Every one was able to answer succinctly and within seconds. “Animal welfare, education and my church.” “Gay and lesbian rights, AIDS research, and the performing arts.” And so on.

How many development officers take time to have a detailed discussion with prospective donors about their philanthropic goals?

Part of the job of individual giving officers, of course, is to educate prospective donors about the priorities of an institution. Their foundation-relations counterparts do the same—whether program officers and foundation directors might be open to institutional priorities that don’t precisely align with a foundation’s stated priorities.

Foundation fundraisers, however, enter a gift discussion equipped with the knowledge of the giving priorities of the prospective donor. Individual giving officers may know whether their institution’s priorities appeal or do not appeal to their prospective donors, but how many start by asking their prospective donors to tell them about their family’s philanthropic priorities and values, whether related to the institution under discussion or not?

Starting the Conversation

The first visit with a prospective donor can be awkward, especially when that prospective donor has no history of giving to the institution represented by the person asking for the visit.

The wealthier an individual is known to be, the more likely they are to experience relentless requests for donations. Individual giving officers are not strangers to the conscious or sub-conscious defense mechanisms of such individuals and families. It is not unusual to have to make a promise such as, “Don’t worry, I won’t ask for a gift on this visit” in order to get in the door.

Once in the door, individual giving officers or volunteer fundraisers, often a bit nervous, start the conversation. This may include a few minutes of “getting to know you” chat, about how lovely the prospective donor’s house is, about the weather or about the donor’s children. But when the discussion turns to business, the obvious question from the prospective donor is, “why are you here?”

At this point, rather than jumping directly into sales mode, development officers have an opportunity to collect information from the prospective donor. This should not include asking a donor to give information that should be in the files, including information they’ve given to previous development officers and publicly available information. But it can go beyond asking about their recent experience as an audience member or patient or their last visit to campus.

Consider questions such as:

  • What are your, and your family’s, philanthropic priorities?
  • What organizations do you support, and why?
  • Could you tell me about the best giving experience you’ve ever had? The gift you’ve had the most satisfaction in making?

For philanthropic people, such questions are flattering, immediately establishing that the person asking considers them to be generous and giving people. Such questions also demonstrate an interest in the donor’s family and what they want to accomplish through their giving.

Usually, individual giving officers will find something in the answers to these questions that provides a natural opening to discussion about the institution they represent.

“You mentioned that you are supporting the after-school theater program in which your daughter is involved. Were you aware that we have a new student-run theater group on campus? Would you like me to help you get tickets?”

“You mentioned that you support the American Cancer Society because your father recently died of cancer. We have just recruited a new physician in our cancer center; may I get you some information on the exciting, cutting-edge work he is doing?”

Information Allows for Focused Deployment of Resources

The worst-case scenario is that, in asking donors about their philanthropic priorities, the giving officer learns that the donor’s philanthropic passions lie in areas not at all connected to the priorities of the institution represented. And this information helps the program focus resources elsewhere, until the priorities of either the institution or the donor change.

One of the biggest mistakes made in individual giving is chasing after wealthy people with no record of philanthropic intent. While development programs can’t afford to neglect non-philanthropic wealthy individuals altogether, they should be certain that those who are philanthropic receive priority attention. It is equally important to avoid focusing on those whose philanthropic intent is not aligned with the priorities of the institution. Every individual giving program, large or small, lacks sufficient resources to cultivate and solicit every identified prospective donor—they have to make choices. Foundation-relations officers focus on foundations whose giving most closely aligns with the priorities of the institution and individual giving officers should do the same.

More often than not, if donors already have an affiliation with an organization, if they are philanthropic and if giving officers take the time to listen to what the donors most want to accomplish through their philanthropy, there will be some area in which donor and institution can come together to do something extraordinary—something that neither could do without the other.

Philanthropic Partnership

When donors and institutions come together to accomplish shared objectives, everybody wins. The shared joy, in achieving results that matter to both, leads to deepened trust and mutual respect, and this in turn leads to increased philanthropy.

Relationships between foundations and the organizations they support often last for decades, as each depends on the other to fulfill their missions and visions. This philanthropic partnership is just as possible with individuals and families. Those who have philanthropic intent are likely to have a philanthropic mission and vision, not unlike that of a foundation.

Generous people may make a one-time gift to support an institution about which they care, whether the institution’s priorities align with theirs or not. But institutions that allow donors to meet their own personal objectives, by giving to society through the institution, rather than simply making a gift to the institution, are more likely to experience a lifetime of philanthropic involvement from that donor and that donor’s family.

It is just as important for a professional or volunteer fundraiser to understand the values and objectives of philanthropists and philanthropic organizations, as it is to understand the values and objectives of the institutions they represent. Foundations publish their philanthropic objectives, and individuals usually do not. But individuals and families who are philanthropic have usually given considerable thought to what they want to accomplish with their philanthropy. Take the time to ask!

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