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Guest blog – The slow cooker approach to major gifts fundraising

Slow down your major gifts fundraising for deeper relationships and richer rewards

The slow cooking movement was a revelation for me.  More so in the days when I ate meat and the winters in my house in Cornwall (where there was no central heating) felt long and lonely.  Coming home to a perfectly cooked stew full of the softest veggies and melt-in-the-mouth meat, bound together in a richly flavoured sauce with herbs and wine permeating throughout, always felt like a gift.

Fundraisers could definitely learn a thing or two from slow cookers (and other slow movements which have emerged as a reaction to our desire for instant gratification). 

For many years, I believed that my bubbly, chatty, extroverted, super-fast-don’t-stop-to-draw-breath personality served me well in fundraising.   To a large extent it did (and still does).  I love to meet new people and draw energy from conversations with others.  I am interested in people and love to hear all about their lives.  It is easy for me to connect with others.

Where my extroverted nature has not served me so well is in the field of major gift fundraising, an area of fundraising I’ve been working in for around 13 years.  I’ve had to learn some hard lessons, all of which relate to the need to slow down.

Here are some qualities which I think are underrated in major gift fundraising and why they’re important. 

1) Quick vs slow

After a particularly inspiring training session in around 2013 (I think Rob Woods was probably to blame again), I got all excited, picked up the phone and asked a couple of prospective donors for a gift.

Feeling super proud of myself that I’d got two out of three yeses and raised a total of £3,000, I went bragging to my mentor at the time (the wonderful Charly White) about how awesome I was, how valuable I’d found Rob’s training and how I was totally ready to take on the world.

Charly very gently and sensitively explained to me that what I’d acquired was not two major gifts but two fob-off gifts. 

Awkward!

She talked me through the art of the ‘ask meeting’ and explained the steps I’d need to take in order to get there, starting with research and moving through different stages of engagement.  Each stage is designed to speak more deeply to the desire in the donor to do something life changing, for them and for others. Whilst my spontaneous and instinctive fundraising style wasn’t bad, it’s wasn’t the best it could have been. 

2) Thoughtfulness and planning

After my meeting with Charly, I was inspired to spend some time away from the office and to take her advice.

She challenged me to identify my top ten prospective major donors and then to sit in a quiet, undistracted space and think about each of them. 

She wanted me to get into their heads and to explore their motivations, their connections, their areas of interest, their personal ambitions, their challenges, their financial situation.

Some of this information was known and some was assumed.  Much of it was easy to research back in the good old days pre-GDPR.  Nowadays, much of this information has to be volunteered by the donor through conversations, meaning that the process can take longer (let’s be clear, unless you know each other pretty well, they’re not going to talk about the cost of putting three kids through university and the new roof their Grade II listed mansion is going to need next year). 

The gentle build of trust necessitates a slower approach which I believe is a good thing.

Writing it all down helped me to identify the gaps in my information and to generate some creativity in my mind as to what our next steps could be with each of these individuals. 

3) Listening

One of my worst career fails was when a donor phoned me to express some frustrations with our relationship.  

Remembering this feels painful and difficult and in short, my 100 miles per hour style was not working.  I had to swallow my pride and accept that this was not my finest hour. 

It took many hours on the phone to rebuild trust. 

Ironically, the content of these subsequent conversations was actually about their ongoing commitment to a specific project.  I was grateful that they cared and that even some lazy practice on my part was not enough to put them off giving towards a project which they’d helped develop and which I knew they truly believed in.

I really learned to listen better after this monumental cock-up.  I wished I’d taken the time to repeat back what the donors were telling me.  Out loud.  I think this would have clarified any misunderstanding and would have prevented he inevitable fall out.

The story ends well, two days before Christmas, we negotiated a further three-year, six figure gift. 

The moral of this story and the thread which connects these lessons is that we need to slow down.  I hope you find something in the post to inspire you to slow down your own major gifts practice.  Almost every area of major gifts fundraising requires time and patience:

  • Time to plan, to map out everything you know (and don’t know) about an individual who might want to support your work
  • Time to get to know someone properly before asking
  • Time to listen properly, to double check that you understand, to write proper notes

There are no quick wins. 

Thanks for reading.

Caroline

Caroline is a fundraiser specialising in capital appeals, trusts and foundations and major gifts.  She runs her consultancy LarkOwl with her partner Tony. You can sign up for The Nest Egg,  LarkOwl’s weekly newsletter here.

This was posted on 25 February 2020.

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