The Most Common Errors When Soliciting Major Donors

we need you January 4, 2016 By: Kristin Clarke, CAE

Avoid these missteps when you reach out to potential donors for their financial support of your important nonprofit initiatives.

Support from major donors is critical to nonprofit organizations if they are to advance their missions. But fundraising is a difficult and often delicate task, and missteps are common. Here, longtime nonprofit fundraiser Curtis Deane shares the most common mistakes he sees leaders and their fundraising teams make with potential donors.

1. They don’t ask for the gift. Ironically, this is the most common mistake made, according to Deane. “Most people don’t like to ask for money, so they talk about the organization, the issue the gift will support, and the wonderful benefits of programs, but they never actually say, ‘Will you consider a gift of $10,000 to support this program?’”

2. They don’t ask for enough money. “This is the second-most-common mistake,” says Deane. “With good donor research, you should be able to ask for a gift that inspires and challenges the donor, rather than gives the donor an easy out. Inherently, though, people don’t like to ask for a lot of money.”

He outlines the basic steps of the major donor process: “You identify a prospect; you research a prospect; you cultivate a prospect; you solicit a prospect; and then you steward the gift of the prospect-turned-donor. All of that relates to knowing how much of a gift to ask for. It’s not uncommon, when you do an ask, to leave knowing that you asked for too little. You know this as soon as you ask for $50,000, and the guy immediately says, ‘Yes!’ That’s why you should think of asking for a little too much, rather than a little too little. Donors can always come down from the ask amount, but they seldom go up.”

Until an actual relationship has been built with each individual, you should not ask for money. Do not mix up the cultivation and solicitation processes.

3. They do not listen and instead talk too much. Fundraisers “think they can convince someone by explaining, explaining, explaining,” Deane says. “But the donor will tell you everything you need to know,” and if you’re talking all the time, you’ll miss that important information. Learn to listen and restrain yourself. Especially important is staying silent after asking for the gift, he cautions. That often prompts the prospect to speak, which is what fundraisers should want.

4. They don’t ask questions. Ask a one-sentence question, so the donor can tell you what he or she thinks and you’ll learn about the donor’s opinions and perspective.

5. They talk about the organization rather than about benefits to the donor. Remember that this is about the donor, not you and the organization. “The best approach is donor-centric,” Deane advises. “When we say ‘benefits to the donor,’ we’re not talking about an honorary nameplate on a door of a room. It’s likely that the primary motivating factor of the donor is advancing your mission, so if you’re talking to someone who is a doctor, and you’re saying, ‘This gift will help us advance this area of medicine that we know you’re really interested in,’ that’s the benefit. Don’t get into how that all fits into your strategic plan. [The emphasis] is the donor’s agenda and how you’re advancing the donor’s agenda, which is hopefully synonymous with your agenda.”

6. They are not flexible in what they ask for and have no alternatives ready to offer the prospect. A potential donor may want to give you that $100,000 you request—but spread it out over three years, wait until a certain stock hits a certain value (because that’s the source of the dollars he or she would donate), or agree to donate the amount but want it dedicated to a different program focus.

Do not necessarily accept the first offer that a prospect suggests if it is lower than expected. Instead, be ready with a wide range of options in terms of financial timelines, financial vehicles such as stock gifts, and budget requirements of the program for which you seek funding. Another option if the offer is too low for your program is to suggest a relevant alternative funding project—for example, if not the big education campaign, perhaps one of the tools needed to help it succeed. 

7. They do not properly train their solicitors. If soliciting from unknown donors is difficult, requesting money from friends and colleagues—especially major gifts—is often even harder for many board members or other people who may be going on an “ask” with a leader. Thus, training—often a day-long or refresher course—is vital, because research shows that the way you ask can make a difference in securing the gift and the amount of the gift. Deane recommends working out several signals among those who are soliciting. For instance, the executive director might cross his legs or take off her eyeglasses, which tells the other solicitors to be stop talking or to make the direct ask.

8. They do not know the prospect before solicitation. While independent firms are often asked by organizations to mine their database for top prospects, fundraisers sometimes misuse the resulting list by asking for money far too early, essentially skipping the cultivation process. Until an actual relationship has been built with each individual—and the number and types of contact needed before you can determine that varies—you should not ask for money. Do not mix up the cultivation and solicitation processes. “That’s not an uncommon circumstance,” Deane says. “Too quickly people expect the list to produce major gifts for them.”

9. They are too fearful of getting turned down. “That [immediate no] will seldom happen,” says Deane. “They wouldn’t have met with you if they were going to tell you no. They’re interested in supporting you for your mission, so it’s unlikely they are just going to say no. Now, they might say, ‘I want to do this, but I don’t have the means right now.”’ But that allows the fundraiser to explore when the donor might have the means and what alternative funding options the donor might prefer.

The best advice is worth repeating: “Leaders who remember that giving is about the donor and not about their organization” will vastly increase their fundraising success in both the short and long term.

Editor’s Note: This article, originally published in 2008, has been updated.

Kristin Clarke, CAE, is a contributor and books editor for Associations Now.

Kristin Clarke, CAE

Kristin Clarke, CAE, is president of Clarke Association Content and is the books columnist for Associations Now.